University Libraries.

Topics in Social Welfare: Impaired Social Workers

Social work is a challenging and, at times, stressful profession. Finding successful and healthy ways to manage stress can be challenging, and, unfortunately, something that not all professionals are able to do. Add to that the stress of personal issues like family and money, and the result can be a professional who is suffering from a mental illness or addiction.

The National Association of Social Workers’ (NASW) Code of Ethics states that “Social workers should not allow their own personal problems, psychosocial distress, legal problems, substance abuse, or mental health difficulties to interfere with their professional judgment and performance or to jeopardize the best interests of people for whom they have a professional responsibility.” It also makes professionals aware of a colleague’s impairment responsible for assisting the colleague where possible and reporting him or her when necessary. Violators are subject to the NASW professional review process.

Given the personal embarrassment those suffering from addiction and mental illness often feel and the potential effect this impairment can have on a social worker’s profession, many are reluctant to discuss their condition, especially with others on the field. As a result, finding research on this topic can also be challenging. Fortunately, the University Libraries have some resources and databases that can help.

A good place to start your research is Chapter 20 of The Social Worker’s Desk Reference, which provides an overview of the topic, including ethical issues, causes of and responses to impairment, and a look at how the profession can improve its handling of such cases. The chapter also includes a handy list of resources on the topic to help you expand your search.

The Libraries have a few books on addiction and social work professionals:

Robert Holman Coombs. Drug-Impaired Professionals. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997. Science Library / RC 564.5 P76 C66 1997.

Edgar P. Nace. Achievement and Addiction: A Guide to the Treatment of Professionals. New York: Brunner/Mazel, c1995. Dewey Library / RC 564.5 P76 N33 1995.

We also have many articles on the topic. Articles can be found in databases like PsychINFO, PubMed and Social Services Abstracts using the following search terms: “impaired professional”, “personal therapy”, and “impaired social worker”. Here is a selected list of articles:

Culbreth, J. R. (2000). Substance abuse counselors with and without a personal history of chemical dependency: A review of the literature. Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, 18(2), 67-82.

Reamer, F. G. (1992). The impaired social worker. Social Work, 37(2), 165-170. Social Services Abstracts.

Pooler, David K., Darcy Siebert, Anna Faul, and Ruth Huber. (2008). Personal history and professional impairment: implications for social workers and their employers. Administration in Social Work 32:69-85. Criminal Justice Periodicals Index.

Sonnenstuhl, William. (1989). Reaching the impaired professional: Applying findings from organizational and occupational research. Journal of Drug Issues 19:533-539.

For more information on resources in this or other Social Welfare topics, contact subject specialist Elaine Lasda Bergman at 442-3695 or

Blog post created by Cary Gouldin.

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