Ethical stress in Scottish criminal justice social work

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    This thesis uses empirical data to explore criminal justice social workers’ experience of ‘ethical stress,’ which is the discomfort experienced by workers when they cannot achieve value/behaviour congruence in their practice. The research was operationalised via questionnaires distributed to criminal justice social workers in four Scottish local authorities, from which both quantitative and qualitative data were gathered. From the data, it appears that the more risk averse a workplace is perceived to be, and the less value-based the ethical climate is judged to be, the more ethical stress will be experienced. The approach to working with offenders, however, seems not to have a direct effect on ethical stress experienced. Rather, workers are very clear that public protection/risk work takes priority and this only becomes a source of stress when the ethical climate is such that any additional welfare, helping work the social worker is inclined to undertake, is thwarted. A worker’s experience of ethical stress may depend upon where they work, as levels vary significantly between local authorities, as do perceptions of ethical climate. Approaches taken to risk and to working with offenders, however, do not vary between local authorities, probably because of the strength of influence from government. A model of ethical stress in criminal justice social work (CJSW) is ultimately suggested, highlighting the connections and influences above, and depicting the important role of the senior social worker. Finally, significant differences on all variables were found between older, more experienced workers and younger, less experienced workers who appear to be happier with a ‘new penological’ approach to the management of (as opposed to engagement with) offenders. Less experienced workers seem to accept, more uncritically, the prioritisation of public protection and reduced autonomy and, although they do experience ethical stress when value based practice is impeded and risk aversion prevails, it is experienced to a significantly lesser degree. The culmination of these differences may well cast doubt upon CJSW’s continuing commitment to social work values.
    Date of Award2013
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorTim Kelly (Supervisor)


    • Criminal justice
    • Desistance
    • Social justice
    • Ethical stress
    • Social work

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