It is Time to Receive the Recognition We Deserve:
Report from the OASW Task Force on Salaries & Working Conditions
Maya (not her real name) has an MSW from an Ontario university and works with families in a large non-profit, multi-service agency. She would like to diversify her skills through more training, but commitments to her young family and her increasingly fragile, elderly parents mean that this goal has been put “on hold”. Maya loves her work but often feels underpaid, overburdened and rushed by high and increasingly complex caseloads as well as growing demands for statistics, formalized case notes and other documentation. Although upper management and the union discourage the practice, in order to keep up with her cases, Maya often works through her lunch breaks and stays an additional hour after work most days. This puts added pressure on her home life as she often finds herself dashing through the door of the child care centre seconds before closing time, and spends the rest of the evening feeling guilty and rushing to care for her kids, cooking meals, finishing housework, and checking in with her parents and their care providers.
Maya used to work in a very cohesive and energetic team headed by a supervisor who was collaborative and supportive. Unfortunately, her new supervisor is less skilled, rarely available for supervision, and morale on the team is at a low point. Since the new supervisor started, there have been rumours that he bullied people in his last position, some workers have complained about harassment, and a few are talking about quitting. Maya hopes this is all a misunderstanding and that someone will step in to clear it up. Although she cannot link it exclusively to the stress at work, Maya has begun to experience sleep disruptions and migraines.
Despite this, Maya finds her work life to be satisfying and, with a few qualifiers, would recommend it as a career to others. Why? Because Maya says she learns something new everyday, meets an infinite variety of new challenges and people, and the job gives her the opportunity to feel that she is part of “giving back” and of making the world a better place.
This scenario is based loosely on the lives of a number of social workers here in Ontario. Interestingly, this scenario reflects the major themes of a survey recently undertaken by the Ontario Association of Social Workers, the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (see the OASW website for more details). The findings paint a clear picture of a workforce that finds itself busier than a year ago, and more stressed, but still satisfied with their careers. Indeed, most social workers said they would recommend social work as a profession to their children or someone they know.
At the same time, most people reported feeling underpaid for the work they do and almost a third are working more than one job. As one social worker noted, “at times, it feels degrading to think that after six years of schooling and solid experience and a graduate degree, I am still earning so little.” Another worker lamented, “I wish I didn’t need to work two or three jobs to make ends meet.”
An increased pace and intensity of work was reported by half of the respondents. They reported feeling rushed in their work as a result of staff shortage, high caseloads, new duties, increased complexity in the work, increased documentation, covering for other staff and changes in policies. Social workers are not comfortable with this situation and are concerned about the impact on clients. In the words of one worker, “I love my job in that I love the work that I do… but I find that I am stretched too thin which makes me feel rushed, stressed and upset that I can’t provide the care I would like to…I feel we just need more social workers to manage the number of clients.” Social workers also worry about the impact on their own health and well-being, “I’m also concerned about eventually burning out in this field if I continually have to do too much in my job. I do not want to end up being a burnt-out, snarky social worker!”
To cope with increased pace and volume of work, most social workers (71 per cent) are working unpaid overtime, donating between one to six or more hours of unpaid work per week. Most workers seem aware that this solution has the potential to burn them out. One worker phrased it well when she said, “I will continue to go the extra mile because I am a committed professional, but as I do that, I am unsettled with the knowledge that I am contributing to my own exploitation!”
Balancing home and work life responsibilities was another common concern with the predominantly female workforce (80 per cent). Among those who reported caregiver responsibilities (44.3 per cent), most found themselves busy with: children (88.9 %); periodic support to relatives, friends and neighbours (77.5 per cent); and care responsibilities for parents and other dependent adults (47.4 per cent). Asked about ways to improve this situation, workers reported the following: flexible hours; and being able to work from home occasionally, vary hours when needed, and make personal calls from work.
Disturbingly, a third of workers reported that they had been harassed at work. Fifty-eight per cent reported that the harassment was related to gender, 22.3 per cent reported harassment related to sexual orientation and 20.3 per cent reported racism as the focus of harassment. Social workers were also concerned about violence and abuse on the job, particularly those working alone and making home visits. One worker told us that her employer of ten years has failed to take any action on worker safety during home visits, despite repeated requests from staff. As she put it, “They acknowledge the danger we may be in on a daily basis, but then move on to more ‘important’ issues within the agency. Money is the barrier.” A number of workers also reported harassment from co-workers and supervisors, leaving workers feeling they have no place to turn to for solutions or support.
In summary, this survey provides valuable information for the OASW and unions in their efforts to identify and improve the working conditions of social workers in the province. Moreover, the survey will be repeated periodically to track changes and measure improvements and growth of problems. The study is being replicated in other provinces and territories in order to develop a profile of working conditions across Canada. The study confirms that challenge for social workers and the organizations representing them pivots on how to remain committed to this challenging but rewarding work, despite low pay and often difficult working conditions, while simultaneously balancing home and work life. As one worker put it, “I do not accept that concepts of altruism, time for self/family, and being financially secure need to be exclusive of one another. It is time for the profession to receive the recognition it deserves.”
Dr. Donna Baines, PhD, is Associate Professor in the Labour Studies Programme & School of Social Work at McMaster University. She is the author of the book “Doing Anti-Oppressive Practice: Building Politicized, Transformative Social Work", Fernwood, 2007.
This article is dedicated to Dr. Beverley Antle (1959-2006), whose passion to improve working conditions for social workers led to the formation and work of this Task Force. For the first time, an OASW Task Force brought together academics, practitioners, the Association and unions to address shared concerns and interests. The contribution of Task Force members is gratefully acknowledged: Beverley Antle, Joan MacKenzie Davies, Donna Baines, Brent Angell, Peter Paulekat (CUPE), Michele Haber (OPSEU), Malcolm Stewart and Arvind Aggarwal. Michael Saini’s work in pulling together the final report and “crunching” the numbers also deserves recognition and thanks.