The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Explaining Occupational Health Outcomes for Human Service Workers: The Effect of Workplace Variables

Saturday, January 18, 2014: 3:00 PM
HBG Convention Center, Room 002A River Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Micheal L. Shier, MSW, PhD Candidate, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
John R. Graham, PhD, Murray Fraser Professor of Community Economic Development, University of Calgary, Calgary, AB, Canada
David Nicholas, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Calgary, Calgary, AB, Canada
Andrea Newberry, MSW, PhD Candidate, University of Calgary, Calgary, AB, Canada
Purpose:  Occupational health among social workers remains an important but often disregarded area of consideration within the organizations that social workers practice.  This omission is problematic, as it is at the organizational level where changes to improve the occupational health and well-being of social workers can be most easily made. The purpose of this research was to better understand the workplace factors that contribute to negative workplace outcomes for publicly employed human service workers in Alberta, Canada and suggest areas of focus at the organizational level where structured policies and unstructured practices can be implemented to aid in improving the occupational health outcomes of workers.  

Methods: The study utilized a cross-sectional research design of members of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE), which represent all human service workers employed by the Government of Alberta. Data were collected by self-report through an online survey platform (n=674).  Multiple regression analysis was utilized to determine the extent that 1) participant demographic factors (such as gender, age, and education status), 2) workplace characteristics (such as congruence between worker and workplace expectations around workload, professional values, and the working environment measured with the Areas of Work Life Scale), and 3) the nature of interaction with colleagues (such as experiences with bullying or harassment) and service users (including both direct and indirect experiences with violence) predicted respondent experiences with symptoms of burnout (Maslach Burnout Inventory), distress (Brief Symptom Inventory), and secondary traumatic stress (Secondary Traumatic Stress Scale), along with intention to leave (Intention to Leave Scale) and decreased life satisfaction (Satisfaction with Life Scale).

Results: The analysis shows that greater congruence between workplace and worker expectations around workloads, workplace values, and the quality of the work environment significantly decreases symptoms related to burnout, distress, and secondary traumatic stress (p<.05), decreases intention to leave (p<.001), and increases overall life satisfaction (p<.01).  The analysis also found a high frequency of negative workplace interactions (for instance, over 50% of the sample experienced bullying within the workplace in the last 12 months), and these interactions contributed negatively towards occupational health outcomes. For instance, having experienced false allegations and physical violence increases intentions to leave (p<.05), and having experienced verbal threats, interference, name calling, harassment, physical violence, and yelling increases at least one of the symptoms associated with burnout, distress, and secondary traumatic stress (p<.05). Experiences with negative workplace interactions did not have a significant effect on life satisfaction. Finally,  direct traumatic/violent experiences with service users was not statistically significant in any of the models, but higher levels of indirect violence from service user interaction increases all symptoms related to burnout and distress (p<.001).  Between 25 and 47 percent of the variance in the various occupational health outcomes is explained by these workplace factors.

Implications: The study highlights the importance of proactive and protective workplace practices that uphold and support worker well-being and safety. The findings provide some evidence for recommendations such as participatory organizational level management and workplace interventions that aid in adapting processes of interaction between agency personnel.