“Their needs are higher than what I can do”: Moral distress in providers working with Latino immigrant families

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Qualitative Social Work


Social service providers tasked with alleviating the problems of the most marginalized and vulnerable populations are at particular risk for work-related stress and subsequent burnout. This article aims to move beyond individualized understandings of provider burnout and render visible the structural barriers that limit providers’ capacity to authentically help their clients. Guided by the concept of moral distress, we examined the experiences of 17 service providers who deliver behavioral and mental health services to Latino immigrants in a metropolitan area in Texas. An applied thematic analysis of individual interviews collected in 2015 revealed providers’ frustration with the countless systemic issues and helplessness in their inability to make substantial changes in their clients’ lives. This emotional toll, in turn, created a cycle where providers’ capacity to envision authentic, systemic change became limited. Our findings suggest that social work needs to go beyond the recommendations for self-care to prevent provider burnout and to address the inherent paradoxes in service provision to oppressed and vulnerable groups. We urge a shift toward a social action model to show an authentic commitment to social justice and to empower both providers and the marginalized populations they serve.

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