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Children's Voice Article, July/Aug 2002

Burned Out

By Kristen Kreisher

Type the phrase "social worker burnout" into Google, and the Internet search engine will churn out more than 8,000 matches. At the top of the list, Tellingly, there is no,, or

That burnout occurs among child protective service (CPS) and child and youth care workers is not surprising. Anyone familiar with the field can quickly tick off some of the reasons workers end up fried--low pay, long hours, deeply troubled youth and families, high caseloads, inadequate training and supervision, overwhelming paperwork demands, concerns about personal safety. When you stack up the negatives, perhaps what is surprising is that some people do stay in the field for years, even decades. Burnout is not a given, and the resilient individuals who stay--and stay positive--may offer the best clues into how burnout can be prevented.

What Is Burnout?

The term burnout first appeared in the literature in 1974, but the phenomenon has likely appeared among workers as long as there have been helping professions.1 It has been defined as "a breakdown of the psychological defense [that] workers use to adapt and cope with intense job-related stressors" and "a syndrome in which a worker feels emotionally exhausted or fatigued, withdraws emotionally from their clients, and perceives a diminution of their achievements or accomplishments."2

Symptoms differ among individuals but may include exhaustion, increased absenteeism, cynicism, detachment from work, feeling ineffective on the job, depression, physical ailments, isolation, poor sleeping and eating habits, and increased reliance on alcohol, caffeine, or cigarettes.

Burnout takes an enormous physical and emotional toll on the individual worker, but the agency and its clients suffer as well. Mark Krueger, Director of the Child Care Learning Center at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, says workers suffering from burnout lose their spark and fire for the work and let "a general level of frustration and apathy" take over. If they stay in the field, they are no longer able to give their best to the children and families they serve.

Although poor service is one outcome of burnout, the more common and equally troublesome result is that talented, experienced people leave the field. Quick burnout, especially in residential facilities, is blamed for the revolving door atmosphere in some child- and family-serving agencies. Workers often leave just as they are beginning to provide quality services, and agencies are forced to commit scarce resources to simply keeping enough people on staff. "The impermanence perpetuated in the field is a major deterrent to its success," Krueger says.

The Path to Burnout

Long hours and emotional strain have always been part of the job in child welfare, but many in the field believe the demands of the job have grown in recent years while the rewards have diminished. Krueger says organizations have changed a lot over the years. "It's harder for people to sustain themselves than it once was. They are dealing with much more difficult problems."

In addition to more complex problems among the children and families they serve, many professionals contend that child and youth work has become more about accountability than contact with families and youth--the reason most workers enter the field. "The demands on people in direct service to be accountable to the agency, to reduce risk, to show funders and others that what you're doing is working have increased," Krueger says. "The emphasis on the human side has probably diminished."

In 2001, the Urban Institute reported that workers in child welfare agencies in 12 states felt their jobs had changed in recent years to include "more clerical work, less decisionmaking authority, and less time to spend with children and families." The emphasis on paperwork has become such that "workers perceive that their direct interaction with children and families has become secondary to being able to provide accurate and complete documentation."3

Although burnout is usually more closely linked with the emotional and mental demands of the job, the lack of financial incentives is also a major contributor to turnover. A recent survey of CWLA member agencies shows average annual starting salaries for CPS investigation staff in public agencies ranged from $29,000 to $31,000; Some agencies reported figures as low as $19,000. The average annual salary for a residential worker with a college degree is $19,797.

Krueger says when he entered the field more than 30 years ago, the salaries were more reasonable. "We weren't rich, but we were making it." The gap is widening, however, between what workers earn and what constitutes a living wage in today's economy. You can live on $20,000 a year in Milwaukee, according to Krueger, only if you are willing to make a lot of sacrifices and don't have dependents.

Floyd Alwon, Director of CWLA's Walker Trieschman National Center for Professional Development, says child and youth care workers are underpaid because the profession, along with teaching and nursing, is still viewed as "women's work," and society carries a bias as to how well these professionals should be compensated.

Although the demands are hefty, and the tangible rewards few, those who choose the field are not typically looking for a 9-to-5 job with large financial rewards. Most are driven by an altruistic calling to help. They love working with kids and want to make a difference in the lives of children and their families. "I wouldn't trade it," says one worker well into her second decade of service. "I'm tired, but I take a great deal of pride in what I do. I feel very strongly about what I do." The question is how to keep passionate people passionate about their work and enable dedicated professionals to stay in the field.

Some aspects to preventing burnout are important to the well-being of workers in any demanding field. Taking care of oneself by eating well, exercising regularly, learning to relax, finding time to be alone, connecting with friends and loved ones, and pursuing hobbies are crucial to maintaining a balance between work and life and staying healthy. But sustaining professionals in child and youth work involves concerted efforts from both worker and agency.

