Burnout in social workers treating children as related to demographic characteristics, work environment, and social support.

Author:Hamama, Liat

Social workers are committed to the protection and empowerment of populations at risk; they help these populations improve their physical and mental well-being within a society characterized by great economic inequality and a high potential for vulnerability (Bateman, 2002). Daily, social workers face the busy and complex world of human behavior in social contexts, a world in which relationships break down, emotions run high, and personal needs go unmet (Howe, 2004). As a consequence, social workers are vulnerable to a sense of burnout.

Burnout in the context of the helping professions began to attract research attention at the beginning of the 1980s; it focused on identification of factors that contribute to professionals' loss of motivation and interest in therapeutic work and to worker turnover. Early studies emphasized definitions and characteristics of the concept (Freudenberger, 1980; Maslach, 1987) and explored personal and environmental factors that may reduce the burnout phenomenon (Etzion & Pines, 1986; Maslach, 1982; Paine, 1982; Pines, 1984, 1989). Social workers were included in those caring professions studied for their experience of burnout (Bargal & Guterman, 1996; Cohen, 1990; McNeely, 1992). However, these studies made no distinction between workers treating adults (over age 21) and those treating children. The present study examined Israeli social workers who directly treat only children and youths and thereby face unique challenges and characteristics that may place them at high risk for burnout.


Children and adolescents are one of the largest populations receiving social workers' attention, constituting more than 50% of referrals to social welfare services (Herz, Harada, Lecklitner, Rauso, & Ryan, 2009; Kazdin, 2000). Epidemiological studies estimate that between 9% and 29% of children under 18 years of age exhibit developmental, emotional, or behavioral disorders to varying degrees, most of which are long lasting and predictive of problems in adulthood (Kazdin, 2000; Ronen, 2007).

Due to children's immaturity, naivete, and vulnerabilities, social workers face constant and unique demands to meet high ethical standards and to work concurrently with a complex mix of related systems, such as parents, family, and colleagues (Lonergan, O'Halloran, & Crane, 2004). Furthermore, children's developmental needs and limitations require social workers to summon high levels of creativity, intellectual ability, emotions, and compassion to communicate and work with them (Pearlman & Saakvitne, 1995; Rae & Fournier, 1999).

Moreover, treatment of children requires social workers to expend considerable effort to maintain the child's motivation for treatment (for example, through the child's active participation in treatment-related decision making) (Kazdin, 1988; Ronen, 2003). This is because most children do not identify themselves as clients and, even if referred for treatment, do not recognize the need for it.

The gamut of unique challenges inherent to child and adolescent treatment may cause social workers to experience permanent situational stress, which may lead them to distance themselves from or avoid treating young clients (Hazan, 1992; Linzer, 1999). The present study aimed to expand on the literature by examining the perceived extent of burnout experienced by Israeli social workers treating children and adolescents.


Freudenberger (1974)initially defined the burnout phenomenon, as found among social workers, paraprofessionals, and volunteers who were in intensive contact with their clients, as the inability to cope with stressors at work. He described these workers' sense of frustration, helplessness, and hopelessness. Later, he defined the concept as a condition of fatigue, depleted physical and mental strength, and a sense of being worn out as a result of exaggerated goals and unrealistic expectations imposed by the workers themselves or by the values of society (Freudenberger, 1980).

Maslach (1987) expanded the definition, describing burnout as emotional depletion, deprofessionalization, and diminution of personal competence. Burnout is characterized by symptoms of psychophysiological arousal, aggression, physical and mental exhaustion, pessimism, problematic work relationships, and decreased performance (Maslach, Schaufeli, & Leiter, 2001). In line with Maslach and Jackson's (1981) multidimensional burnout model, the present study relates to three components of burnout: (1) emotional exhaustion--the depletion of mental energy involved in professional obligation; (2) depersonalization--the development of negative attitudes, emotional numbness, apathy, and cynicism toward the client; and (3) reduced personal accomplishment-the diminution of self-esteem and ambition.

