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The Cave: digital safe haven for stressed social workers

Generally, social work is considered a stressful occupation due to the emotional demands on practitioners. One group of social workers that is particularly at risk for negative outcomes are those employed within the child protection practice setting, tasked with the statutory duty to protect children.

This was one of the research findings of Prof Ansie Fouché and Dr Elmien Truter, both qualified social work professionals and members of the North-West University's (NWU's) Optentia research focus area.

They found that during the course of performing their statutory duties, the well-being of child protection social workers (CPSWs) is indeed at risk as a result of work-related factors such as excessive workloads, staff shortages, exposure to violence and aggression, high stress levels and inadequate emotional and financial support.

Strength and support for practitioners

In an effort to empower CPSWs, the two researchers, both from the Strengths-based Studies and Interventions sub-programme at Optentia, have launched an interactive Web site called The Cave.

Dr Truter, who founded the initiative, says the "cave" represents a place where CPSWs can learn something or reflect on new insights or developments so that, when they return to the field, they are stronger and wiser.

Prof Fouch'e adds the Web site is a hub of knowledge and empowerment for all practitioners who find themselves working in a "drastically altering community ecology". This refers to the challenging context in which CPSWs work, characterised by high unemployment, ever-increasing criminality and growing socioeconomic ills.

The Cave Web site explores themes relevant to child protection work in South Africa, and the content of each theme is made available in three different sections, namely Precious Stones, Bonfire and Moonlight.

Ripple effect on statutory care

The researchers explain that the adverse and taxing working conditions of CPSWs place them at risk of negative mental health outcomes such as burnout, depression, secondary traumatic stress and compassion fatigue.

This may have negative implications for service delivery, since there may be a surge in staff absenteeism, high attrition rates and unsatisfactory work performance. The protection of the most vulnerable in society might then fall short to the extent that children in need of care and protection may remain in abusive situations. Ultimately, this leads to the violation of children's constitutional rights.

The Web site can help mitigate these risks by offering CPSWs a sense of community and support.

"The fourth industrial revolution is changing the face of communities, and as such, the Web site offers us the opportunity to converse with fellow practitioners and professionals by means of easily accessible technology such as smartphones," says Prof Fouch'e.

"As researchers, we enjoy easy access to information resources, something the practitioner in the field does not have. Add to this the time constraints experienced by practitioners and it becomes clear why they need to be able to access up-to-date information quickly and without hassle," says Dr Truter.

The Cave meets these needs, offering a safe haven where CPSWs can draw strength and support so they can do justice to the children whose well-being depends on them.