Evaluating the Motivation, Wellbeing, Resilience and Employment Preferences of Social Work Graduates Over Time: Time 1 Report

Audrey Roulston, Davy Hayes, Jana Ross, Lorna Montgomery, Denise Mac Dermott, Paula McFadden, Shirley Boyle

Research output: Book/ReportCommissioned reportpeer-review

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While social work continues to be a popular profession, the job can be highly stressful and careers are shorter than many other professions (Lloyd et al., 2002), particularly due to poor working conditions, excessive workloads and lack of managerial support influencing stress and burnout (Ravalier et al., 2020). In contrast, buffering positive resources are the social work role, peer support and positive managerial support (Ravalier et al., 2020). There are many reasons people feel motivated to train as social workers. A study involving 240 social work students across Ireland (McCartan et al., 2020) reported that 86.3% were motivated by ‘wanting to help people’ with 66.4% wanting to ‘overcome oppression’. Hackett et al. (2003) found that social work university students in four European countries felt committed or politically motivated. Ferguson et al. (2018) found students wanted to promote social justice. Others suggest that career motivation is influenced by life experience, family background, personal needs, and beliefs (Stevens et al., 2012; Wilson and McCrystal, 2007). According to Christie and Weeks (1998) social work students may have greater exposure to significant life events that may have motivated their career choice, but which may adversely affect them when they experience stressors in practice. When asked to disclose Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), 49.8% of social work students had between one and three ACEs and 20.1% reported four or more, with the remainder having none (McCartan et al., 2020). The authors concluded that fear of burnout and stress affected over half and suggested that strategies for self-care should continue to be encouraged during professional training. Since the arrival of the COVID-19 crisis, we have witnessed its profound impact in terms of education, politics, society, the environment, the economy and the health and social care sector. Prior to this, UK health and social care professionals were categorised as a high-risk group for developing mental health related problems (McFadden et al., 2021a). Therefore, as the pandemic developed, this has increased the job demands, burnout and stressors of the health and social care professions (McFadden et al, 2021b).

According to the Social Work Workforce Review (Northern Ireland, 2021) there have been 260 commissioned places for social work training in Northern Ireland for just under 10 years. More recently, the Open University were commissioned to provide social work training in Northern Ireland, which increased commissioned places to 275 per annum. However, a recent workforce review has projected that the overall number needs to increase further. The supply of suitably qualified social workers has reduced, and the demand for social workers has increased. Furthermore, the number of social work vacancies has grown, with many social workers choosing employment via recruitment agencies, at the cost of permanent posts across the statutory, voluntary and independent sectors.

Messages from the health and social care workforce (HSC Workforce Strategy 2026) acknowledge recruitment difficulties, the increasing administrative workload on frontline staff, the need to develop roles that reflect the ageing workforce aligned to the pension age, greater opportunities for flexible working patterns and offering clearer pathways for career development. Regional recruitment into social work posts across Northern Ireland has been challenging for the past number of years. This has resulted in increased expenditure on agency staff, causing additional pressure on the Health and Social Care budget. This has created instability for teams and has a demoralising impact on the permanent workforce. Factual information is needed from student social workers, preparing to graduate and in the early stages of their social work career, regarding basic demographic data, levels of motivation to practice social work, and preferences or specific needs regarding employment. Given the concerns regarding well-being and resilience within the profession, further information is needed to capture changes in the early stages of a social worker’s career.
The overall aim of this project is to improve our understanding of how the well-being, resilience, motivation and employment of student social workers change in the first 18 months after graduation. This report presents findings from Time 1 (immediately prior to graduation).

The objectives of this report are to:
a. Capture demographic data from social work students prior to graduation
b. Capture prevalence of health issues, caring or parental responsibilities
c. Measure well-being, resilience, and motivation
d. Capture perceptions of readiness for practice
e. Identify employment preferences prior to graduation
Original languageEnglish
Commissioning bodyDepartment of Health Northern Ireland
Number of pages32
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 29 Sept 2022


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