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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Examining Potential Psychological Protective and Risk Factors for Stress and Burnout in Social Workers

Maddock, A.
Clin Soc Work J (2024).


Social work professionals experience high levels of stress and burnout. Stress and burnout can have a negative impact on the individual social worker, the organisations they work for, and perhaps most importantly, the quality of care that marginalised groups that are supported by social workers receive. Several work-related predictors of stress and burnout have been identified; however, no studies have examined the underlying psychological protective and risk factors which might help to explain changes in social worker stress and burnout. Using the clinically modified Buddhist psychological model (CBPM) as a theoretical framework, this cross-sectional study attempted to identify psychological protective and risk factors for stress and burnout in 121 social workers in Northern Ireland, using structural equation modelling, and conditional process analyses. This study provided promising preliminary evidence for a mediated effect CBPM as being a potentially useful explanatory framework of variation in social worker stress, emotional exhaustion, and depersonalisation. This study also provided evidence that several CBPM domains could have a direct effect on personal accomplishment. This study provides preliminary evidence that support programmes, which have the capacity to improve each CBPM domain (mindfulness, acceptance, attention regulation/decentering, self-compassion, non-attachment, and non-aversion) and reduce experiences of worry and rumination, are likely to support social workers to experience reduced stress, emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation of service users, and improvements in personal accomplishment.

From the Discussion

The aims of this paper were to provide more theoretical transparency on what some of the most important protective and risk factors for social worker stress and burnout are, using the data attained from social workers in Northern Ireland. To support our analysis, the CBPM (Maddock, 2023), which is a multi-faceted stress coping, cognitive and emotional regulation theory was used. Using structural equation modelling, though the direct and mediated effects CBPM was found to be an acceptable fit to the data on perceived stress, emotional exhaustion, and depersonalisation, our results indicate that the mediated effects CBPM model was a better fit to the data on each of these outcomes. Most of the significant conditional effects found using Process, between the CBPM domains and perceived stress, emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation were also mediated by either worry or rumination and sometimes both (e.g., stress), highlighting that negative thinking styles, such as worry and rumination, are likely to be a key risk factor for the development of stress and emotional exhaustion in social workers along with the depersonalisation of service users. This supports Kazdin (2009), who asserted that individual risk or protective factors (in our case, worry and rumination respectively) can impact multiple outcomes. This highlights how interventions e.g., MBPs or CBT, that aim to reduce feelings of stress, emotional exhaustion, and depersonalisation of service users in social work, could be more parsimonious, and effective, if they focussed on supporting social workers to regulate the extent to which they engage in worry or rumination in response to feelings of stress or burnout. This could be achieved, particularly by MBPs, through the development of each CBPM domain (i.e., mindfulness, attention regulation/decentering, acceptance, self-compassion, non-attachment and non-aversion), each of which have been identified as approach oriented coping strategies, which have been the capacity to support social workers to regulate the extent to which they worry or rumination (Maddock, 2023).

It is clear from this study that the effects of different potential psychological protective and risk factors for social worker stress and burnout, are likely to be complex. The limited literature available attempting to explain the patterns of relationships between mindfulness variables and mental health and well-being outcomes such as stress and burnout has usually identified either significant direct (e.g., Hölzel et al., 2011) or mediated (e.g., Gu et al., 2015) pathways, but not both at the same time. This study thus highlights the potentially complex direct and mediated interactions between mindfulness variables e.g., acceptance, attention regulation, stress, and different domains of burnout in social work. This is supported by the fact that most of the significant effects of each CBPM domain on stress, burnout-emotional exhaustion, burnout-depersonalisation, and burnout-personal accomplishment were found to be mediated by either worry or rumination. A number of CBPM domains e.g., acceptance and attention regulation/decentering also appeared to have a direct effect on stress and burnout-depersonalisation. These findings also support Kazdin (2009) who highlighted that outcomes, such as stress and depersonalisation, can be reduced through multiple pathways i.e., through both direct and mediated relationships.