Social Worker Overload: Using Digital Media for Worker Advocacy

By increasing the reach and impact of a message digital media storytelling can be an effective form of worker advocacy, as demonstrated by the union-made short video Social Worker Overload.

McMaster Researcher


La Rose, T. (2016). AFSCME's Social Worker Overload: Digital media stories, union advocacy and neoliberalism. Journal of Industrial Relations,58(4), 527-542. doi:10.1177/0022185616638119

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What is this research about?

This research is a case study analysis of the worker advocacy campaign video Social Worker Overload (SWO), created by the largest trade union in the United States, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). The short video is a digital media story exploring the impact of neoliberalism on social workers. Neoliberalism is an ideology focused on promoting individualism and consumerism through the implementation of policies for privatization and globalisation, for example.
Combining the individual narratives of four social care workers in child protective services, this video demonstrates how elements of neoliberalism inhibit discussions of work design and work overload for social workers, limiting their own connection to their work.
Digital media storytelling, especially when shared through public social media sites like YouTube, can be used to quickly and easily engage the public, including hard-to-reach populations. Such platforms also help generate discussion of complex social issues which may not be adequately or completely explored in mainstream media, or may be too obscure in traditional academic research. This form of storytelling uses ‘pressure from below’ to drive social change, where everyday people are able to increase pressure and seek resources or demand support for a particular cause.

What did the researchers do?

The researcher relies on ‘multi-modal analysis’ to deconstruct the video, a method used to understand complex works which have several layers of meanings while maintaining its contextual integrity. The researcher deconstructs the contents of the video in order to examine how it demonstrates the effects of neoliberalism, how it depicts worker advocacy, and how digital media may provide social workers with a way to challenge contemporary conversations of their work and work practices.
This work addresses the following questions:

  • How does digital media storytelling mediate social justice/labour communications?
  • How does Internet-based media sharing stimulate new methods for engaging and resisting neoliberal discourses about social care work?

This analysis shows meaning in SWO is demonstrated through the medium of choice, the act of sharing, the workers’ voices, and the story being told.

What did the researchers find?

The multimodality of the SWO video is demonstrated through the researcher’s analysis, as meaning is created in a number of ways. Each layer provides unique meaning, but together create a complex and multilayered story about the effect of neoliberalism on the world of social workers:

  • Medium: by using a video format, meaning is established both through visual representations as well as auditory materials
  • Sharing: this union-made video, conveying particular information to the audience about the intent and goal of the video, and was shared through the public social media platform YouTube, making the message widely accessible. These factors may also serve to improve solidarity among social workers and reduce isolation and alienation in the social care workforce.
  • Voice: the frontline social workers who provide narratives for SWO take on the role of the faces and voices of the Washington state Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), generalizing their experiences to the workplace overall
  • Story: specific statements made by the social worker storytellers have their own meanings, but they are also enhanced by captions intended to provide supplemental information.

How can you use this research?

This case study can be used to help inform the problem-solving strategies of other unions and worker advocacy groups experiencing similar issues as a result of neoliberalism. Approaches like those used in SWO help increase public access to community-based research, in turn improving solidarity and connection between workers. This research also provides a basis for looking to social media as a location of social work knowledge and history.

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