The consequences of these three burnout components are potentially very serious for workers, clients, and agencies. Burnout can lead to deterioration in the quality of care or service that the worker provides (Maslach & Jackson, 1981). Subsequently, it can affect the solutions offered for children's problems and can impair treatment outcomes.

Paine (1982) asserted that the factors underlying burnout include the worker's personal characteristics and personality traits, environmental factors, and various organizational and social conditions. To determine which factors are associated with burnout among social workers involved with children, the present study investigated personal demographic characteristics, environmental work conditions, and social support at work.


Five personal factors may be related to burnout: age, gender, professional seniority, family status, and education level.


Most research has shown young employees, particularly those under the age of 30, to be more prone to burnout than older employees (for example, Bar-Zaselvisky, 2003; Lauderdale, 1982; Maslach, 1982; McNeely, 1992). These researchers suggested that older workers are more stable, mature, and balanced in their perspectives about work and life in general. They often enjoy a better financial position, stronger familial supports, and more life experience, which all enhance their sense of strength and security. In contrast, young workers generally have lower financial security, emotional support, self-confidence, mental strength, and sense of self-identity; furthermore, they tend to develop unrealistically high expectations of the workplace. Contrary to these findings, in a study conducted in Israel among 591 social workers, Bargal and Guterman (1996) found that older workers reported a greater sense of depersonalization (a burnout component) than younger workers. It may be that these differential findings with respect to age are related to unstudied factors associated with work settings, such as financial incentives for longevity.


Research has shown that burnout was more prevalent among female social workers than male social workers in Israel (Bargal & Guterman, 1996; Cohen, 1990; Etzion & Pines, 1986). Pines (1984, 1989) attributed this finding to the preponderance of females in emotionally demanding human service professions. Furthermore, at the time of these studies in the 1980s, Israeli women were in transition between the traditional female role and the modern career woman. Such transition involves normative stressors that impose challenges and high standards, causing women to have greater anxiety and decreased confidence in their abilities, in comparison with men (Pines, 1984).

Professional Seniority

Seniority in social work relates to cumulative experience and knowledge gained from employers and clients (Navaro, 1999). According to BarZaselvisky (2003) and Navaro, Israeli workers with high seniority in the profession tend to experience less burnout because they are exposed to more challenging roles and rewards than workers with low seniority.

Family Status

In a series of studies conducted in Israel (Bargal & Guterman, 1996; Cohen, 1990; Maslach, 1982) and the United States (Siefert, Jayaratne, & Chess, 1991), single female social workers reported higher rates of burnout than married ones. This finding was linked to greater emotional support supplied by the married worker's family and to the married worker's shared financial burden. Data were unavailable regarding males.

Level of Education

Researchers have claimed that higher education, knowledge, and qualifications may also advance the burnout process if workers feel overqualified or "sub-challenged" and thus become bored and frustrated (Lauderdale, 1982; Pines & Aronson, 1988). Kahana-Friedman's (2000) study of 295 social workers in Israeli welfare agencies showed that more highly educated workers reported stronger burnout levels. Kahana-Friedman suggested that higher burnout related to higher expectations from work alongside high personal ambitions, reflected in the subjects' education level.

The present study examined whether variables of age, professional seniority, family status, and education level are linked to burnout intensity among Israeli social workers treating children and adolescents. (Gender could not be statistically analyzed due to the predominance of females versus males in our sample.) The aforementioned studies do not provide sufficient data on the burnout intensity of workers who treat children and adolescents.


The work environment has four dimensions--physical, psychological, social, and organizational --each of which can induce burnout (Pines, 1982). The current study examined three of these dimensions in relation to the work environment of social workers who directly treat children and adolescents: the physical dimension, defined as extrinsic work conditions; the psychological dimension, defined as intrinsic work conditions; and the social dimension, presented through the social support...

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