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Workplace Stress is Reaching Toxic Levels in Social Sector

8 May 2017 at 8:32 am
Rachel McFadden
A researcher looking at the high levels of work stress in the social sector has warned work stress and burnout are reaching “toxic” levels and is calling on the sector’s peak bodies to act.

Rachel McFadden | 8 May 2017 at 8:32 am


Workplace Stress is Reaching Toxic Levels in Social Sector
8 May 2017 at 8:32 am


A researcher looking at the high levels of work stress in the social sector has warned work stress and burnout are reaching “toxic” levels and is calling on the sector’s peak bodies to act.

Dr Lorraine Harrison, a researcher and senior social worker with almost three decades of experience in the social sector, estimates seven to eight out of 10 community sector workers are stressed in their jobs and the situation is getting worse.

“In the last four years I have seen a difference. It is absolutely more toxic and worse for the workers on the frontline. They are often doing the pointy-end of the work and they are increasingly unsupported in their work and in fear of losing their jobs,” Harrison told Pro Bono News.

Harrison said the current federal government’s push towards the privatisation of the third sector and competitive tendering processes for not for profits were to blame.

“We are seeing the privatisation of the social sector. The ideology of our current government is the private sector does it better,” she said.

“Agencies and their management are trying to compete in the tendering process and how to compete is to do [the work] for less money. They have to make cuts to the bottom line and the ‘raw material’ is the workforce.

“The whole sector is de-skilling, they are replacing qualified, experienced workers and getting  more inexperienced diploma level workers to save money. You can see the stress in the workforce; people are feeling insecure [about job security] and those left still standing are doing more work.”

Harrison’s observations come on top of her 2013 Victoria University thesis looking into the high levels of work stress in the Victoria social sector.

In her research, Harrison found psychological injuries – the medical term for work stress compensation claims –  were the highest in the health and community sector representing 20.5 per cent of WorkSafe claims in 2013.

In the qualitative study, consulting 41 community sector workers, participants reported high and unsustainable workloads were a major issue, increasing levels of administrative work and audit control, “copious amounts” of paperwork and a lack of suitable supervision and support were also factors contributing to work stress.

Harrison said the Effort Reward Imbalance model, which theorises that high levels of effort with low rewards causes an imbalance especially psychologically for the worker and can lead to work stress, was highly applicable in the social sector.

“A lot in the field are still viewed as Florence Nightingale. With more than 80 per cent of the workforce being female a lot of their labour is considered ‘women’s work’ and is undervalued and underpaid,” Harrison said.

It was reported by participants that they felt they had little organisational support and recognition and support from management for their work.

One participant in the study said: “Just a thank you would be appreciated.”

Harrison argued that factors contributing to work stress were systemic and structural despite the push for individual interventions to alleviate stress.

“There is still a prevalent view that there is some sort of weakness in the individual and the general advice is that if it is too hot in the kitchen get out,” she said.

In an article published in the Australian Association of Social Workers newsletter Harrison said: “A significant focus today is on expecting workers to take personal action on their strain, as though, somehow if they only kept fit, reduced alcohol, meditated and attended an ever increasing array of health and wellbeing programs, they would avoid experiencing work stress.

“There is nothing wrong with these personal programs, but as the evidence clearly shows, this is treating the symptom in the worker and not focusing on reducing the causes of work stress: primary intervention into work stress reduction within organisations.

“There is little research into the community service sector in general, let alone regarding work stress. I am hoping my research my research will be utilised to launch further research and most importantly to push for change.”

Harrison said that such issues were often pushed under the carpet but addressing them would assist in addressing the high turnover in the workplace and was a vital component in occupational work health and safety.

Rachel McFadden  |  Journalist  |  @ProBonoNews

Rachel is a journalist specialising in the social sector.

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  • Karyn Lisignoli says:

    I find it difficult to value this research when it was done on such a small sample size – 41 people. That is not nearly enough to make any conclusions from and it would seem likely that those workers feeling very stressed would have decided to participate.

    I would like to see more comprehensive research done into this important matter. The reasons cited, move towards competitive tendering and the entry of for-profits is not new. This has been the case for well over a decade or longer. Competitive tendering has been around for nearly 30 years.

    • Dr. Lorraine Harrison says:

      In response to Karyn Lisignoli comments, I searched wide and far for research connected to the Community Service sector Australia wide and beyond. I looked into the historical formation of the CSS, research on work stress, including what I could find on the CSS. I also completed the actual qualitative research of workers in the CSS. It would be great if further work was done in this area as like most qualitative research numbers are smaller. I look forward to seeing further work, including quantitative research into this very important field. However the findings are consistent with more general research in the work stress field.

    • Dr. Lorraine Harrison says:

      I am writing in response to Karyn Lisignoli’s comments. My research did encompass searching for any articles on work stress specifically in the Community Services Sector Australia wide and beyond. I also researched into the historical origins of the CSS. Hence the research combined history of the CSS, research available as well as the qualitative workers perspective on job stress in the CSS in Victoria.
      I welcome further research in this area and qualitative research does have its limitations as you say. However my findings are consistent with both qualitative and quantitative research in the work stress field.

  • Edmund McMahon says:

    Having occupied both front line management and worker roles I endorse from both observation and experience in multiple not-for-profits that the workplace in the community sector is incrementally becoming more “toxic” re the levels of stress. I agree that the focus on a ‘competitive’ market place has certainly contributed to this unhealthy situation. My observations/experiences have also concluded that the use of those who have little or no experience working with the vulnerable also contributes. So many not-for-profit organisations employ CEOs and executives who have financial qualifications and no lived experience in the sector. Church auspiced organisations are amongst the worst offenders and their focus on finances and empire building not only betrays their mission statement and the work of their former parishioners but also places current staff in moral distress as they are required to act in ways counter to their perception of their role and what their organization overtly advertises as their job. The low value of supervision and debrief time is depressing and, as noted in the article, the philosophical position is indeed that good ‘mental health’ is the staffs responsibility and that they should peruse this during their own time. However, if one actually calculated the cost to organizations to replace staff, i.e. advertise a job, interview, short list, train, etc. – not forgetting lost knowledge and experience – then the cost of good debrief and supervision more then pays for itself. However, again we have HR departments whose role is risk amelioration and who also have no insight into actual community sector work and they do what they are told. I’d love to see a study on the number of CEO’s living with anti-social personality disorder? But our sector will continue to grind on with varying levels of chaos until one day some Government decides to put front line staff and managers in the focus groups and leave the highly paid CEOs/executives out – when that happens we will see genuine innovation, real person centered support, and actual validation of staff.

  • Paul Thompson says:

    The work situation covered in this article is accurate. When I asked one of my employers in the sector for Clinical Supervision they firstly asked “what’s that?”. When I explained what it was, they responded that I should have enough personal contacts to obtain this Pro Bono!


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