A Survey of Social Workers on Recognition and Burnout

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Social work is a demanding and often emotionally taxing profession that requires individuals to provide support and care to some of society’s most vulnerable populations. Despite the inherent rewards of this work, social workers are at risk of burnout, which can have significant consequences for both the individuals affected and the social work profession as a whole. Burnout is characterized by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment. It can lead to decreased job satisfaction, increased absenteeism, and high turnover rates, negatively impacting the quality of care provided to clients. The impact of burnout on social workers is particularly concerning, given the critical role they play in supporting those in need. In this article, we will explore the causes of social worker burnout and examine the potential impact of recognition programs to reduce burnout and promote well-being within the social work profession.

Factors that Contribute to Burnout in Social Work

Burnout in social work is a significant issue that can negatively impact the well-being of practitioners and their ability to provide adequate care to their clients. Several factors contribute to social worker burnout, including:

High Caseloads

Social workers play a crucial role in helping individuals and communities in need, but job demands can significantly affect their well-being. Research has shown that social workers experience high levels of stress and burnout, with a 2014 study finding that nearly half of the social workers report symptoms of burnout.

Emotional Stress

Research has shown that emotional stress significantly contributes to burnout in social work. A study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that social workers experience high levels of emotional exhaustion and depersonalization, two critical indicators of burnout. Another study published in the Journal of Social Service Research found that social workers who reported high levels of emotional exhaustion were more likely to experience burnout.

Lack of Support

Social workers often feel isolated and unsupported, with limited collaboration, supervision, and debriefing opportunities. This can make it difficult for them to process their experiences and maintain their well-being. A study published in Children and Youth Services Review journal surveyed 294 child welfare social workers over a year. The study found that over 50% of the social workers reported high levels of burnout, and a lack of support was a significant predictor of burnout. Another study conducted by the School of Social Work at the University of Buffalo found that a lack of support and recognition from supervisors was significantly associated with increased burnout among social workers.

Former American Association of Social Workers President Karen Zgoda stated, “Social work is both the most challenging and most rewarding of careers. It is a calling to serve others and make a difference in people’s lives. However, it can also be emotionally taxing and lead to feelings of burnout if not properly supported.”

Social Worker Burnout and Employee Recognition Research

A survey was conducted by the Recognize team to gauge the prevalence of burnout among social workers and to determine the contributing factors. The survey was completed by a sample of social workers across various settings, including hospitals, schools, community centers, and private practices. The results of the survey provided insight into the challenges faced by social workers and the impact that these challenges have on their emotional well-being and job satisfaction.

The survey found that a significant percentage of social workers reported experiencing symptoms of burnout, which significantly impacts their mental health and ability to perform their job effectively.


Questions We Asked in the Survey

Q: Have you ever experienced burnout or symptoms of burnout in your current profession?
79.2% said yes, they have.

Q: Are you currently experiencing burnout or symptoms of burnout?
71.1% said yes.

Social Work burnout Can Lead to  High Turnover Rate.

Social work burnout can have severe consequences for both the individual social worker and the broader field. High levels of burnout are associated with increased turnover rates, as social workers may leave the profession or seek work in a different area. This can result in a loss of experienced practitioners and a drain on the resources of social service organizations. In addition to affecting individual practitioners, burnout can also impact the quality of care provided to clients. Burnout social workers may struggle to provide the support and attention required in their role. The high turnover rate can also lead to additional challenges for the field, including increased recruitment and training costs and difficulties in maintaining consistent and high-quality services for clients.

In the survey we conducted earlier, we asked questions about social work retention. 66% reported that they have considered leaving the profession due to burnout.

Q: Have you ever considered leaving the social work industry?
66% said yes.

Q: Have you considered leaving the social work industry in the past year?
56.6% said yes.

Q: Do you plan to leave the social work industry in one year or less?
52.8% said yes.

How to Prevent and Mitigate Social Worker Burnout

One important way to prevent and mitigate social worker burnout is by providing adequate support to social workers. According to a study by Leiter, Frank, and Matheson (2009), social workers who received adequate support and supervision were less likely to experience burnout. Providing regular check-ins, mentoring, and opportunities for debriefing and self-care can help mitigate the impact of exposure to challenging situations and reduce the risk of burnout.

In addition to adequate support and supervision, social workers who reported high levels of job satisfaction and good working conditions were less likely to experience burnout, according to research by Maslach and Leiter (2016). This includes fair compensation, reasonable workloads, and opportunities for growth and professional development.

Social workers often work with individuals and families who are facing systemic issues such as poverty, discrimination, and inadequate access to healthcare. Addressing these larger issues can help reduce the workload and stress on social workers and prevent burnout. According to Maslach and Leiter’s (2016) research, burnout was more common among social workers who perceived their work as having little impact on their clients’ lives.

