THE IDENTIFICATION OF STRESSFULEVENTS AND WORKING CONDITIONS BY GROUP HOME PERSONNEL
Gale E. Burford
Data on job-related stress are reported for personnel who work in and around group homes for young offenders and mentally handicapped persons in one Canadian province in order to illuminate the organizational changes and working conditions which these personnel find most distressing. Based on the assumption that stressful events and working conditions have neither a universal nor a uniform impact on persons, the Organizational Changes Rating Scale and the Stressful Working Conditions Checklist (Adams, 1980) were employed to discriminate between the existence or occurrence of an event or condition and the identification of that event or condition as stressful. Subjects' ratings (N=390) were rank-ordered overall and by job title for examination. The findings are used to support the notion that stressors should be considered for both direct and indirect service personnel in order to illuminate important contextual factors of stress for direct care workers. However, those events and conditions that are perceived to have high impact for all personnel may mask important job stressors for particular groups of personnel if research does not discriminate between the occurrence or presence of an event or condition and its perceived impact on each group.
The purpose of this paper is to examine what job-related stressors are peculiar to the nature of work in group homes and to determine which of these stressors are perceived by the personnel involved as having the most stressful impact upon them.
The findings reported in this paper are part of a larger study in progress (Burford, work in progress) which is predicated on the notion that many attempts to understand the nature of residential group care work have paid insufficient attention to the subjective components of stress evaluation. That is, while there is a strong belief that stress is a necessary and potentially positive element of growth, development and adaptation, it is only in recent years that researchers have come to accept that stressful events and conditions do not have universal impact on people (Gentry & Kobasa, 1984). Exposure to stress cannot be understood without giving careful consideration to the differences in perception between people and between groups of people and to other factors which buffer, cushion or mediate the relationship between stress and performance.
A wide range of factors has been shown to mediate and/or buffer the responses to stress by individuals and work groups including: personality and attitudinal differences; the availability of relevant career and educational ladders I and job enhancement schemes; the quality of reward schemes; the relative position of residential services within the wider service network; the characteristics of the resident group; levels of change and stress; the quality of supervisory, consultative and social supports; organizational and administrative structures and supports; patterns of work schedules; physical environmental conditions; and the individual and collective interpretation or meaning that evolves in relation to an event or condition (Beddoe, 1980; Beehr & Bhagat, 1985; Brendtro & Mitchell, c 1983; Burford & Fulcher, 1985; Fulcher, 1983; Gamer, 1982; Krueger, 1987; r Mattingly, 1981; Moos, 1975; Reed, 1977).
In particular, this paper presents findings relative to the differences between reports of actual frequency of occurrence of organizational changes and stressful working conditions, and ratings of their impact by sample subjects. This is consistent with Mattingly's (1981) call for researchers to develop fuller understanding of the situations and conditions that personnel in residential group care find distressing and which aggravate burn-out.
While the supportive literature on these subjects is too broad to summarize in this paper, a few would seem to have particular relevance to the vulnerability or susceptibility of work groups toward adaptive or maladaptive functioning.
In their study of work environment variables related to job satisfaction for group home workers, Connis et al. (1979) offer a number of interesting findings. As suspected, they found high rates of employee turnover. Only a few employees in their study tended to remain in the group homes for more than one year. Varying levels of job satisfaction were associated with different occupational groupings and they noted that those employee groups who spent less time in face-to-face contact with residents reported higher levels of satisfaction. Houseparents had considerably more direct contact than other groups. For all employee groups, satisfaction was positively associated with access to private living space.
Citing the works of Grossbard (1960), Reed (1977), and Mattingly (1981), Clemens (1986) argues that live-in workers are subject to "limited opportunities for withdrawal, psychological repair and personal recovery" (p. 35). On the basis of this observation, we would assume that the provision of these opportunities and the space in which to do them would go some distance toward solving certain problems.
