‘Authoritarian responses to social work failure damage morale – and increase risk’

We must stamp out fear and make staff morale a priority, writes social worker Roger Price

finger pointing
Photo: duncanandison/fotolia

By Roger Price

Morale is a curious thing. One dictionary defines it as “the amount of confidence felt by a person or group…when in a dangerous or difficult situation.”

If this sounds abstract and hard to measure, then its absence is easy to see.

The inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie revealed a children’s services department where social workers felt overwhelmed by the volume of work and unsupported by their superiors. Victoria’s social worker had a manager who did not effectively support or supervise her. Unsurprisingly, Victoria’s case was reported to have “fallen off the radar”.

The Laming report (2003), which followed the tragedy, told the public we would do more and do it better. Did we give the public the impression that it wouldn’t happen again? As so often is the case with these things, it did and in the same place.

In the Baby P case, media and politicians directed outrage at the social worker and director, calling for them to be made accountable. Their idea of accountability was a muscular response to failure, based on the erroneous assumption that only bad social workers make mistakes and should be punished. Presumably, as Voltaire said, “to encourage the others…”

Despite sackings, things didn’t improve. Many staff left, a climate of fear pervaded and the number of children killed by their parents increased by 25% in the following four years.

Yet it is often the response within our departments that reinforces the kind of low morale that led to such problems in the first place. The profession does not learn. The anxiety is turned inwards and the likelihood of further mistakes increases as a result.

‘Culture of fear’

Since the 1980s, I have frequently seen a top-down authoritarian culture within children’s services departments. Little thought is given to staff morale or retention. When I hear departments complain of high staff turnover, it is often in a manner of someone who has no part in what goes on. We may criticise our clients for this, but practice it at a corporate level.

The outcome is similar. It places children at risk – the very thing we as social workers exist to minimise. High staff turnover often leads to cases drifting or things going wrong. Clients understandably find it hard to manage frequent changes of worker and anyone taking on cases with this legacy finds all parties feeling aggrieved. It does not help to improve morale.

I can recall working as a locum social worker in an office marred by a culture of fear. This was reinforced at one team meeting, when the area manager and team leader gave a magnificent performance, heaping a stream of abusive, negative criticisms on the staff.

It was a good example of institutional bullying. It disobeyed the dignity and respect work procedure, which exists in all workplaces to prevent staff from being abusive to each other.

This office had spent £500,000 on agency staff in 12 months – dozens of locum social workers whose average length of stay was three months. Staff were like production units – easily dismissed if they could not achieve the impossible targets. Again, replicating the abusive behaviour we exist to address.

‘Caring and thoughtful’

In contrast, I recently worked in a local authority where staff were treated respectfully. In one instance, I was asked to relinquish a case, as the client wanted a female social worker, and take on a different one. The team manager apologised for this, which surprised me. They were a reasonable person and respect was a two-way thing. Their authority was being using in a caring and thoughtful manner. It wasn’t a democracy, but it was a start.

This begs the question: why is the authoritarian approach still used? Properly led and supported social workers can achieve much, but we must ensure that learning lessons without presupposing blame becomes standard practice.

4 Responses to ‘Authoritarian responses to social work failure damage morale – and increase risk’

  1. Dave James May 19, 2016 at 9:01 am #

    Great article. Sums up many a local authorities Children’s Services.

  2. Nicole May 19, 2016 at 10:51 am #

    Thank you. As a new Team Manager I have been surprised at how much difference the approach of a manager can make to a team and providing support in an incredibly difficult job is essential for staff. It is amazing how many workers will choose having a supportive manager over the financial gains of agency work. We should all be supporting each other in a time where doing our job has become increasingly difficult

    • Lisa H May 19, 2016 at 8:44 pm #

      What concerns me is the apathy and incompetence demonstrated by so many social workers – I am honestly not sure if this is due to them being overstretched, but I have not met one who I thought was capable of doing their job to even an adequate standard

      Elderly adult social care seems to be even worse, with social workers who appear unable to tie their own shoe laces, let alone assess mental capacity of a vulnerable person.

  3. Richard May 19, 2016 at 11:31 am #

    Great piece. For me, its about the maturity of leadership. Lots of pieces about mangerialsim, but it probably boils down to immaturity in leadership, focusing on the urgent not the important, targets not people, inattention to sense of team and addressing a toxic blame culture.