Lastly, recognition programs that acknowledge the hard work and dedication of social workers can also help boost morale and reduce the risk of burnout. A study by Acker (2010) found that recognition and appreciation from colleagues and supervisors were important factors in reducing burnout among social workers.

The Role of Recognition Programs in Reducing Social Work Burnout.

Social workers are critical in helping individuals and communities overcome various social and emotional challenges. However, this work can also affect their well-being, leading to high-stress levels, exhaustion, and burnout. To address this issue, many organizations are implementing recognition programs to reduce burnout among social workers. Recognition programs can help social workers feel valued and appreciated for their hard work and provide them with the support and resources they need to maintain their emotional and physical well-being.  

Through regular recognition, social workers can be reminded of their importance and impact on the lives of those they serve, which can help reduce the risk of burnout and promote a more sustainable and fulfilling career. By investing in recognition programs, organizations can help ensure that their social workers are equipped to provide high-quality care and support, reducing the risk of burnout and promoting long-term career satisfaction. 

The Importance of Recognizing and Valuing the Work of Social Workers.

Recognition programs can take many forms, including formal awards and incentives, informal gestures of appreciation, and opportunities for professional growth and development.

Recognizing and valuing the work of social workers is critical to reducing burnout and increasing job satisfaction. Social workers are vital in helping individuals, families, and communities face various challenges, including poverty, abuse, neglect, mental health issues, and addiction. Despite the critical nature of their work, social workers often face high levels of stress and burnout due to several factors, including high caseloads, emotional stress, and lack of support. It is essential to recognize and value their work in meaningful and tangible ways to address these challenges and promote social workers’ well-being and job satisfaction.

One of the ways that organizations can recognize and value the work of social workers is through recognition programs. By providing meaningful and consistent recognition for their work, organizations can help social workers feel valued, appreciated, and motivated to continue their essential work. This can also help reduce stress and burnout by providing social workers with a sense of purpose and fulfillment.

Another way that organizations can help reduce burnout and increase job satisfaction among social workers is by providing support and resources to help them manage their workloads and cope with the emotional demands of their jobs. This may include offering opportunities for professional development, providing access to counseling and support services, and promoting work-life balance. By providing these resources, organizations can help social workers stay engaged and motivated and better manage their work demands.

Recognizing and valuing the work of social workers is critical to reducing burnout and increasing job satisfaction. Recognition programs and supportive resources can help social workers feel valued, motivated, and fulfilled in their work, which is essential to the well-being of the social work profession and its communities. In a survey, we found that 92.5% of the social workers surveyed said their organizations had some form of formal employee recognition program.

Q: Does your current organization have a formal employee recognition program?
93.5% said yes.

Despite a recognition program’s existence, it does not necessarily guarantee that it is being implemented effectively. This is evidenced by the fact that many respondents report experiencing high levels of burnout and have even considered leaving the social work industry.

It is essential for organizations to continually assess the effectiveness of their recognition programs and make necessary adjustments to ensure that they are meeting the needs of their employees. This includes monitoring employee feedback and implementing changes based on that feedback to ensure the recognition program serves its intended purpose.

Ways to Use Employee Recognition to Combat Social Work Burnout.

Peer-to-peer employee recognition

Peer-to-peer recognition can be an effective strategy to combat social work burnout. Social workers often work in teams or groups. Providing opportunities for peers to recognize each other’s hard work and contributions can help boost morale and reduce the risk of burnout.

Peer-to-peer recognition can come in many forms, from a simple “thank you” or shout-out during a team meeting to more formal recognition programs.

When we asked participants to rate how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the statement “I appreciate being recognized by my peers for my contributions in the workplace, The poll revealed that 77.8% of respondents appreciate being recognized by their peers for their contributions in the workplace.

Q: I appreciate being recognized by my peers for my contributions in the workplace.
77.8% agree with this.

Q: I feel less “burned out” in my work when I am recognized by my peers.
64.2% agree.


Peer recognition programs can be low-cost and easy to implement. Some organizations use peer nomination systems, where team members nominate each other for recognition. Others use peer-led recognition committees or focus groups to identify employees who have made significant contributions. You have to figure out whatever works for you and your organization.

When employees feel valued and appreciated by their peers, they are more likely to experience job satisfaction and feel a sense of belonging within the organization.

Managerial Recognition Boosts the Morale of  Social Workers

While peer-to-peer recognition is essential, it is also critical for managers and leaders to recognize their employees for a job well done.

Research has shown that managerial recognition is critical to reducing burnout and increasing job satisfaction among social workers. Recognition and appreciation from colleagues and supervisors were essential to reducing burnout among social workers. Specifically, social workers who received regular positive feedback from their managers and supervisors reported higher levels of job satisfaction and were less likely to experience burnout.

Q: I appreciate being recognized by my manager for my contributions.
69.4% agreed.

Q: I appreciate being recognized by my manager for my contributions.
66% agreed.


Q: I feel less “burned out” when I am recognized by my manager.
62.3% agreed.