Connis et al. (1979) compare satisfaction rates for two categories of live-in workers: teaching parents and houseparents. Despite the fact that both groups live in, teaching houseparents reported much higher work-related satisfactions than their houseparent counterparts. Teaching houseparents were twice as likely to have an advanced degree, were ten times as likely to have received additional formal training and despite the fact that teaching houseparents worked slightly more hours during the week than houseparents, considerably fewer of these hours were spent in direct face-to-face contact with the residents. Perhaps even more importantly, teaching houseparents were ten times as likely to report that they male exclusive treatment-relevant decisions and were considerably less likely to be required to consult superiors or outside professionals, or to participate in committees in making their decisions than were their houseparent counterparts. It would appear that the opportunity to withdraw, repair and recover may be closely related to status differences involving independence/dependence and complexity and intensity of involvement in both resident and staff relationships. Again we note that the ability to regulate the amount of direct contact time, and perhaps the number of relationships with others, weighs heavily on perceived satisfaction with the job. The demand for face-to-face teamwork increases the complexity and limits independence for some workers.
The vulnerability of group home caregivers is further revealed through the sociological analysis of the structure of professions. Esland (1980) and Benveniste (1987) note that the power of science--specifically through the practice of medicine--has been a powerful forum for the allocation of resources, including territory. Unless other professions compete through this vehicle, they may not grow and develop. One status-conferring function of profession is to enable members to regulate the amount of face-to-face contact one has with members of the client or target group (Esland, 1980).
An analysis of the very nature of caring work supports this view. Waerness (1984) proposes a rationality for caring that she differentiates from scientific rationality and its inherent emphasis on environmental control. She argues that scientific rationales for caring have devalued the components of care and closeness which have typically been labelled as "feminine." She points out that the bulk of care in Western societies is provided by women as an extension of their positions in their own families and represents an expressive quality of care. This type of care is threatened by an overemphasis on instrumental forms of care that grow out of scientific methodology and which underpins much of the emphasis on professionalism, particularly in the bureaucratic context. She makes the case for "more decision-making power to women on the basis of their personal experiences from practical caregiving work in the private sphere and from working class jobs in the public caregiving services" (p. 205).
When we link this back to the findings of Connis et al. (1979) that houseparents tend to be the least autonomous and educated, and consider that it is the housemother who is most often hired in the couple (CWLA Standards for Group Home Care, 1978; Shostack, 1987), we find further explanation for the status of live-in caregivers in group homes. Of interest in this context is Fulcher's (1983) finding that residential group care teams with a higher proportion of males to females and teams with an average age of under twenty-eight were more likely to exhibit dysfunctional patterns of adaptation.
The Sample and Demographic Data
In the province under study, group homes are managed by a sponsoring volunteer board of directors. The Department of Social Services provides ongoing policy formulation, funding and licensing; provides social work and other supportive services; and determines admissions, transfers and discharges through district and regional offices and the Divisions of Mental Retardation and Youth Corrections.
The managers referred to in this study are front-line, middle and senior social services personnel as opposed to the immediate supervisors in the homes.
The title, houseparent, refers specifically to those persons who live-in during their period of work. While there is great variation amongst this group with respect to their hours of work, their living space within the homes, and their access to private space outside the homes, most houseparents tend to dwell within the home for twenty-four hour periods of at least four days in a stretch. This job category includes senior houseparents and houseparents who are also the supervisors or directors associated with the home. In the latter instance, the houseparent is directly responsible to the board of directors.
The title, careworker, includes child care workers from the homes for young offenders and the front-line staff in the homes for mentally handicapped individuals. Also included in this category are the titles senior care worker and coordinator. Careworkers tend to work shifts of varying lengths, frequently providing overnight coverage, but do not reside in the home.
Social workers are those personnel who perform the field work duties and are employed by the Department of Social Services. Typically they carry the residents in their caseloads as part of their wider responsibilities with the Department, which go well beyond their work with the home(s).
Supervisory staff in the homes are not included in this part of the study be-cause their numbers are so small.
Sex. The majority of houseparents (63 percent), careworkers (66 percent) and social workers (72 percent) are female while board members (53 percent) and managers (71 percent) are male.
