Abstract: Practicing and Resisting Under Neoliberal Pressure: Findings of Working Conditions Survey of Minnesota Social Workers (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Practicing and Resisting Under Neoliberal Pressure: Findings of Working Conditions Survey of Minnesota Social Workers

Friday, January 13, 2023
Camelback B, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Jessica Toft, PhD, LISW, Assistant Professor, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, St. Paul, MN
Ruth Soffer-Elnekave, MSW, PhD student, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, St Paul, MN
Jessica Mendel, MSW, PhD Student, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, St. Paul, MN
Jacob Otis, BA, Student, University of Minnesota-twin cities, St. Paul, MN
Mingyang Zheng, PhD, Assistant Professor, Radford University, Radford, VA
Molly Calhoun, PhD, Doctoral Student, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, St. Paul, MN
Background: Neoliberal managerialism applies business management to human services, emphasizing efficiency in social work practice (Levy et al, 2012; Abramovitz & Zelnick, 2018). Managerialism counters professionalism which incorporates specialized professional knowledge, ethics, and supervision. Ideally, professionals have discretion to engage their knowledge, values, and skills in practice (Freidson, 2001). Yet, managerialism may limit professional discretion of workers through compromised ethics, choice between agency rules and clients’ interests, dropped complex-issue clients, and minimized commitment to reform (Schram & Silverman, 2012; Zelnick & Abramovitz, 2020). Resistance research finds workers bend the rules, alter reports, do unpaid work, and join unions (Horton, 2006; LaRose, 1996), and supports that resistance comes in public, hidden, individual and collective configurations (Mumby, 2017). Most social work workforce studies take the perspective of labor-force planning: demographics, pay, turnover, burnout, and stress. Few examined the interplay of management and professionally-educated social workers, especially on a large scale. This study asked Minnesota direct-line social workers: 1) To what extent do they experience managerialism? 2) How much professional discretion do they have? 3) How have they resisted neoliberal managerialism?

Methods: All Minnesota licensed social workers were emailed the 20-minute Qualtrics anonymous survey; 2,329 direct-line social workers responded (91% white, women) with 13.8 mean years experience. Managerialism and professional discretion scales and resistance items were developed based on previous literature scoping review, other survey workforce items, professional practice experience, and expert consultation (validation ongoing).


Managerialism: Four scales measured managerialism. Productivity and efficiency: Respondents reported that taking on more clients (70.4%), getting more done in same amount of time (67.5%), and prioritizing paperwork over practice (41.5%) were problematic. Monitoring: 41.4% indicated that monitoring employees’ computer usage was problematic. Incentives and sanctions: Respondents indicated that increased supervision if productivity goals weren’t met (60.9%) and more pay if performance goals were exceeded (28.7%) were problematic. Standardization: Respondents reported that clients’ limited input in treatment goals (54%) and required use of evidence-based practice (30.8%) were problematic.

Professional Discretion: Of the 7-item professional discretion scale, respondents reported that four items were commonly problematic: Addressing client issues at macro level (89.6%), shaping practice based on social, economic, and political history (81.5%), incorporating the ecological framework in assessment (67.8%), and engaging with other agencies to support clients (56.6%).

Resistance: Nine resistance activities were coded into “yes, had done this at least once,” or “no, had not:” 88.9% expressed disagreement with management among co-workers; 86.9% expressed disagreement to management; 52.8% loosely interpreted eligibility guidelines; 49.8% organized with co-workers; 31.5% practiced outside of management-approved interventions. Few had altered performance reports, contacted their professional association or board of social work. Only 15.4% belonged to a union and of the rest, 78.5% said they would join a professional union.

Conclusions: Social workers experienced managerialism, especially productivity and efficiency pressures. Under these conditions, their discretion was substantially compromised, raising the question of how “professional” social workers are allowed to be. When disagreeing with management, social workers resisted in individual, collective, hidden, and public ways, and the great majority would join a professional union.