Feeling the heat : workers' experiences of job stress in the Victorian community services sector

July 2013

In April this year Lorraine Jessie Harrison, a long-time subscriber to SafetyNet, submitted her PhD thesis looking at workers' views and experiences of work stress in the Victorian Community Services Sector.at the School of Social Science and Psychology, Faculty of Arts, Education and Human Development, Victoria University, Melbourne. Her thesis was accepted and she will be awarded her doctorate in October this year.

Prior to this Lorraine was a Social Worker for many years in a variety of settings: public housing, Centre Against Sexual Assault, carers organisations, community health, local government and volunteer management. She was also a union delegate and occupational health and safety staff representative in many of these roles. Lorraine graduated as a Social Worker from Phillip Institute of Technology (now RMIT) in 1989 and completed her Masters in Clinical Social Work at Melbourne University in 2000. Lorraine is currently running her own business Facilitate Assist, utilising her skills as a facilitator, consultant and work stress specialist.

Lorraine spoke to us at the OHS Reps @ Work website and has provided a copy of both the thesis and a presentation she recently made to a conference of ASU delegates. These can be downloaded at the top of the page.

Lorraine's thesis examines work stress in the Community Services Sector (CSS) in Victoria. By way of some background, in her introduction, Lorraine writes:

Psychological injuries are extremely high in the CSS (WorkSafe Victoria), and yet there has been no research specifically addressing this issue in the sector. Further, there has been little research that examines workers' perspectives of work stress. The thesis thus focuses on the 'missing voices' of workers by outlining what workers have to say about work stress, its causes and its effects. In order to place this research into both its historical and socio-political contexts, the genealogical roots of work in the CSS are examined and the impact of neo-liberalism on the sector critically assessed.

From the 'abstract':

Forty one workers participated in the study through focus groups, individual interviews and by written responses. A thematic analysis was then used to explore the data. The CSS is a predominantly female workforce with women making up over 80% of employees and hence a feminist theoretical analysis was appropriate and invaluable.

The research uncovers the structural and systemic factors operating in the CSS that are responsible for high levels of work stress. 

What Lorraine found was that there are two models operating concurrently in sector: "charity volunteerism"  overlain with an economic rationalist model. The two models together were, she found:

  • Exploitative
  • Colluding
  • Contradictory
  • Colliding
  • Damaging and
  • Unsustainable

and of central importance to understanding the bases of psychological injuries (work stress) to workers in this sector. To address the serious problem of work stress in the sector, she concludes that what workers need is:

  • Increased funding
  • Realistic workloads
  • Professional respect
  • Cultural change regarding stress
  • Adequate supervision
  • Time to debrief, reflect, heal
  • Appropriate responses to stress
  • Union strength