Age. Care workers and social workers represent the youngest personnel in the sample with 48 percent and 36 percent, respectively, being under the age of twenty-eight. A much greater number of care workers (27 percent) falls in the higher range of thirty-seven and over than do social workers (6 percent), making social workers, overall, the youngest group.
Length of Time in Post. Table I summarizes the length of time sample personnel have worked in their respective posts.
Of note is the fact that over half the care workers and close to one-third of the social workers and houseparents have been in their posts for less than fourteen months. Over half the board members and managers have been in their jobs for more than three years and four months. In this context, it is worth pointing out that group homes are a relatively recent development in the province as compared with other parts of North America. The first homes opened in 1977 as part of overall efforts to deinstitutionalize and 60 percent of the homes in the study have opened since 1982.
Hours of Work. As would be expected, houseparents reported that they worked more hours per week than all other groups--59 percent work fifty-six hours or more on average, and 68 percent reported that they had worked in excess of fifty-six hours during the week prior to testing. Of note is the fact that 76 percent of the care workers say they put in forty hours or less during an average week but during the week prior to testing 22 percent reported that they had worked between forty-one and fifty-five hours and 26 percent had worked in excess of fifty-six hours. Social workers and managers both indicated some degree of overwork during the prior week as compared to their usual expectations. Also of note is the fact that 58 percent of managers had worked in excess of forty-one hours during the previous week (22 percent worked in excess of fifty-six) and this is consistent with an average week for them (45 percent work forty-one to fifty, and 12 percent work more than fifty).
Education. Table II identifies subjects' level of education by job title.
Considerable variation exists in the level of education for houseparents and care workers. Social workers and board members are the most highly educated with social workers having the most uniform education—85 percent hold the B.S.W. or a Bachelor's Degree in another discipline. Slightly less than one-third of the managers have less than a university degree. Of importance is the fact that no training program exists in the province for residential, youth or child care work. While a short certification program has been initiated, the content is more specifically directed toward orienting careworkers with the mentally handicapped.
Data Collection and Analysis
A frequency distribution was used to identify and rank order the five most commonly reported organizational changes; the five most stressful of these changes; the five most enduring stressful working conditions; and the five working conditions that subjects rank as having the highest stressful impact on them. Frequencies were prepared for sample subjects overall and by job title. Only the overall frequencies are presented in this paper due to the limitations of space.
Tables III through VI present rank orderings of the subjects' responses overall. Note that the percentages are much lower for the categories that report the strength of the changes and conditions. This is because the questionnaires ask subjects to rank the top three stressful items for them personally. For example, while all participants may note that a change occurs, the number of persons who actually rank that item as one of their highest three stressors would naturally be smaller.
When we examine the top five organizational change and stress items for occurrence and impact by job title we note much similarity in the reporting, with the following exceptions.
Managerial jobs...(are)...particularly stressful if they are demanding in time requirements and decision-making activities yet the incumbent has little freedom of action and must continually clear decisions with the immediate boss or with other supervisors (Quick & Quick, 1984, p. 21).
This predominantly male group (71 percent) has been in their jobs considerably longer, on average, than any of the other groups and nearly one-third do not meet the present educational requirements for promotion to or within management. If this group is to reach its potential for supporting the work of the homes, ways must be found to value their experience and reduce their feelings of intimidation, thereby enabling them to manage.
Of importance in this study is the question of the extent to which some social workers' particular frustrations may be communicated to and impact upon other personnel, especially the residential workers. There is a need for careful design of the social work role to reduce the level of stress and conflict for social workers and to ensure that their impact on other groups will be constructive.
Unlike the other personnel, careworkers say that "Encountering a major change in my work schedule" is one of the most frequently occurring changes (51 percent) and is also in the top five most stressful items for them (27 percent). Also of relevance is the fact that while 65 percent say they have acquired new co-workers, this does not appear as a change that is particularly stressful for them. What is stressful is "Experiencing the transfer, resignation, termination, or retirement of a close friend or valued colleague" (21 percent). Apparently it is not the mere fact of turnover that careworkers find troubling but the quality of the loss.
