Techniques for retaining social work and social care staff

Our 2011 vacancy rates investigation highlights the challenge of recruiting and retaining social workers. Vern Pitt reports on some of the innovative approaches employers can take to tackle this problem

Our 2011 vacancy rates investigation highlights the challenge of recruiting and retaining social workers. Vern Pitt reports on some of the innovative approaches employers can take to tackle this problem

Despite a tough economic climate, which has seen the social care sector face pay cuts and redundancies up and down the country, retention of social care staff remains a major headache for councils and providers alike.

The average vacancy rate among social care staff is 5% and turnover rates are as high as 24%, according to the National Care Forum. Yet, last month, Skills for Care said between 400,000 and 1.3 million extra adult care staff would be needed to cope with demand by 2025.

Meanwhile, Community Care’s annual vacancy rates survey (p4-6) finds the average vacancy rate in UK social work teams is 8%. Recent research also shows that the average length of time social workers spend in the profession is only eight years; far below that of comparable professionals.

This short time on the job makes the cost of training new social workers, once spread across their working lives, nearly four times that of nurses or physiotherapists, according to a study published in the British Journal of Social Work earlier this month. The authors recommended that more resources should be dedicated to retaining current social workers, rather than training new ones.

Here, we examine some of the latest techniques to keep social workers and social care staff on the books.

Emotional loyalty

The term “emotional loyalty” was originally coined in the marketing sector. Managers participating in emotional loyalty training are told to take a greater interest in staff, beyond the usual performance indicators, and seek to understand their motivations and goals. Managers are shown how to develop better interpersonal skills.

“It is based on the notion that if you take an interest in your workers in terms of what they want in life and what their hobbies are, and you get to know them as a person, they are more likely to stay,” says Michelle Cornes, research fellow at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit at King’s College, London. Cornes was one of five academics who assessed a pilot of emotional loyalty training given to managers at four social care providers in Cumbria, the results of which were published last month.

She says the agencies involved used the technique to improve supervision, as well as retention rates, and she argues that this is where the technique excels. Although emotional loyalty training entails a good deal of jargon – staff are asked to categorise colleagues in terms of their effect on the office mood; for instance, employees who detract from a good atmosphere are classified as “mood hoovers” – she says it provides managers with a vocabulary to discuss the path to more effective supervision. “It’s about getting beyond a process-driven appraisal to a more reflective one,” she says, although she points out that good managers should do that anyway.

Cornes says providers need to establish the reasons behind their staff turnover rate before they can be sure they will respond to emotional loyalty techniques. She recommends greater use of exit interviews for uncovering staff’s real motivations for leaving. “People will often say they are leaving because of issues such as pay, but when you follow-up with them they will tell you it’s actually because of management issues,” she says.

Care ambassadors

One way of increasing retention rates is to ensure staff want to be there to begin with. Hollybank Trust, which provides residential care to children and adults with complex needs, is piloting Skills for Care’s care ambassador programme. The programme trains social care workers to give presentations to school leavers and the unemployed, extolling the virtues of a career in the sector.

Katie Coombes, head of human resources at Hollybank Trust, says frontline staff, who are not directly supervised when acting as ambassadors, are much more frank than managers and less inclined to gloss over the unpleasant elements of the job. “It is a really hard job. The pay is not the greatest, the hours can be long and shifts don’t always fit in with your personal life, but it gives a lot,” she says. “You can change people’s lives and help them to live more independently.”

Coombes says the ambassadors’ role is partly to put off certain people from entering the profession, if it’s not right for them. “I would rather they were put off at the beginning of the process than go through to getting the job before deciding its not for them,” she says.

Stella Whitehead, care ambassador at the trust, adds: “People sometimes think that it’s just a job, but they don’t know that you can’t just come in and do it and go home. You have to have a genuine caring attitude; it isn’t for everybody.”

Coombes says the turnover rate at the trust is between 12% and 15%, compared with between 20% and 25% at neighbouring providers. The ambassadors themselves receive a confidence boost and are more likely to stay, she adds. The turnover rate among the 30 ambassadors is lower than the trust’s average. “It reinforces why I work here and what I’m doing,” confirms Whitehead.

Value-based interviewing

Staff attitudes count for a lot in recruitment and retention. Value-based interviewing aims to move job interviews from being focused on a candidate’s knowledge to looking at their values and behaviour. It has been in use for five years at the NSPCC, but, although the charity offers training to other children’s organisation struggling with recruitment and retention, it is not yet widespread.

“[Value-based interviewing] allows us to screen the right people into the organisation,” says Victoria Golokoz, consultant at the NSPCC. “Once you’ve done that you’ve won half the battle..”

A question in a value-based interview might be: “Can you give me an example of something which has had a significant impact on your development over the past 12 months?” Golokoz says: “We’d be looking for someone who is able to generate ideas but also open to learning and feedback.”

First, however, an organisation must identify what its values are. To do this, Golokoz recommends using external consultants to interview staff, allowing job candidates to be more open and honest about what they feel the organisation’s values are. This, combined with management aspirations, can direct recruiters towards the values they need to look for. “If we are recruiting people who are aligned with those beliefs, we are recruiting people who are more likely to stay with the organisation in difficult times, as well as when it’s celebrating its successes,” says Golokoz.

She says managers she has trained in the technique now can’t imagine recruiting people without it. The focus on values also permeates the rest of the business. It often forms the basis on which staff question changes in the organisation and hold the management to account to keep the charity on its chosen mission.

In addition, Golokoz says values now form a key part of staff review processes, to make sure staff and their managers are all pulling in the same direction. This, she says, ensures continuous improvement in the organisation.

Caption for picture (top): Katie Coombes and Stella Whitehead of the Hollybank Trust say that social care work is not for everybody and it is important that unsuitable people are not selected

Special report on vacancy rates in social work 2011

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