Strategy to address social worker burnout: Our way forward

Social workers consistently face tensions between our professional values and ethics and the demands of our employers.

Child protection social workers face these tension on a daily basis. They work in one of the most demanding and challenging social work roles, as they work with involuntary clients, in emotionally-taxing situations, and within the confines of legislation and limited resources. This tension and the demand often leads to a high turn-over and a lack of retention of social workers.

Our current system demands a lot of our members who work in child protection. Staggering statistics also indicate that our child protection system is in real trouble.

In late 2016, we approached the former Minister of Community Services about our concerns with the amended Child and Family Services Act. We indicated that these amendments would demand too much of social workers in a system that was already strained. Without additional resources and support, child protection workers would face serious issues of burnout.

The former Minister Bernard referred us to the administration. We had several meetings with the Executive Directors about our concerns and asked to explore possible solutions together. This was dismissed at the time. It was not their priority as they were busy training their employees on the new act and policies.

We continued to raise these concerns with other potential allies. Recently, with the support of the NS NDP, we’ve illustrated the level of burnout that our members in child protection currently face.

The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPOP) data released clearly shows the issues.

Short-term illness hours rose from 16,513 in the fiscal year 2013-14 to 26,105 in 2016-17, an increase of nearly 10,000 hours. This correlates with a total number of child protection referrals which increased from 10,078 to 11,028 per year. These numbers are reflective of the system before the amendments even took hold.

We’ve used this public data and recent media attention to ask Minister Kelly Regan to meet with NSCSW leadership again to address our concerns and implement solutions to address this level of burnout before it is too late. We have heard back from the Minister’s office and this meeting is developing.

We are also continuing to build our capacity for effective, meaningful advocacy by engaging with our province’s social work community to advocate for improvement to social policies, programs, and social justice.

This is our strategy to continue to address these child protection concerns:

  1. We will raise our concerns with the minister and her staff about the level of burnout and how this impacts services to children and families.
  2. We will encourage the Department of Community Services (DCS) to monitor and track caseloads to ensure that they fall within the best practice standards. We will state that the new amendments will increase caseloads so resources must match the demand.
  3. We will propose policy changes that set standards for supportive supervision within child protection. Supportive supervision is designed to decrease professional stress and provides social workers with nurturing conditions that complement their success and encourage self-efficacy. Supportive supervision within child protection has been proven to reduce overall stress and create better outcomes for service (see more here).
  4. We will address the need for enhanced collaboration between the DCS, other service providers and advocates to ensure that efforts for families are truly collaborative.
  5. We will advocate for the creation of an Office of the Child and Youth Advocate. An independent office of the Legislative Assembly mandated to work with vulnerable young people. This crucial office would provide individual and systemic advocacy for children and youth receiving services in Nova Scotia.

Nova Scotia faces a higher than average number of children living poverty. To alleviate the pressure on the child protection system we must work together to alleviate poverty.

  1. We are working with several community groups in Nova Scotia to help build an Anti-poverty group that can speak with strong coherent voice on the systemic issues of poverty.
    • Currently, we are supporting this group to host and facilitate a strategic plan to build organizational capacity.
    • We aim to support this group to push for a poverty reduction strategy that has the resources, clear measurable outcomes and political priority to succeed.
  2. We are working to build formal collaborations with advocacy groups to ensure that the social work voice is included in meaningful thoughtful discourse towards a fairer and socially just society (more on this soon).
  3. Our Policy and Advocacy Committee is designing a Social Policy framework, which will help us as an organization and you as members to effectively evaluate social policy based on a set of principles and outcomes. This framework will allow us to develop active stances on emerging issues and advocate for the values of the profession.
  4. The Social Justice Committee is actively building a framework for social justice practice in Nova Scotia and is working to build grassroots connections with community networks who pursue social justice issues.

You can join us as we act on these initiatives. We’re actively recruiting committee members for both the Policy and Advocacy Committee and the Social Justice Committee. We also have a few Council vacancies, if you want to dive right in!

I am extremely inspired by our social work community. Your input and guidance has helped and will continue to shape our direction.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite quotes on hope:

“TO BE HOPEFUL in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.

What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.

And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.” 

-Howard Zinn


Alec Stratford
Registrar/Executive Director

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