Date of Award

Spring 4-8-2022

Document Type


Degree Name

D.S.W. Social work


Social Work

First Advisor

Dr. Juliana Svistova

Second Advisor

Dr. Edward Hanna

Third Advisor

Dr. Yoon Mi Kim


Social work professionals often experience stressful and emotional situations while also facing organizational barriers. The social work profession is empowered by an ethical commitment to diffuse tensions that emerge between competing values in conflict. Many of these situations are complicated by ethical concerns and constraints related to the very institutions that are designed to help. The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak has transformed the framework through which we view ethical dilemmas and presented morally challenging dilemmas out of the control of any professional in service to people during this time. The term moral distress was popularized in the field of nursing but its relevance to social work is growing as our education programs and organizations are paying attention to relational approaches to ethics. Most of the discussion surrounding moral distress in current literature stems from nursing or from other health professions, whereas social work scholarship appears to fall behind. Actively attempting to bridge this gap by critically exploring the moral conditions and ethical practice of social workers in individual and structural contexts will in turn expose moral distress in practice. The purpose of this grounded theory study was to explore how social worker’s experience moral distress in the context of COVID-19. What are the lived experiences of moral distress among social workers? What are the causes and effects? Semi-structured interviews were utilized within focus groups and individual interviews to capture the lived social work experience amid COVID-19. Themes emerged surrounding moral distress causes, effects, and responses. By focusing on the lives of the social workers and their experiences with moral distress during COVID-19, a pattern of meaningful experiences was identified as well as the development of a general theory of action related to moral distress in social work. Policy and practice recommendations from this study can inform the creation of better conditions for ethical practice in social work during pandemic and crisis conditions.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Included in

Social Work Commons



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