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Burnout Among Social Workers

I contributed the following article, in Malay, for Berita Mediacorp on 3 February 2022. I have translated and edited it for this blog.

Burnout is physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion stemming from prolonged stress due to a heavy workload and an unsupportive environment. Burnout is often also associated with symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as physiological symptoms such as fatigue, lack of sleep, frequent dizziness, and headaches (Helpguide, n.d).

Among its characteristics is loss of passion and interest in carrying out tasks, struggling to focus on jobs, feeling saturated and lacking attainment, declining performance, and a cynical outlook on clients, work, and life.

If left unchecked, it will further affect employee performance and lead to resignations and loss of manpower.

Social Workers Among Those At Risk For Burnout

Social workers are among a group of professionals who often face high-pressure situations and stressful work environments. They help groups that need protection such as abused children and women in abusive relationships. In helping victims, social workers also have to face the possible risk of violence on them.

Social workers also help those who are plagued by financial problems, marital issues, employment, problems with addiction, chronic illnesses, issues of mental health, and various life challenges. Each assisted individual will bring with them the bitterness of life which they often shared with their social workers. Even though social workers are professional in handling cases, being human, they will still be impacted by the pain that their clients experience. Some might even relive past personal trauma. Thus, social workers need good supervision so that these emotions can be managed and processed. Otherwise, they will accumulate and affect the workers’ mental and emotional health.

The Work Environment is Getting Tougher

The COVID19 pandemic adds to the pressure on all, including social workers. For example, those who lost their jobs due to the pandemic looked to social workers for help. Those who were previously middle-income and are now in difficult times are among a new group of clients that social workers are helping. However, the increase in cases does not only involve employment and financial needs. Clients need emotional support. During the 2020 circuit breaker period, for example, social workers were faced with an increase in cases of family violence, a consequence of being together in a prolonged and high-risk situation ( Lau, 2021).

The increase in caseload needs to be balanced with support from concerned employers. Unfortunately, charities that employ social workers are also faced with limited financial resources to get additional manpower. As a result, social workers who continue to shoulder the increased workload will feel ignored and unappreciated.

Social workers are working in an increasingly difficult environment – increased demand and expectations of services, limited resources, and work that is increasingly scrutinized by the media and the public. Their effectiveness is monitored. Their assessments and actions are sometimes questioned by clients, the clients' family members, and external parties. If they feel alone in facing these challenges they will begin to doubt if the work they have put in throughout their careers is really worth it.

The Pandemic Affects Effectiveness

The pandemic has also affected the way social workers do their jobs. For a profession that emphasizes relationships to deliver services, it now needs to consider the safety and health of the workers and the clients. When home visits were temporarily stopped during the pandemic, social workers were worried about the welfare of the elderly who live alone and isolated. Although online home visits became a replacement, some social workers feel these are not good enough. Others feel that their efforts are less effective when intervention programs such as support groups and workshops were shifted to online platforms rather than the usual face-to-face sessions. This adds to the workers’ sense of ineffectiveness.

The impact of the pandemic has increased mental health problems among frontline workers. Social workers are no exception. A study conducted in June 2021 on 308 social workers by the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) found that 56.5% of them suffer from anxiety and 45.8% suffer from depression (Pachymuthu, 2021). The SUSS is of the opinion that this is due to the lack of experience in the pandemic situation which is unusual and unprecedented for most of them. After all, unlike medical front liners, social workers often perform behind-the-scenes tasks that are rarely recognized by the public.

Supportive Environment Essential to Avoid Burnout

Can burnout among social workers be avoided? Support from management is critical. Management needs to make sure that the assigned tasks do not over-burden the workers. At the same time, management also needs to ensure that their social workers are given supervision that is sensitive to the emotional and behavioral changes so that burnout symptoms can be detected early. Mutually supportive work culture will also help. Management can ensure a safe environment for social workers to express the stress they are facing and encourage a caring environment where colleagues look out for one another.

Increase Resilience

As social workers, we can also play a role in improving resilience to reduce the risk of burnout. Each of us knows the extent of our effectiveness in carrying out our duties and responsibilities. We need to be realistic and balance our expectations for every task that we perform so that stress can be controlled.

When it starts to feel stressful, share your feelings with the people you trust. Even if it doesn't lead to a solution, at least, you will be able to get the negative feelings out.

Raise the issue of workload as an agenda to be discussed with the supervisor so that a solution could be thought out together. An open discussion will help to assess the priorities of each given task. This will also give an indication to the management on the areas that they need to pay attention to in order to prevent burnout among the social workers.

Importantly, we also need to continue keeping to a healthy lifestyle such as engaging in exercise and leisure activities, strengthening positive social networks, and setting aside time to do what we love.

We must first practice self-compassion in order to extend compassion to others.

These are useful sites for social workers to manage burnout:

You might be interested in the following mental health and trauma program:

Read more about COVID19 and Burnout in Social Workers


1. Helpguide (n.d) Burnout prevention and treatment.

2. Lau, J. (2021). Coronavirus: More cases of family violence during circuit breaker; police to proactively help victim. The Straits Times.

3. Pachymuthu, L. (2021). S'pore social workers' mental health badly hit during Covid-19 peak in 2020: Study. The Straits Times.

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