The findings suggest that “the most experienced social workers should be in child protection” and that “newly qualified social workers need to be well supervised and mentored, particularly in their first year in practice in order to become effective workers in the area”.
The study, published by University College Dublin (UCD) and funded by Health Service Executive (HSE), is the largest in-depth survey of social workers in Ireland in recent years and involved 186 practicing social workers within the HSE and 123 social work students.
The report focuses on the factors that influence retention in social work in Ireland, particularly in the area of child protection and welfare.
Many of the report’s recommendations are being rolled out as part of the HSE’s major change program in relation to how children and family services are delivered.
The research took place between 2009 and 2011 and since then changes have been initiated for the provision of social care in Ireland by the HSE, for example, new training and induction programs for social workers, the creation and dissemination of the Child Protection and Welfare Handbook, based on Children First 2011 Guidance. The HSE has also developed a work management structure for social workers and recruited additional social workers.
The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Ms Frances Fitzgerald TD, who officially launched the report on 14 May 2012, said:
“I welcome the publication of this important report, particularly recommendations that will strengthen the child protection and welfare workforce. The quality of our child protection workforce is our most important asset in the safety and welfare of children.”
Pictured at the launch of the report: Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Ms Frances Fitzgerald TD
“It is essential that we train, develop and support social workers to ensure the retention of experienced staff. The establishment of the Child and Family Support Agency in January 2013 will address many of the issues highlighted by social workers in the study.”
“I am glad to see that many of the recommendations made in the report are part of the reforms already underway.”
Professor Bairbre Redmond, University College Dublin, the lead author of the report, said:
“Social workers in the area of child protection and welfare work closely with some of the most vulnerable and marginalised individuals and groups in our society who rely on their social workers’ assessment, decision-making and therapeutic skills.”
“Few individuals enter social work, particularly child protection, without being aware of the stresses that will face them in their work, but this study has shown the cost to many social workers in terms of high levels of stress and burnout.”
Pictured at the launch of the report: Prof Bairbre Redmond, UCD, the lead authorof the report, and Dr Suzanne Guerin, UCD School of Psychology, one of the co-authors of the report
“With stress and burnout connected to poor levels of workplace retention among social workers, the resulting damage effects our most vulnerable and fragile children.”
According to the social workers interviewed for the study, the highest level of work related stress occurs in child protection and welfare, and so working in the area requires social workers to be “particularly prepared, experienced and committed”.
Over 50% of practicing social workers surveyed for the study had experienced violent or aggressive behaviour ‘fairly often’ or ‘more so’ in their career.
Most also reported a lack of understanding, support, supervision and acknowledgement from the overall structure of the Health Service Executive, and a lack of definition for their professional role. The report recommends a much more robust career development structure for social workers, including increasing their capacity to carry out work-related research to provide evidence on the effectiveness of social work interventions.
The report also stresses the importance of empowering a stronger cohort of social work leaders in child protection services, working at the highest levels of the Health Services to inform and develop efficient and effective social work practice and a stronger sense of professional identity.
“One of the Key factors in providing an effective social work service is the availability of a stable and familiar social work presence that supports individuals and families in building strong and resilient lives,” added Professor Redmond.
“So it is imperative to reduce levels of stress and burnout and increase the levels of staff retention among social workers in the HSE.”
The full report entitled “The Retention of Social Workers in the Health Services: An Evidence-Based Assessment” is available to download here (pdf).
(Produced by UCD University Relations)