Document Type

Finding a Fit: Family Realities and Service Responses Series (2003, 2007)

Publication Date



Faculty of Social Work


Rationale Children’s Aid Societies have experienced extensive change since the implementation of recent child welfare reforms in Ontario. Agencies are facing a number of challenges including recruiting and retaining staff, high workloads, extensive requirements for documentation and administration, and less time to serve families and children. The purpose of this study was to understand employee experiences as workers in child welfare.

Research Design A survey was distributed to employees of four children’s aid societies. Completion of the survey was voluntary and all individual responses were kept confidential. Completed surveys were returned directly to researchers. Six to eight months after the distribution of the survey, employees voluntarily participated in a series of targeted focus groups. Focus groups were used to facilitate the interpretation of survey results.

Survey Results Four hundred and three surveys were completed (for a return rate of 49.3%). Forty-nine percent of employees reported low levels of intention to leave, and 12% reported strong intention to leave their organization. However, intention to leave among direct service workers was higher at 15%. Forty-six percent of all employees who responded to the survey indicated high levels of overall job satisfaction, and even among direct service workers, 42% reported high levels of overall job satisfaction. However, 43.5% of direct service workers also reported being highly emotionally exhausted. Thirty-nine percent of all employees responding to the survey reported high levels of emotional exhaustion, suggesting that high levels of stress are affecting a significant proportion of individuals working in child welfare organizations. Twenty-nine percent of all respondents scored in the high range on a scale measuring an unfeeling or impersonal response to clients; among direct service workers, 39% were high on this scale, and among direct service workers in Intake departments, 49% reported high scores in terms of an impersonal and unfeeling response to service recipients.

Focus Group & Survey Comment Results The experience of child welfare work itself was mixed. Feelings of gratification were associated with believing one’s work is important and meaningful, and dissatisfaction was linked to increased documentation and less time for client contact. Employees emphasized the importance of a solid team, collegial support, and supervisory support in counterbalancing dissatisfaction with the work itself. A perception of inadequate support from the organization and a lack of resources (both within the organization and in the broader community) were identified as problems. Employees reported needing more equitable distribution of caseloads, improved communication between departments and from management, and the establishment of an agency culture that cares for the well being of all employees.

Discussion & Implications Despite experiencing high levels of emotional exhaustion, almost half of all survey respondents reported being highly satisfied 4 with their jobs. This is an interesting paradox that warrants further study. We suspect that the paradox is related to the female dominated workforce in child welfare agencies, and the tendency of women to sacrifice their own needs for those they see as requiring care. We argue that current levels of emotional exhaustion among employees in child welfare are unacceptable. Emotional exhaustion is clearly a significant contributor to employee turnover. Policies and practices that promote a more balanced approach to the work, as well as fostering cultures that are both caring and committed to service excellence are needed.

The relatively high rates of depersonalization especially among DSWs raises concerns about the attitudes of some workers towards the families receiving child welfare services; do unfeeling and impersonal responses contribute to resistance and a lack of cooperation from some families?

Employees are very satisfied with the intellectual challenge of the work. Job satisfaction could be increased by maintaining the intellectual challenge and, at the same time, improving the “doability” of the job. Employee turnover will improve as ways are found to decrease emotional exhaustion, improve workers’ perceptions of being treated fairly, and improve job satisfaction.