Training, Supervision, and Culture

How much a worker's education level affects burnout rates is the subject of some debate. Some studies have shown workers with MSW or BSW degrees burn out less often than those without a college degree or with a degree in another area do. Other statistics show an even distribution of burnout across all education levels. Those in the field, however, assert quality training and work-specific preparation is key to job satisfaction, effectiveness, and field longevity.

In the 2000 CWLA issue brief, The Workforce Crisis in Child Welfare, Alwon and Walker Trieschman Senior Consultant Andrew Reitz stress that current educational programs don't adequately prepare students for work in the field. Few colleges and universities, they write, provide training "that specifically targets workers who deliver direct services to children and families. As a result, agencies must hire workers who are woefully unprepared for these critical positions and responsibilities."

To begin work in a residential facility in most states, the only prerequisite is passing a criminal screening. Some states require a college degree, but others only demand that a worker be 18. Alwon says young people who enter the field "are expected to work with the most difficult kids with maybe a few hours or a few days of training." They have made "no commitment to caregiving," so when things get tough they don't have enough of an investment in the field to feel compelled to stay.

Victor Savicki, in his 2002 book, Burnout Across Thirteen Cultures: Stress and Coping in Child and Youth Care Workers, writes that young, entry-level workers in residential care often "expect to make major improvements in the lives of their clients, but find themselves frustrated by their lack of skill and knowledge in fashioning a positive outcome."

"In Massachusetts," Alwon says, "you need 600 hours of training to be licensed to cut someone's hair, 900 hours to style it. Yet, to work with deeply troubled kids, little to no preservice preparation is required."

The University of Wisconsin's Krueger directs a program that offers training and education for child and youth workers. The program has a credit track for undergraduates with a focus in child and youth work and a noncredit track for workers in the state who can take continuing education classes toward a youth development certificate. Krueger stresses that the "knowledge of how to do effective child and youth care work" is a vital part of job satisfaction and a powerful burnout balm. "My opinion on training is that you have to get as much of it as you can," he says. "You're better able to address problems the more you know."

But training is just one element in job satisfaction. Krueger believes his initial experience as a residential worker was positive because he began work in an agency where mentoring and supervision were strong and the positive atmosphere encouraged people to stay. The culture of an organization can be key to whether new workers feel they are entering a positive or toxic environment. Although difficult to describe in concrete terms, Krueger says positive cultures create a "real sense of commitment." The flip side is an environment where the pervasive objective is getting out.

Agencies that can keep a cadre of good workers and furnish incentives for those people to stay provide models for those entering the field. Successful agencies also offer what Krueger calls a "workable environment," where the demands of the job are not overwhelming, the hours are not unreasonable, and the pay is as good as it can be. He also stresses the importance of a team environment where people feel engaged with the kids and the decisions being made in the organization.

Boundaries and Support

The personal characteristics of the individual worker are also an important part of his or her staying power. Kirsten Culler, Program Manager with Pennsylvania Mentor, stresses that even in the best agencies, people and jobs can be mismatched.

Savicki writes that human service professionals are particularly vulnerable to burnout because "effective practice requires emotional contact between the professional and their client-patient-student." Those who "find it difficult to separate themselves from the pain, anger, and anxiety of their clients," he says, are not likely to have a long career in the field.

Setting boundaries is key, according to Culler, who has been in the social work field for 19 years. Being passionate about your work, she explains, doesn't have to mean making a personal investment in each client or letting each failure take a personal toll. Although she says social work was "truly a calling" for her, she accepts that it is not realistic to assume she is going to succeed with each child, family, or case. "I'm not successful in everything I do."

In an environment where the problems are often larger than the resources, agencies need to help their workers focus on the ways they are able to have an impact--even the little ways. Culler believes it's absolutely necessary to recognize that one's ability to help is constrained by systems, time, and funding streams. She also says social workers should avoid projecting their values onto clients, that they must respect the free will of the people with whom they work. "There's a distinction between someone who is passionate and capable and someone who can't set boundaries."

Culler admits the work gets to her at times. "It just gets very frustrating." She says humor is essential, as is having coworkers to lean on for support and reinforcement. "I think there always has to be an opportunity for a person to really blow off steam, let things be truly vented, and then back up." Good clinical supervision, training, and networking opportunities are also important elements to keeping frustration from growing to the point where a worker can't regain his or her focus and enthusiasm for the field.

Each Pennsylvania Mentor office has a kitchen area, and the two dozen employees in the office make an effort to eat lunch together every day. "It supports people so they don't become isolated. It's a minor thing, but it's not." Frustrations need to be acknowledged and accomplishments recognized. A worker in her office spent seven weeks trying to get a child enrolled in school. After hitting every bureaucratic snag, she was finally successful. "That needs to be celebrated," Culler says.

