Relationships among perceived stress, burnout, and physical activity in social workers

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Eric D. Tucker (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:
Diane Gill

Abstract: Relatively few studies have examined the extent to which participation in physical activity can address burnout in social workers. Research conducted with other human service professionals consistently suggests routine exercise can be a viable, cost-effective intervention for aiding in stress management and in effectively addressing burnout. The objective in this study was to explore relationships among perceived stress, burnout, and physical activity participation in social workers. Additionally, this study identified the specific types of physical activities primarily used to cope with job stress by social workers. The study also explored sources of stress in the social work profession, social workers’ use of exercise in their broader approach to coping, and identified other coping strategies that social workers use to manage job stress and burnout. The sample comprised 220 social workers from diverse practice areas who completed a single online survey on perceived stress, burnout, and physical activity behaviors. Data analysis results showed that greater physical activity participation correlated with both lower perceived stress and lower burnout levels. Social workers who regularly used exercise reported lower perceived stress than social workers who were less physically active. Frequency of physical activity (r = - .306) and total physical activity levels (r = -.262) both had moderate, negative relationships with perceived stress. Moderate (r = -.239) and strenuous (r = -.151) physical activity levels both had negative statistically significant correlations with perceived stress levels, but the relationships were weaker than that of mild physical activity with perceived stress (r = -.241). Routine exercise was associated with lower perceived burnout, particularly emotional exhaustion and feelings of accomplishment. Both frequency (r = -.285) and total physical activity (r = -.263) were inversely related with emotional exhaustion. As social workers’ frequency and overall physical activity levels increased, their perceived emotional exhaustion decreased. In terms of feelings of accomplishment, as social workers’ total physical activity levels increased, their perceived feelings of personal accomplishment also increased (r = .240). There was no statistically significant relationship between physical activity and depersonalization in this study. Data from open-ended exploratory questions were thematically analyzed to identify common coping strategies that social workers deemed as particularly effective for managing burnout. The results suggest exercise plays a key role in social workers’ self-care plan to mitigate job stress and burnout. Social workers generally use a variety of coping strategies to manage work-related stress, including a combination of exercise, positive interactions with natural and workplace supports, mindfulness-based activities, and calming, stress-relieving activities. The workplace environment was a major issue. Social workers reported conflicting values with leadership work demands, heavy workloads, lack of resources, and staff shortages as the primary sources of stress. This study extends the research on burnout prevention and intervention in other populations and suggests that a comprehensive approach with a physical activity component is a particularly effective coping strategy for helping social workers deal with perceived stress and burnout.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2018
Burnout, Exercise, Health, Perceived stress, Physical activity, Social work
Social service $x Psychological aspects
Social workers $x Mental health
Social workers $x Job stress
Exercise $x Psychological aspects
Burn out (Psychology) $x Prevention

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