by Alyssa Lotmore, LMSW
Imagine being 23 years old and fresh out of the social welfare program. You have just passed the licensure exam. You land your ideal job and are thrilled. Then, when you begin your job, you realize that your boss is severely burned out, and the staff is under heightened stress from negative leadership, which is causing poor worker-client relationships.
That is what happened to me a few years ago as a brand new social worker. My boss, who had a counseling background, created a tense environment. Within my first two months, I could see the emotional toll having a negative workplace culture was taking on both the staff and youth being served in the agency. One day, a staff member broke down in my office after being reprimanded for a menial task, and I witnessed a power struggle between staff and youth that left both angry and frustrated.
I went home that night and was at a loss as to what to do. Do I stay in an environment that is far from the therapeutic culture that I felt was needed? I knew I was not ready to leave. I had started to build relationships with the youth, and I honestly would have felt bad leaving them in such an environment. I decided I was going to get a good night’s sleep and go to work the next day thinking about ideas to make the culture better.
As I looked at my boss and saw the impact she had on staff, I began to wonder how a person with a counseling background could end up in such a state. I also saw how her leadership had had a negative impact on the staff. Poor leadership yields unhappy staff, which can be felt by the population being served. In the end, the organization itself will stray from its mission and fail.
In my coursework, I had learned a lot about boundaries. The focus was always on how to avoid entangled boundaries, which could lead to burnout. Entangled meant that the worker was over-involved and investing time and emotional energy into a client in a way that was not helpful to the client.
However, I knew that was not what I was observing. This was more of a rigid boundary between staff and youth, in which a significant distance within the relationship was noticeably felt. This type of boundary failure could result in client neglect, client abandonment, and uninformed assessments.
The relationship between the worker and client is very important for the therapeutic process. With boundaries placed on a continuum, with rigidity at one extreme and entanglement at the other, how do I help the staff fall somewhere in the middle and be considered “balanced”? I began to learn that the professional setting can influence where the worker lies on the boundary continuum. For example, a setting where the staff has high caseloads, is unsupported, deals with resistant clients, or is under pressure from administration can lead to more boundary rigidity. I realized that having an environment in which staff feel appreciated, valued, and respected is critical in having a positive outcome for the client population.
Over the next few months, I began having youth create motivational pieces that I displayed around the workplace. Hand-made posters and original artwork allowed staff to connect more and be reminded of what the youth needed. I made sure to check in each morning with staff, just offering a friendly, “Hello, how is everything going this morning?”
I realized that as professionals, we all have a home life and, at times, it can be stressful. When we enter the workplace, especially a demanding work environment, we need to check ourselves and not bring the stress of personal issues into the work environment. I created a comment box where staff could anonymously make suggestions and leave feedback that I would discuss at the administrative meetings. These changes on my part did not make the workplace culture perfect, but they did make it more bearable until more major changes could be made.
My boss was replaced mid-year. A new leader came in and did a complete overhaul of the workplace culture. Some staff were let go, new rules and policies were made, intensive trainings that had a strong social work basis were given to all staff, and the agency transformed into a thriving, inspiring environment where staff and youth knew that they were cared about. Over the next three years, I witnessed a shift from rigid boundaries caused by poor organizational leadership and a weak workplace culture, to balanced boundaries with a workplace environment that made staff glad to be employed there.
Many individuals in society see social workers as powerful, as they can report abuse, evaluate mental health, and make community-wide changes through advocacy. Yet, many social workers see themselves as powerless. They feel caught in the formalities and regulations of their own bureaucracies and are troubled by the lack of resources available to address the many issues that arise. These feelings of powerlessness can cause emotional stress for workers, causing them to develop more rigid boundaries. In instances such as these, having strong leadership to create a positive workplace culture is critical.
A healthy workplace culture also entails professional development and resources that promote self care. Professionals, especially in the field of social work, are exposed to not only their own personal trauma, but also the trauma of others. A more balanced workplace environment can lead to more balanced boundaries. With balanced boundaries, staff will use their authority fittingly, use professional judgment and self-reflection skills in their assessments, not exploit their clients’ vulnerabilities, nor infringe on their clients’ rights. Every professional is susceptible to moving outside of the ideal balanced range, depending on the situation, but with the guidance and support of the agency and its leadership, the worker has a better chance to remain in the center of the boundaries continuum.
Despite completing all my requirements for my MSW, I plan on going back to school to take courses on agency management and leadership. Even though I may never be in that role, I feel that as a staff member, I should have the knowledge and background to make positive suggestions and/or interventions if I see the workplace culture breaking down in my agency. If someone had asked me during graduate school the importance of workplace culture, I would have said it was important—but I never realized how critical it is until now. I recommend that both current social work students and those who are in the field take a class or two on organizational leadership. Even if you are not directly in the leadership role, there are certain ways that you can help to add to a positive workplace culture.
Davidson, J. C. (2005). Professional relationship boundaries: A social work teaching module. Social Work Education, 24 (5), 511-533.
Nelson-Gardell, D., & Harris, D. (2003). Childhood abuse history, secondary traumatic stress, and child welfare workers. Child Welfare, 82 (1), p 5-26.
Alyssa Lotmore, LMSW, is a graduate of the State University of New York at Albany. She is currently employed at her alma mater, serving as the Assistant Director and Coordinator of Baccalaureate Field Education. She is also the co-host of UAlbany’s The Social Workers Radio Talk Show.