Personal Safety

Personal safety often is a major factor in a social worker's decision to leave an agency or the field. Feeling physically unsafe in one's work environment can exponentially increase the stress of an already tough job. "I remained on the job despite low pay, long hours, organizational bureaucracy, and working with difficult children and youth," one former residential worker recounts. "I resigned when I got a concussion. Someone literally had to hit me over the head to force me to leave that job."

Even if a worker is not injured while performing his or her job, reports of injuries to others and indirect exposures to crises can result in psychological trauma. According to author and social worker Mark Horwitz, "Social worker trauma can occur when a caseload event or series of events is beyond the capacity of the social worker to manage."4

In a recent survey of CWLA members, public agencies cited staff safety as the biggest concern for the future of their organizations. Agencies must make safety a priority and create, promote, and enforce safety policies and protocols to retain their workforces.

The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees reports agencies have taken a number of actions to address worker safety, including permitting workers to buddy up with a coworker, supervisor, or law enforcement officer when they feel unsafe; providing workers with cellular phones; installing security doors or other security measures at their facilities; and providing training on how to handle violent situations.5 In addition to creating safer work environments, these efforts increase worker resiliency by giving them more control over the situations they encounter and sending a message that the agency supports them.

Knowing When It's Time to Leave

"The rigors of the field are such that you can't do it for long," Krueger says of direct service, especially in a residential setting. He says the field doesn't always do a good job of counseling people out. "A good number of the people who have stayed in it have stayed too long."

Krueger believes a realistic length of stay is five years, but agencies should create opportunities for those who are most capable to stay a bit longer. He tells his students to "make a commitment to stay for two years, because it's going to take that long to master the basics." One Massachusetts agency encourages even shorter tenures. The Key Program in Framingham provides direct services to adolescents from the child welfare, mental health, juvenile justice, and educational systems. Personnel Director Cynthia Hay says that more than 20 years ago, the agency implemented a policy limiting direct service workers to 14 months; the agency increased the limit to 18 months several years ago.

The Key Program developed the policy not only to address burnout and turnover but to make pay more equitable. The agency used to pay its staff at different levels, based on seniority, but Hay says it seemed unfair to pay some people more for doing the same job. "We're never going to be able to pay people what they're really worth," she says, so the agency started taking a "Peace Corps approach to working with kids."

Key hires recent college graduates with little to no experience and asks them to commit 18 months to the agency. The pay isn't great, but in addition to a strong list of benefits, including health care and paid vacations, the agency offers $500 service bonuses after 6, 12, and 18 months. Perhaps the biggest perk, however, is that the agency offers young people the opportunity to test themselves in the field and build and develop their résumés. Key offers extensive training and supervision, but also helps its employees decide what their next steps should be, whether that's pursuing an MSW, finding a new position in the field, or looking into an entirely different field.

When recruiting, Hay says the agency is brutally honest about the rigors of the work. "We try to lay out the worstcase scenario. We've had people who have gotten up and left the interview, and that's fine." It's important, she says, to make sure the people coming on board are aware and prepared for the reality of working with troubled youth.

The approach hasn't completely alleviated the problem of burnout, however. Key still struggles to attract enough staff to keep hours manageable, and Hay says many staff members still leave after 10 or 12 months. Hay explains that although young people believe they can do anything for a year-and-a-half, many admit when they leave that "they never knew it was going to be this hard."

An Investment in Personnel

Burnout is not unique to child and youth care workers. Many professionals find it difficult to sustain their enthusiasm and energy for their field across years. "It's not just us," Alwon says. "Dentists burn out, teachers, police officers, firefighters. The value for us is to look at how other fields have managed."

Krueger says the child welfare field now has more knowledge than ever about what works in service to children and families, but it has not made as much of an investment in personnel issues. "Know-how and training have all increased. Incentives at the workplace have not. We all have to work harder to make it possible for competent people to stay in this work."


  1. Herbert J. Freudenberger. (1974). The Staff Burnout Syndrome in Alternative Institutions. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice, 12, 73-82.
  2. M. Raider. (1989). Burnout in Children's Agencies: A Clinician's Perspective. Residential Treatment for Children and Youth, 6(3), 43-51. Victor Savicki. (2002). Burnout Across Thirteen Cultures: Stress and Coping in Child and Youth Care Workers. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers. Mark Horwitz. (1998, June). Social Worker Trauma: Building Resilience in Child Protective Workers. Smith College Studies in Social Work 68(3), 1-25.
  3. Karin Malm, Roseana Bess, Jacob Leos-Urbel, Rob Geen, and Teresa Markowitz. (2001). Running to Keep in Place: The Continuing Evolution of Our Nation's Child Welfare System. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.
Former Managing Editor of Children's Voice, Kristen Kreisher is pursing a master's degree in journalism at Columbia University in New York. Barbara Schmitt, Director of CWLA's Workforce Development Initiative, contributed to this article.

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