Social Work Now


Let's talk about it!
Challenges in the Workplace &
their Impact on Professional Practice in Social Work 

by Stéphane Richard, T.S./TSI, Ph.D. & Roger Gervais, Sociologist, Ph.D.

(A French version of this article is available janvier 2018) 

Workplace suffering is more than simply work-related stress or conflicts between employees and employers. It emerges from all kinds of lived tensions between the work environment and the practice of social work. When these tensions arise, we see biopsychological and physiological reactions, moral distress (remorse, shame, and guilt), demotivation, dissatisfaction, a loss of sense, exhaustion, etc. Coping strategies used by the employee to adjust to this tension, as well as the consequences of these strategies on their practice, can also be observed. 
The study of workplace suffering takes into consideration the relationship between employees and the organization within which they work (e.g. relationship with colleagues, clients, and administrators). For example, insufficient resources to accomplish daily tasks, stress, and difficulty adhering to employers' commands which infringe upon professional responsibilities towards the client, may all cause moral distress. 

In many workplace settings, reductions in government funding to organizations has resulted in increased workloads and decreased access to resources, layoffs, and more work is expected with fewer resources. Nevertheless, social workers must still ensure adherence to professional and ethical practice, as the responsibility for the proper management of caseloads falls squarely on the social workers' shoulders. The lack of time may negatively impact on record-keeping, responsiveness to clients and handling emergencies. In turn, this can cause stress, guilt and remorse.

In order to explore these issues further, an online survey of more than 100 questions was developed as part of a quantitative survey. In Ontario, participants were recruited by email through the OASW members' list. In Quebec, participants were recruited in the same way using the OTSTCFQ members' list. Between November and December 2012, 1000+ social workers from Quebec and Ontario participated in this research project. The goal is to further understand how work conditions affect the professional practice of Canadian social workers. 


In November and December 2012, 1188 social workers from Quebec and Ontario participated in a research project. These participants offered insight as to how work conditions affect social workers' experience in the field. Not only did this survey help explain what might cause workplace suffering, it shed light on the structures that complicate social workers' ability to practice their profession and provided some information on coping strategies used in difficult times. This three-tiered approach to studying workplace suffering, an approach that considers the causes, the effects and the strategies used by participants who practise their vocation, has allowed us to compile a vast amount of information that we have been sharing with social workers since 2013[1]. This brief article aims to share our results with social workers on a larger scale, as well as present our current research. 


Workplace suffering within the context of Social Work

 Workplace suffering varies from person to person, as does their coping mechanisms[2]. As workplace suffering goes, it is not felt or shared by everyone in the same way: within the same demanding environment, some social workers suffer greatly, some suffer less, and others, not at all. These types of observations are important as they challenge the idea that difficult work conditions are uniformly experienced. Our research shows instead that workplace suffering, and in turn, coping strategies, are a complex, multi-faceted, experience. 
2. Workplace suffering is best explained by the collision of three variables:
    1. the freedom to practise social work with one's own professional judgement;
    2. the ability to manage a caseload; and
    3. the employee-employer relationship. 
3. The ability to control one's professional practice and the ability to be independent decision-makers are very important for social workers. This reflects social workers' fundamental desire to achieve their clinical objectives and to establish rapport with those trying to attain wellness. 
4. Moral and ethical suffering are related to the professional practice of social work. If our results are of interest, it is because they show that as social work practice becomes more challenging, there is an increase in moral and ethical suffering by the social worker. This is largely due to the relationship between social work and its fundamental values of improving well-being.  
5. Communication between employers and their social workers must improve. As a person practises social work, and deals with moral and ethical dilemmas, emotions well up, directly impacting the practitioner's reservoir of "well-being", which, in turn affects their ability to manage caseloads and practise effectively. Therefore, it becomes paramount to offer structures that allow for constructive dialogue between employers and employees. This is why the employee-employer relationship cannot be neglected. For social workers to be recognized and act like professionals, there must be adequate communication and the employer must appreciate their employees' theoretical and clinical knowledge.  


As a direct result of this initial survey, a survey proving that social workers are preoccupied by the relationship between the conditions in which they practise their craft, their well-being at work and their ability to dispense quality service to their clients, we seek to further pursue our research and ensure a more profound understanding of these results. We remain convinced that by meeting with social workers across provinces, and by discussing these findings further, we will better comprehend the challenges faced by social work professionals and, in turn, offer solutions to both employers and employees that better promote health and well-being at work. 

By learning directly from social workers who are in the field, practising their craft, interacting with employers and clients, we have already learnt that workplace suffering is much more complex than previous research has led us to believe. Science-based decision-making requires this kind of research. Research adds insight, encourage debate, but most of all, offer social workers the leverage they require to better improve their work conditions and, therefore, better serve humanity. It is also our hope that this information helps future social work graduates be better prepared, individually and collectively, for the realities which they will face in the field. 

As a social worker and a sociologist, we appreciate all the participants who helped us conduct research WITH and FOR social workers. We hope to receive continued support as we pursue further studies on the subject. 

[1] With the results of this initial study, we have produced a doctoral thesis (Richard, 2016), a few articles (S. Richard & S. Laflamme, 2016; S. Richard, 2016, 2013) and a few conferences, two of which were presented to OASW members (2014, 2012).
[2] While there is no stable definition of workplace suffering in scientific literature, a general idea can be established: workplace suffering is determined by the relationship between paid employees and place of work (colleagues, clients, administrators). For our purpose, to consider this relationship is to simultaneously consider individual and group perceptions, biopsychological and physiological reactions, moral and ethical implications, as well as coping strategies, defense mechanisms and adaptation techniques (Richard, 2016).


Richard, S., et Simon Laflamme, « La santé psychique des travailleuses sociales du Québec et de l'Ontario », Intervention, no 144, 2016.2, p. 55-70. Disponible en ligne à l'adresse suivante : lien
Richard, Stéphane, « La souffrance morale au travail : enjeux pour les intervenants en RI », Le Relief, vol. 2, no 1, p. 18-31. Disponible sur internet à l'adresse suivante : lien
Richard, S. et Mbonimpa, M., « La souffrance psychique et morale au travail-Enjeux pour les professionnels du secteur de la santé et des services sociaux », Reflets : revue d'intervention sociale et communautaire, vol.19, no 2, 2013, p.10-24. Disponible sur internet à l'adresse suivante : lien
Richard, S., « L'autonomie et l'exercice du jugement professionnel chez les travailleuses sociales : substrat d'un corpus bibliographique » Reflets : revue d'intervention sociale et communautaire, vol.19, no 2, 2013, p. 111-139. Disponible sur internet à l'adresse suivante : lien
Richard, S.,  « Mesures et indicateurs de la performance en travail social: l'impossible évaluation des pratiques professionnelles : entrevue avec Vincent Meyer », Reflets : revue d'intervention sociale et communautaire, vol.19, no 2, 2013, p. 26-42. Disponible sur internet à l'adresse suivante : lien.

Thèse de doctorat (Phase I de la recherche en cours)
Richard, Stéphane, « L'impact des normativités organisationnelles et professionnelles sur la santé psychique des travailleurs sociaux : enjeux pour la pratique du travail social (Thèse de doctorat) ». Université Laurentienne, 2014, 936 p. Disponible sur internet à l'adresse suivante : lien.