Rural communities in the U.S. are experiencing unprecedented social problems related to poverty, health, and crime, and social workers play an important role in addressing them. Contextual factors of rural life, like geographic isolation and individualism, impact social work practice. Working in a rural environment presents benefits like close-knit, supportive groups. However, challenges also exist: service access, inadequate resources, and minimal organization supports. This study sought to understand the characteristics and work experiences of rural social workers. Factors associated with job satisfaction and burnout were examined.
The sample (n = 192) was generated through social media. Inclusion criteria were 1) at least one social work degree; 2) current practitioner in U.S.; and 3) practiced in a rural area designated by ERS Typology. Demographical and employment characteristics were collected. Measures utilized were the Social Work Satisfaction Scale and Copenhagen Burnout Inventory. Multiple imputation was used to handle missing data. Descriptives, correlations, and bivariate associations of characteristics and outcomes were examined. To identify factors most strongly associated with higher levels of job satisfaction and burnout, hierarchical multiple regression was employed.
The average respondent was a white female, 38 years old with an MSW. She had an average of nine years work experience with four years in her current position, likely as a direct-service practitioner making $46,367.
Participants were moderately satisfied with organization environment and workload. Higher satisfaction with workload was associated with age (β = .23, p = .011); being black (β = .25, p = .001); and working in mental health (β = .29, p = .02), hospital (β = .26, p = .018), human service organizations (β = .33, p < .001), or other settings (β = .32, p = .001), compared to child welfare.
Participants experienced moderate levels of burnout attributed to personal life and work, while less burnout related to clients. Age was associated with lower personal burnout (β = -.39, p < .001); work-related burnout (β = -.40, p < .001); and client-related burnout (β = -.30, p = .001). Being a black social worker (β = -.17, p = .036) when compared to white practitioners resulted in lower client-related burnout (β = -.20, p = .015) and work-related burnout (β = -.17, p = .036). Compared to child welfare, working in other human service organizations was associated with lower personal burnout (β = -.25, p = .011); work-related burnout (β = -.30, p = .002); and client-related burnout (β = -.29, p = .007).
Discussion & Implications
Older social workers were less burned out and more satisfied. One explanation may be that more work and life experience has taught them coping skills and self-care to deal with stress. Additional supports may be necessary for younger practitioners. Social workers in child welfare were less satisfied and more burned out, which is congruent with past studies. Increased organization resources and policy changes are necessary to address the pressure involved with child welfare settings – especially in rural areas where recruitment and retention of practitioners are difficult.