In terms of working conditions, careworkers share with other groups that they find it particularly stressful when there is too much to do and too little time in which to do it (24 percent), when the demands of others for their time are in conflict with one another (23 percent); when they have differences of opinion with supervisors (20 percent); and when decisions that affect them are made without their knowledge or involvement (18 percent).
What sets the careworkers apart is the item "I am unclear what is expected of me" which 24 percent say is their most stressful condition of work. It is important to note that this item does not appear in the careworkers' list of most enduring conditions, hence, it would appear that this is not a frequently troubling issue with this group of workers, but when it does happen the impact is high. Unclear role expectations have been associated with a variety of negative outcomes (Van Sell, Brief, & Schuler, 1981). Beddoe (1980) points out that poor communication is perhaps the greatest cause of stress amongst residential workers and that the failure to maintain clear communications, including expectations, renders uninformed groups powerless to make decisions, and make them feel alienated from other members of the helping team.
Of interest, is the fact that while 44 percent rate "I must attend meetings to get my job done" as an enduring characteristic of their jobs, and 26 percent say they must exercise caution about what they say in meetings, they do not rate these items as ones that cause high stress. Apparently they want to have the meetings. This is consistent with Kane's (1975) observation that it is often the personnel who have the least power and status who advocate for teamwork. Perhaps some workers are seeking direction or clarification of expectations in meetings.
It is also possible that attending meetings is one of the few ways that careworkers have to regulate their face-to-face contacts with residents. In any event, the most obvious antidote to the careworkers' chief sources of stress would be to emphasize their involvement in clarifying expectations and to protect their work schedules from major or frequent changes.
On the other hand, one-third of the houseparents report "Experiencing an increase in the number of positive recognitions of my accomplishments" and "Encouraging a major change in my work schedule" as having occurred but neither of these items is reported as stressful. However, "Undergoing a major reorganization" (18 percent); "Experiencing a sudden decrease in the number of positive recognitions of my accomplishments" (15 percent); and "Experiencing an in-crease in status" (15 percent) are reported as stressful. It would appear that the role of live-in houseparents is one which places the staff member in a position where they are particularly sensitive or vulnerable to changes in recognition and/or status, both positive and negative.
The working conditions reports for houseparents are also much like the overall reports except that "Getting feedback only when performance is unsatisfactory" is not an issue for them (Table V). Instead, "I do not receive the right amount of supervision" is fifth of the five most enduring working conditions (17 percent) but is not reported as a stressful item. Unlike the overall group (Table VI) houseparents do not feel stressed because they are "fighting fires" but they do identify "I am cautious about what I say in meetings" (18 percent) as troubling for them. Yet houseparents, like the careworkers, do not say that meetings are particularly stressful even though they describe attending meetings as an enduring characteristic of their jobs (44 percent). Over one-third (38 percent) identifies "The demands of others for my time are in conflict" and 28 percent identify "I have differences of opinion with my supervisor" as having high stressful impact upon them.
The reports of the houseparents support the notion that workers who live in (i.e., have the most limited opportunities for withdrawal, repair and recovery) are most vulnerable to having their personal feelings on the line from moment-to-moment. This would seem to be even more problematic when events and conditions lend themselves to the kind of overwork, crisis orientation, and conflicted expectations to which these houseparents are exposed, and which they also report as stressful. Supervision, including support, for this group must be geared toward keeping closely in touch with how they are interpreting events.
Also the rationale for moving away from linear, cause-and-effect models of assessment is supported. The impact of stress on these personnel is neither universal nor uniform.
Experience suggests that this type of information can be used to promote respect, understanding and positive alignments between these groups of personnel. This type of assessment moves away from models that overemphasize individual or personal stress management only, and attempts to locate both common and unique stressors which can be addressed by all members of the team. Coaching workers to increase their personal tolerance or resistance to stress without addressing organizational and interpersonal issues is a little like combatting pollution by picking up pop bottles in the park-it is certainly necessary and makes things more attractive but it will not reduce pollution.
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This article is reprinted from The Journal of Child Care , Vol.3 No.6, 1988, pages 95-109