Gross national happiness rather than gross national product has been a key indicator in the small Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan since 1972, on the holistic principle that human society truly progresses only when spiritual as well as material ends are pursued and complement each other.
The UK government may not view society here similarly, but this month it published the results of its first survey to measure the happiness ratings of English citizens. In doing so it became the first developed country to produce an official indicator of subjective well-being. Nearly half of the 3,600 respondents rated their overall life satisfaction as seven or eight out of 10. But employment status revealed differences. Those in unskilled jobs, on a state pension or unemployed had a happiness rating of 6.7, while professionals averaged 7.6.
Reasons to be cheerful in social work can be difficult to find when your stress levels are soaring and the only view at the end of the tunnel is an increasing stack of case files. Despite this, in the City and Guilds Annual Happiness Index 2006, social workers came 13th out of 28 professions surveyed, with care workers seventh (compared with health care workers who came in at 17).
Andrew Cozens, strategic adviser for children, adults and health services at the Improvement and Development Agency for Local Government, believes that part of the reason for this is that at a macro-level the status of the profession appears to be improving.
“There is no question that social work and social care is moving closer to centre stage in politics and in the public’s mind,” says Cozens. “So it’s likely that the comprehensive spending review in October will include increased funding for children’s services and staffing.”
Social work has benefited greatly from having its own regulatory body in the General Social Care Council and the burgeoning debate on ethical standards is a vital contributory factor in raising standards too, Cozens points out. “Registration through the GSCC is building trust. Some people have lost their registration in disciplinary hearings, which has helped to convince the public that the sector is becoming more accountable.”
Some standard working practices are being revisited to see whether streamlining can be achieved without losing quality. Certain local authorities are stripping out levels of assessment, freeing up social workers from hours of paperwork: others have invested in laptops so that notes can be downloaded instantly, rather than writing them first and entering them on a computer.
For a job that has long been viewed as taxing, high-stress and high-responsibility for relatively low pay, it’s a measure of its remarkable recent transformation that social work is now the 10th most popular profession for graduates, equal with medicine.
At a local level, excellent management practices have been applauded as among the most progressive in the country. Valuing the people who have to balance difficult decisions every day is the management philosophy that helped Sandwell Community Caring Trust achieve second place in the Sunday Times Top 100 Companies To Work For survey in 2006. It is the largest employee survey in Europe and relies on what staff say about the organisation they work for. The fact that 87% of employees took the trouble to fill in the questionnaire allows chief executive Geoff Walker to rely on the data as an accurate indicator of staff views.
He says: “When we branched off from the council three years ago we had certain challenges: to be better value to offer a better range of services and to care for the people who took the risk to come with us.” “They had been demoralised, cast aside by the council and I knew that if we wanted service users treated with dignity and respect, we had to do that for our workforce.
“The difference now compared with when we were in the local authority is that we recognise the importance of the human dynamic and relationship. You can’t run a personal care service on policies and procedures. It’s about relationships. So when your family need you at home, you know your team will support you, knowing that they will be supported when their turn comes. And as a social enterprise, we put the profit back into our people and services.”
The only way that service users can get what they need is if carers can be flexible enough to give them that at the time they need it, Walker says. “We work with one man who has bipolar disorder. Sometimes he doesn’t get out of bed until 4pm. It’s no good if his carer says ‘I work 9am till 12’. And his carer doesn’t say that.”
This may have something to do with the unusual fact that, as far as possible, staff at the Sandwell trust choose their own rotas. “Everywhere else I’ve worked, in 20 years in the care sector, I’ve been given my rota,” says supported living manager Lesley Whitehouse. “Here, we try to fit the staff around the hours that are needed, as well as letting clients have a voice. So the staff are doing the work they’ve asked to do.
“People are respected here. This isn’t a job that you do just as a job you want to do this job because you’ve got feelings, and that’s what I feel this company supports. It’s all about quality. As a manager, I see the results. Sickness is very low. You don’t get people taking the odd day off here and there. And that takes the burden off other staff.”
Sickness and turnover
She’s right: sickness is almost unheard of – 0.6 days a year on average for each worker at Sandwell. One local authority has recorded 37 days. The trust’s staff turnover is low, too, at just 4%, whereas other parts of the care sector nationally have recorded figures of 20-30%.
More than half the staff are trained to NVQ level 3, far higher than the recommended benchmark, clearly benefiting service users. As Walker notes, once you stop haemorrhaging your people, you can afford to train them.
Occupational psychologist Jane Sullivan, a consultant for the Work Foundation, has examined both what inspires and what demotivates staff in the care sector and says that good management is crucial to staff feeling happy in their work.
“There’s plenty of research demonstrating that people don’t leave their jobs, they leave their managers. But organisations don’t give managers enough time, credit or opportunity to manage,” she says. “To motivate and inspire, you need to know what pushes the buttons for individual people in your team, and their aspirations, so you can give them opportunities they value.
“In social work, people’s passion makes the frustrations they experience in their jobs harder to bear because they care so much. They know they’re not going to get money or perks or shorter hours, but in a sector where individuals are highly motivated to do a good job, they need that desire to be facilitated, rather than blocked by endless admin.”
Listening to what staff want is a knack that the Sandwell trust seems to have learned to good effect. In an entry for the Sunday Times survey a couple of years ago, Walker was surprised to find that, although managers were seen by staff as being good at sorting out schedules and logistics, they weren’t perceived as having time to spend with people.
“So senior managers got together and decided to create that time in their diaries when managers could be with service users and carers, to interact and to listen,” he says.
“And when we got the detailed data back from the Sunday Times this year, we came first in the country for work-life balance, first for managers who motivate, first for working in a supportive team, first for management who listen.”
They may not be working in Eden, but the trust might give Bhutan’s Happiness Index a run for its money.
To smile or not to smile
What makes us happy at work:
● Friendly and supportive colleagues
● Enjoyable work
● Good boss or line manager
● Good work-life balance
● Varied work
● Belief that we’re doing something worthwhile
● Feeling that what we do makes a difference
● Being part of a successful team
What makes us unhappy:
● Lack of communication from the top
● Uncompetitive salary
● No recognition for achievements
● Poor boss/line manager
● Little personal development
● Ideas being ignored
● Lack of opportunity for good performers
● Lack of benefits
Source: January 2007 survey for multi-disciplinary HR consultancy Chiumento
Time takes its toll on happiness
Happiness declines the longer people stay with an organisation: 82% of people who have been with their employer for two years or less are happy. This drops to 76% of those who have been with their employer for 10 years or longer.
Overall, lack of communication from the top is cited by just under half of all respondents in the workplace. This rises to 71% of very unhappy employees.
Women are happier at work than men: 82% of women claim to be happy in their jobs compared with 78% of men. Despite, or perhaps because of, the lack of women at the top of organisations, women feel more job satisfaction than men.
Source: November/December 20 survey for multi-disciplinary HR consultancy Chiumento
This article appeared in the 30 August under the headline “You’re having a laugh”