At the beginning of the academic year I gave a lecture to the new students of social work about wellbeing at work. About twenty future social work professional sat in the lecture room, getting orientated to their careers in an extremely interesting and versatile field.
Things that motivate people to enter the field of social work include the desire to make something meaningful, the will to help and support people who are in vulnerable life situations, and the ambition to build a society that is more socially just. Maybe the future professionals had already thought about these themes when finding their way to the studies.
However, problems in social workers’ occupational wellbeing have emerged repeatedly in empirical research and news headlines for a long time. The news has not gone unnoticed by the new students either. Busyness, unreasonable case overload, burnout and high turnover of employees are everyday life for many social work professionals. Even to students, these may become unpleasantly familiar during work practice periods.
Though many professionals want their work to have positive effects on the life situations of the clients, it might be rather difficult to do this in real life. Many must compromise the quality of their work. However, you cannot compromise responsibility in social work, and that burdens the professionals.
In the light of research, the future of wellbeing at work looks dark for new students. But does it have to be so? As a senior lecturer of social work and researcher of wellbeing at work, my answer is short and optimistic: It doesn’t.
Social workers are professionals in making change. Their task is to strive for a positive turn in often very challenging situations of clients and communities. Social work education also emphasises that it is possible to improve the wellbeing of people by affecting and changing the structures.
Nobelist Jane Addams has said: “What, after all, has maintained the human race on this old globe despite all the calamities of nature and all the tragic failings of mankind, if not faith in new possibilities, and courage to advocate them.” This means that we need to believe in the existence of a positive alternative and have the courage to seek it.
Unfortunately, research data on the work conditions of social workers and wellbeing at work has not brought about broad-scale positive change. Burnout seems to have become a new normal in the contemporary world of work, and social work is no exception. Many employees are too strained to act as the change agents of their own work and wellbeing. When it comes to influencing the structures of work, the survival mode of everyday work does not allow much time for it. Such a situation may crumble your faith in the possibility of a positive change.
However, research has revealed that professionals feel better in their work when they can do it without compromising the quality of work and professional ethical principles. I hope that students would remember that the normal should be ethically sustainable, meaningful work that does not burn you out.
In my new research project, funded by the Academy of Finland, I will tackle this challenge in cooperation with child protection practitioners. Through the means of, for example, participatory action research, we are looking for everyday practices that could enable ethically sustainable work also in the challenging contemporary situation. We do not need to accept burnout as the new normal.
Maija Mänttäri-van der Kuip
The author is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Psychology.
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