Staff in social work practice pilots have experienced lower levels of burnout and greater job satisfaction than other practitioners, but these benefits do not seem to be down to the model of outsourcing social work from councils.
That was among the findings of a Department of Health-commissioned evaluation of the Social Work Practices with Adults (SWPwA) pilots, published yesterday by King’s College London’s Social Workforce Research Unit.
The team examined the impact of the seven pilots, which ran from 2011-14, and involved the establishment of organisations to carry out local authority adults’ social services functions independently of the council. Outcomes, including from staff and service user surveys, were measured against those for staff working in the practices’ host local authorities, and in three comparison sites.
The study found that, using standardised measures of burnout, practice staff displayed much lower levels than the other two groups.
Significantly, though, this lower level of burnout was detected from the beginning of the study, suggesting that it was not necessarily the efficacy of the model, but more likely the enthusiasm of the participants that caused this result.
The report also found that staff felt greater levels of job satisfaction from moving from local authority practice into the pilots, and practice staff rated the organisations that they worked for more positively than the other two groups.
More pilot staff felt that “adults ‘in need of care’ were offered excellent services that ensured they had a positive experience of care,” than other non-social work practice practitioners.
Social workers in the pilots were significantly more likely to feel that they spent the right amount of time in direct work with carers than staff in the other two groups and this gap grew between the two surveys that researchers undertook.
However, while practice social workers were also more likely to report spending the right amount of time with adults in need of care overall, this dropped off significantly between the two surveys.
But despite the positive results from the evaluation, researchers attributed this to staff enthusiasm rather than the model itself:
“Many of the positive accounts of SWPwAs seemed to be generated not by the characteristic of the innovation so much but as a consequence of the energy and enthusiasm that they commanded. Along the line, such enthusiasm was not always equally demonstrated by those who were less committed or less convinced.”
The evaluation also identified concerns with the operation of the pilots, including that not enough planning and deliberation had gone into setting them up.
One SWPwA manager surveyed said: “I really think that the pilot was too short. You haven’t got the time that’s needed to afford to make those changes or develop ideas, because you are so overwhelmed with the volume of work you’ve got.”
The researchers said: “we found the notion of being ‘social work led’ was unclear and became interpreted in different ways locally.”
While there were “many ambitions for the distinctiveness of the SWpsAs: such as their scope for reducing bureaucracy, for innovations in practice and around financial decision making…the surveys revealed that staff perception of how they spent their time was very similar among the three groups of participants (SWPwA, host local authority and comparison sites).”
There have been reports of positive work and greater freedom coming out of social work practices such as Topaz in Lambeth and People2People in Shropshire, whose workers have reported feeling great engagement, agency and team support.
But the lack of hierarchy in the practices model did not always prove beneficial for the participants in the SWPwA pilot. One participant in the research, a local authority commissioner, said: “It wasn’t clear who could make the decisions and so it would go round and round, asking different people, and different people would say ‘yes but we have to speak to so and so.’ It did seem like a huge battle.”