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Social workers need better support, study finds
Author: Corporate Communication & Marketing / Korporatiewe Kommunikasie & Bemarking [Alec Basson]
Published: 22/03/2023

​Unmanageable workloads, poor recognition, inadequate supervision and too much stress are just some of the things that make social workers in South Africa quit their jobs. Unsurprisingly, the turnover rate remains high despite the implementation of the Recruitment and Retention Strategy for Social Workers in 2009.

“Frontline social workers experience very stressful situations daily due to a lack of emotional support, insufficient supervision, a lack of resources, poor salaries, and a paucity of development and decision-making within the workplace," says Dr Sandra Bredell who recently obtained her doctorate in Social Work at Stellenbosch University.

Bredell wanted to gain an understanding of how social workers perceive their work-life balance and their subjective wellbeing, that is, how they evaluate their lives. She interviewed frontline social workers and supervisors/manager. Bredell says it is worrying that more than half of the social workers who participated in her study wanted to quit their job within the first five years because of deteriorating working conditions.

“In addition to feeling stressed and overworked, and not receiving adequate supervisory support, they had to deal with the spill-over from the workplace to the family life and vice versa.

“At home, financial concerns, a lack of understanding of their circumstances at work, different roles at work and in the family, and the quality of their relationships, had an impact on their family life.

“Although they felt that social work is not getting the recognition it deserves, they acknowledged that social workers could do more to advocate for their profession and what it stands for and to counter prevailing misconceptions about it."

According to Bredell, there also seemed to be a lack of organisational commitment regarding available and reliable resources (appropriate office equipment, well-maintained vehicles, a sufficient workforce to do the work, etc.) on the one hand and supportive working conditions (supportive supervision, flexible working hours, safe working conditions, etc.) on the other hand.

“If supportive working conditions are in place, it seems to convey to social workers that the organisation cares about them. They then feel a sense of belonging, which reduces the intention to leave their jobs.

“This will also motivate and energise them to keep rendering the much-needed services with passion and will also help them to stay healthy and flourish in their work."


As part of her study, Bredell also made a few recommendations that could help to restore the social workers' work-life balance and improve their wellbeing.

She says the South African Council for Social Service Professions (SACSSP) should advocate more for the profession, and supervisors must undergo a specific training course and be accredited with the Council.

“A specific supervision and development programme should exist for young frontline social workers at their organisations.  Supervisors' workload should be organised in such a way as to provide time for efficient and supportive supervision of social workers in their first two years of employment.  

“Supervisors should help social workers to enhance their skills, set boundaries in the workplace, improve their work-life balance, and maintain self-care for their holistic well-being.

“Wellness and orientation programmes for frontline social workers should be registered with the SACSSP and management needs to buy in on the concept of self-care programmes, wellness days, and flexible working hours to show their appreciation and support to the workforce."

Bredell adds that tertiary institutions should use the undergraduate course in Social Work as a type of screening interview and the curricula should prepare students to set boundaries in the workplace and to maintain self-care.

She also calls for a regrading of salaries so that social workers employed by welfare agencies can get a pay bump.

Bredell says that even though it is up to social workers to care for themselves and to flourish at work by enforcing the boundaries that they have set, they still need to know that their supervisors, welfare organisations and the SACSSP support them.