‘Risk is King and Needs to take a Backseat!’ Can social workers’ experiences of moral injury strengthen practice?

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    This paper considers the idea that moral injury may result from social workers being exposed to sustained ethical stress – the stress experienced when workers cannot base their practice on their values. It is suggested that a particularly salient feature of agency working which might contribute to the experience of ethical stress is risk aversion. This paper is based on a study of one hundred criminal justice social workers in Scotland, who were questioned on their experiences of ethical stress and risk aversion. Quantitative and qualitative data were collected and analysed using standard multiple regression and inductive thematic analysis respectively. Findings demonstrated that how risk averse an agency was contributed in a unique and significant way to the worker’s experience of ethical stress. Qualitative comments illustrated why this relationship might exist, but also demonstrated that a variety of views were held by social workers and that ethical stress was not experienced by all. The findings are discussed in terms of moral injury and its links with risk aversion, bureaucracy, neoliberal hegemony, notions of ‘underclass,’ personal moral codes and professional integrity. Explicitly exploring these related concepts in social work education might impact on the new generation of social workers and strengthen the profession.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)461-475
    Number of pages15
    JournalJournal of Social Work Practice
    Issue number4
    Publication statusPublished - 2 Oct 2017


    • ethical stress
    • moral injury
    • risk aversion

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Health(social science)
    • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)
    • Drug guides


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