Burnout and the future of work for social services

By Leah Dienger

“I don’t know how you do it!” a friend said. She was referring to my job.

At the time, I worked in the youth justice system as a social worker and had a bursting-at-the-seams caseload of defiant, rebellious teenagers. I got used to hearing this exclamation throughout my 25-year career working with abused and neglected children, individuals with substance abuse and mental health issues, and families deeply entrenched in generational cycles of poverty. The profession took a toll on me while I clung to the hope of making a difference.

I wasn’t unique going into this caring profession. I knew there was a high likelihood my career would be cut short by the stressful demands of the job. Like a lot of social workers, I witnessed many passionate and highly competent colleagues leave the profession, run down and weary. All the while, I wondered: how can social services agencies retain these talented workers without burning them out? And then I left the profession to work for IBM.

The turnover trauma

Governments depend on compassionate and committed social workers to support the service delivery models designed to meet the needs of their most vulnerable citizens. Yet, workforce instability is a reality. In the United States alone, jurisdictions can experience up to 90 percent of frontline worker turnover each year.¹

Over my 25-year career, I’ve seen how workforce stability and case load size directly affect client outcomes and worker satisfaction. When worker recruitment and retention are high, performance and case outcomes are high. When worker recruitment and retention decline, job morale declines and those needing help suffer.

This dependency is particularly poignant in child welfare programs where the stakes are high. Worker turnover in this service line has a devastating impact on a child’s chance to be reunited with their family or to be adopted:²

  • Children with one case manager have a 75-percent chance of reunification or adoption
  • Children with two case managers have a 17-percent chance of reunification or adoption
  • Children with four case managers have a 2-percent chance of reunification or adoption
  • Children with 6 - 7 case managers have a 0.1-percent chance of reunification or adoption

What can be done to reduce turnover?

Examining the social worker experience

Let’s start with the fact that, for many, social work is akin to a calling. Helping people in need provides great, if not the greatest, job satisfaction. But commonly voiced frustrations threaten motivation, such as:

  • Navigating lengthy government compliance processes
  • Managing complex ecosystems
  • Manually executing heavy paper-laden and administrative tasks

Even social service agencies that turned to technology years ago to help with compliance and documentation tasks now recognize how complex, inefficient technologies may have contributed to social worker frustrations and burnout.

While user-friendly, assistive technology is readily available in the commercial market and our personal lives, it’s not plentiful in the public sector yet. But it can be one of the keys to reducing turnover.

Freeing the frontline

Frontline social workers can spend up to 80 percent of their day executing administrative tasks.³ This leaves only around 20 percent for client-facing activities, which is too low to improve long-term outcomes and reduce government social program dependency. As someone who’s been on both sides — social work and tech — there’s available technology that can help flip those numbers now.

But where do you start?

Start by looking at the types of work social workers do. Figure 1 below shows the time social workers typically spend performing expert, departmental, administrative or ecosystem tasks today and how that time can be rebalanced with the application of intelligent automation.

  • Expert work includes tasks performed by skilled human social workers, such as conducting in-person visits and administering social, emotional and behavioral assessments.
  • Departmental, administrative and ecosystem work includes tasks that are often required, especially for compliance with government policies and regulations, but are mostly redundant or repetitive.
Graphic representing how intelligent automation can be used to rebalance the social workers’ workload

 Figure 1.  Rebalancing the work performed by social workers with intelligent automation

Many redundant or repetitive tasks are ripe for automation, such as typing handwritten notes and forms into agency systems or manually requesting verifications or background checks from external systems. Expert work — which requires creativity, discernment, empathy and an alchemy of skills and experiences — is where social workers want and should be focusing more of their time to achieve best client outcomes.

A new way: A hybrid human and digital workforce in social services

Seems odd to introduce digital workers into such a deeply human job. But as the nature of work changes, wouldn’t it be great if case workers had access to automated digital workers to help offload repetitive and administrative work so they could spend more time applying their skills to helping vulnerable citizens?

Good news: Social workers can get back to being social workers with the help of proven automation technology. By combining automation capabilities or services, such as automating tasks with bots, extracting and classifying data from documents and automating decisions, digital workers can be created with the skills needed to execute meaningful parts of end-to-end processes and to work seamlessly with human social workers to deliver exceptional experiences to government workers, citizens and families.

Benefits eligibility, foster care home approval and placements, and research gathering across ecosystems are just a few examples of where digital workers can provide support in social program delivery. By offloading the repetitive, low-impact work, digital workers can free human social workers to conduct more thorough professional assessments and offer more customized services for improving outcomes.

Figure 2 shows an example of the anatomy of a digital social worker built by IBM Automation Services. Child welfare social worker, Ana, is able to offload a number of repetitive, routine tasks to her digital workers.

Watch Ana’s story (4:44).

Illustration of how digital workers conduct tasks, allowing case workers to do a more satisfying level of work

Figure 2. Anatomy of a digital social worker

Why act now?

To recruit and retain a quality workforce in social program service delivery, it’s important to ensure social services and citizen-facing government workers have the time and resources to focus on what matters most when helping those in need.

If younger, talented workers are to be attracted to this field, they can’t be expected to move from a technology-rich personal life to an environment with limited technology and a relatively primitive work experience. To innovate, you don’t have to undertake massive system overhauls or prolonged risky transformations to provide social workers with technologies and methods to help them do their jobs better.

But this isn’t really about technology. It’s about the future of work for social services. By thinking bigger and taking the view that technology can execute some of the work alongside these professionals, more rewarding job experiences are possible for them, along with better outcomes for the individuals, families and communities served.

At IBM, we're invested in helping to solve the problems facing our public sector clients. If you're interested in what we're currently doing, or you'd like to learn more about IBM Automation in general, contact us today.


1. Child Welfare Information Gateway, “Worker Turnover,” https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/management/workforce/workforcewellbeing/turnover (link resides outside IBM)

2. Florida TaxWatch, “Challenges Facing Florida’s Community-Based Child Welfare System,” November 2015, https://flchildren.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/TaxWatch.pdf (PDF, 2.7 MB) (link resides outside IBM)

3. Locum Today, “Social workers spend 80% of time on admin,” 29 May 2018, http://locumtoday.co.uk/article.php?s=2018-05-29-social-workers-spend-80-of-time-on-admin#.XXJgC6l7k6U (link resides outside IBM)

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