'High levels of burnout' in child protection staff


SOCIETY MUST prioritise the most important duties of child protection workers as they cannot do everything currently expected of them, the Health Service Executive’s national director of child and family services has warned.

Gordon Jeyes, speaking at the publication of a report on how best to retain social workers, said: “Social workers can’t do everything.”

The greatest proportion of social workers are in child and family protection.

Mr Jeyes said a debate was needed as to what were the most important functions of child protection services, as they moved from the HSE into the new Child and Family Support Agency by the end of the year.

“There needs to be a better understanding in society about what can be provided. We have got to have an open and public discussion. Resources are limited; the size of the challenge is great,” he said.

Giving his response to the report The Retention of Social Workers in the Health Service: An Evidence-Based Assessment, by a team led by Prof Bairbre Redmond of University College Dublin, he said he had to ensure social workers’ caseloads were manageable.

“And with that I have to ensure children are safe, nurtured, fed, warm. Children first: that’s nonnegotiable. If that means taking from other parts of the family services budget, well . . .

“What I want to do is open a debate on this. I am not going to tell you everything is fine in the HSE, but it’s unrealistic to whine about the fact that we’re not doing this or not doing that. We have to prioritise and child welfare is a priority.”

The study detailed in the report, based on focus groups, surveys and qualitative interviews, identifies high rates of stress among social workers. Though high levels of commitment were found, there was also burnout.

Describing staff burnout as “chronic stress, containing elements of chronic exhaustion, depersonalisation and reduced feeling of personal accomplishment”, the report says this is a particular problem among childcare workers.

“The loss of trained and experienced workers drains desperately needed skills and energy from the system”, and these workers may be impaired in their work before they leave.

The professional respondents to surveys “display high levels of burnout. One issue that may contribute to stress and burnout among the professional cohort is the reported level of aggression and violence experienced.”

Most participants went into social work because of a desire to advocate for the vulnerable and for social justice and equity. Many commented positively on progress they achieved with clients.

They expressed a strong desire for greater autonomy in decision-making, and also concern about staff turnover rates. One said: “I just want things to improve. I think things need to improve. I’d like to be part of that.”

The report quotes many who describe the system as “dysfunctional”, that must be survived. While the ethos of most social workers is based on relationship building, other parts of the system do not respect that, they said.

“Before we would have had the scope of providing counselling and talking to people, whereas now we are being asked to be efficient, efficient, efficient and to throw people out as if they were pieces of furniture,” another said.

Another quote referred to increases in administrative work: “I’ve been in this job seven years and there’s more paperwork than ever before, which consequently means there’s less time for families.”

The HSE has recruited more than 200 social workers in the past year.