Day-to-Day Recognition

Daily recognition involves making small yet significant gestures to show appreciation and acknowledgment of an employee’s contributions. This can include expressing gratitude to all meeting attendees or sending individual messages of appreciation when tasks are completed. Providing positive comments or messages during collaboration and feedback sessions can create an environment of constructive criticism rather than negativity. Employees can feel motivated and reassured of their value by regularly acknowledging exceptional performance or expressing thanks with simple statements.

Q: How often do you wish you were recognized for your contributions?
43.4% said weekly, and 20.8% said daily.

Q: How often are you recognized at your organization?
There was a tie between daily and weekly.

Both daily and weekly employee recognition are essential aspects of an employee recognition program, with slightly different purposes. Daily recognition involves consistent and small gestures, like providing feedback or showing appreciation, to foster a positive work environment and employee motivation. Weekly recognition, like “Employee of the Week” programs or team celebrations, is usually more formal and visible to acknowledge employees’ accomplishments and promote teamwork. The specific recognition approach will vary based on the organization’s culture, resources, and employee preferences.

Best practices for Creating and Implementing a Recognition Program for Social Workers.

Creating and implementing a recognition program for social workers can help reduce burnout and increase job satisfaction by valuing and recognizing their essential work. There are several best practices to keep in mind when creating and implementing a recognition program for social workers:

Foster a Culture of Recognition
Recognition should be the organization’s culture and be practiced regularly,  not just as a once-a-year event. Encourage supervisors, colleagues, and even clients to participate in the recognition program, and encourage social workers to recognize each other’s achievements. 

Offer a Variety of Recognition Options
Social workers come from different backgrounds and preferences, so it’s important to offer various recognition options. Some social workers may prefer public recognition, while others prefer more private credit. We asked participants if they agreed with the statement, “I appreciate receiving rewards from my organization for my work.” and 49.1% said yes.

Q: I appreciate receiving rewards from my organization for my work.
75.5 agreed.

 Employee awards include certificates, awards, and other forms of recognition, such as additional paid time off, merchandise, and experiences like massage, skydiving, etc., to ensure that all social workers can be recognized.

Q: I appreciate receiving a plaque or award certificate when I receive recognition at my organization.
69.8 said they agree.

Q: When receiving recognition at my organization, I prefer experiences such as a massage or skydiving trip.
66% agreed.

Q: When receiving recognition at my organization, I prefer additional paid time off.
67.9% agreed.
This is something you might want to consider.

Q: When receiving recognition at my organization, I prefer cash rewards or gift cards.
Same with additional time paid off.

Celebrate Milestones and Successes
Social work can be a challenging and emotionally taxing profession, so it’s important to celebrate milestones and successes along the way. Consider recognizing social workers for anniversaries with the organization, professional development milestones, and other achievements. We asked participants of the survey if they liked being recognized on their birthdays and a good number said yes. We also asked if they liked being recognized for their work anniversary and a good number agreed.

Q:  I like when my organization recognizes my birthday.
77.3% agreed.
This is an excellent way to show your appreciation and boost morale.

Q: I like when my organization recognizes my work anniversary.
73.6% agreed.
This can help foster a positive work culture and increase employee retention.

Provide Resources and Support
Social workers often deal with high caseloads, emotional stress, and other factors contributing to burnout. To help reduce burnout and increase job satisfaction, provide social workers with resources and support, such as access to counseling services, professional development opportunities, and self-care resources.

By keeping these best practices in mind, organizations can create and implement a recognition program for social workers that is meaningful, impactful, and helps to reduce burnout and increase job satisfaction.


Newell, J. M., & MacNeil, G. A. (2010). Professional burnout, vicarious trauma, secondary traumatic stress, and compassion fatigue: A review of theoretical terms, risk factors, and preventive methods for clinicians and researchers. Best Practice in Mental Health, 6(2), 57-68.

Pines, A. M., & Maslach, C. (Eds.). (1999). Stress and burnout in the human service professions: Impact, prevention, and coping. Taylor & Francis.

Badger, L. W., Royse, D., & Trierweiler, S. (2010). Exploring the impact of supervisory support on secondary traumatic stress and burnout among child welfare workers. Children and Youth Services Review, 32(8), 1132-1138. 

Lamontagne, G., & Woods, M. (2014). Workplace Support, Burnout, and Social Workers’ Mental Health: A Review of the Literature. Health & Social Work, 39(4), 221–228. https://doi.org/10.1093/hsw/hlu032

Leiter, M. P., Frank, E., & Matheson, T. J. (2009). Demands, values, and burnout: Relevance for physicians. Canadian Family Physician, 55(12), 1224-1225.

Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (2016). Understanding the burnout experience: Recent research and its implications for psychiatry. World Psychiatry, 15(2), 103-111. 

Acker, G. M. (2010). Promoting professional resilience in child protection workers. Child Welfare, 89(6), 97-115.

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