Panel Paper: Public Employment Stress: Worker and Organizational Factors and Strategies for Change In Child Welfare

Thursday, November 8, 2012 : 10:35 AM
Baltimore Theatre (Radisson Plaza Lord Baltimore Hotel)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Karen Hopkins and Amy Cohen-Callow, University of Maryland School of Social Work

The public sector plays a key role in the delivery of human services.  For example, public child welfare organizations provide the majority of in-and-out-of home services to families and children across the country. These are challenging jobs and workers are at high risk for prolonged stress.  Further, changing demographics (i.e., generational, more dual-earner and single-parents) among employees bring increasing diversity, work-life concerns, and stress into the workplace.  From an organizational perspective, stress is associated with job dissatisfaction, lack of commitment, impaired effectiveness, and turnover affecting an organization’s capacity to provide quality services (Hopkins, et al., 2007; Mackay, et al., 2004).  Thus, more supportive and responsive cultures to ameliorate the damaging effects of stress are necessary.  Yet, it is unclear the degree to which organizations have control over the reduction of stress.  This paper reports on a mixed-method study that includes a multi-level analysis of workers in a statewide public child welfare system to determine the relationship between worker stress and organizational, individual and job factors within agencies and across 24 county agencies.  It sought to answer:  1) Is child welfare worker stress related to workers’ perception of organizational factors and workers personal and job factors?  2) Is the variation in workers’ stress a function of differences between county agencies in a statewide system?

Data was collected in 2008 from self-report surveys (621, 56.5%) and multiple focus groups (203, 61%) across the state, with geographical and demographic representation.  Valid and reliable measures captured organizational, job, and personal factors that contributed to employees’ work stress.  Stress was measured with a second order factor from the Organizational Social Context (OSC) Scale (Glisson, 2006, 2008).  Stress was comprised of three first order factors that captured aspects of emotional exhaustion, role overload, and role conflict (Cronbach’s alpha = .94).  Semi-structured questions were developed for focus groups to better understand employees’ perceptions and personal and organizational experiences related to stress. Hierarchical linear modeling was used to explain the degree to which stress was a function of cross-level interactions.

The results indicated that factors mostly within the control of the organization explained significantly more stress than personal or job characteristics (i.e., salary, workload).  For example, high levels of employee stress were a function of effort-reward imbalance, exclusion in decision-making, lack of coworker cooperation and supervisor support, concerns about job safety, and work-life imbalance.  Roughly 8% of the variance in worker stress was associated with county agencies in which the employee worked.  Focus group data also confirmed these factors as primary contributors to stress that seemed to vary by agency.  Overall, the findings suggest that factors contributing to public child welfare workers’ stress are primarily within the organization’s control. 

The paper contributes to policy research and practice by highlighting the need for public agencies to develop and evaluate effective policies, strategies, and interventions for reducing workplace stress through improving both (1) organizational structural factors (i.e., level of bureaucracy inherent in agency size, decision-making and safety processes, and rewards), and (2) organizational support (i.e., supervisors, coworkers, work-life initiatives).