Abstract: Breaking Down Burnout: Experiences from the Frontline of the Homeless Service Sector during the Pandemic (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

All in-person and virtual presentations are in Mountain Standard Time Zone (MST).

SSWR 2023 Poster Gallery: as a registered in-person and virtual attendee, you have access to the virtual Poster Gallery which includes only the posters that elected to present virtually. The rest of the posters are presented in-person in the Poster/Exhibit Hall located in Phoenix A/B, 3rd floor. The access to the Poster Gallery will be available via the virtual conference platform the week of January 9. You will receive an email with instructions how to access the virtual conference platform.

Breaking Down Burnout: Experiences from the Frontline of the Homeless Service Sector during the Pandemic

Saturday, January 14, 2023
Hospitality 2 - Room 444, 4th Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Amanda Aykanian, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Texas at Arlington, TX
Background and Purpose: The COVID-19 pandemic challenged the homeless services sector in many ways. People experiencing homelessness are particularly vulnerable to the virus due to close quarter living situations and the prevalence of health comorbidities. Homeless service agencies had to adapt quickly in the early months of the pandemic to mitigate spread of the virus and have continuously adapted based on changing public health guidelines at the local, state, and federal levels. Many agencies have struggled with staff shortages, decreased worker morale, and increased work stress during the pandemic. A small number of studies have examined pandemic-driven agency adaptation but there is a gap in research to understand the pandemic’s impact on frontline homeless service workers.

Methods: Participants were recruited through convenience sampling using a recruitment list developed by conducting an environmental scan of homeless service agencies across the state of Texas. Participants first completed an online survey (N=132) in spring of 2021 and were then given the option to participate in a qualitative interview. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 21 survey completers during the fall of 2021. The qualitative interviews are the focus of this presentation. Interviews were analyzed using a grounded theory approach to understand the causes and consequences of burnout during the pandemic.

Results: The degree of burnout varied across participants, with roughly one-third describing low burnout, one-third describing moderate burnout, and one-third describing high burnout. Workers identified a range pandemic impacts that contributed to increased stress and burnout, including shifting to virtual services, educating service users about the pandemic, enforcing health and safety protocols, and having less co-worker engagement. A key finding was the relationship between burnout and satisfaction with how their agency had responded during the pandemic. Those who felt their agency responded well tended to describe less burnout while those who felt their agency did not respond well tended to describe higher burnout. Those dissatisfied with their agency’s response identified a range of reasons, including inadequate safety protocols, acting like things were back to normal, and unsatisfactory support and supervision.

Conclusions and Implications: The findings presented here illustrate the pandemic’s negative impacts on frontline homeless service providers. They also point to important dynamics between organization-level factors and worker-level burnout, such as how inadequate support and supervision during the pandemic has contributed to heightened stress. These findings underscore the importance of understanding worker burnout through a broad lens and point to strategies for preventing or reducing burnout through organization-level changes, rather than simply promoting self-care strategies. Implications of this research extend beyond the pandemic for supporting healthy and supportive workplaces for homeless service workers—and hopefully reducing turnover. Future research is needed to understand the lasting impacts of the pandemic on this workforce as well as possible organization-level interventions to ameliorate burnout, such as enhanced supervisor training and more robust benefits packages.