It is surprisingly easy to drain the sense of purpose and meaning from a social work job

Management expert Professor Ivan Robertson explains why employers who prioritise social worker well-being will be better performers

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Although I know very little about the daily working lives of social workers I know that a recent Community Care survey showed more than 80% of the 2037 respondents felt stress levels were affecting their ability to do their job properly.

Decades of research in psychology, management and medicine shows there are three factors that influence people’s levels of stress and happiness in their work.

  1. Demand
  2. Control
  3. Support and resources

These factors need to be in balance for people to enjoy their jobs. It is not, however, the case that low demand is good for this balance.

After all we cannot feel proud of ourselves and have a real sense of achievement if we do not feel we have done something difficult and challenging.


So the best and most satisfying jobs are in fact those where demand is often high.

However, this is only the case if resources and support (either direct or emotional support) and levels of control are also high.

Jobs where demand is high but also have high levels of legislative influence or compliance attached and low levels of resources and support tend to see very high levels of stress and burnout. Those workers where these three elements are in balance tend to flourish.

Sense of purpose

Having a job with a strong sense of purpose and meaning is also important for this sense of well-being, and this is an area where social work and the health professions rank highly.

But it is surprisingly easy to drain that sense of purpose and meaning from these jobs. If, for example, professionals feel they spend all day on tasks unrelated to their core purpose then they will rapidly lose the sense of meaning that orientates them in their work.

Despite the huge amount of research in this area proving these findings, my experience as both an academic and in consultancy, is that too few employers address the issues involved in a systematic and fruitful way.

Well-being v performance?

The reasons for this are varied but usually it is because most organisations have an overall mission and their focus, when they design policies and procedures, is on delivering  results. Focusing on the people who deliver those results is not always given sufficient priority.

Too often worker well-being is seen as competing with performance when in fact the two are complementary. When worker well-being is high there is a large amount of research proving that performance is then equally high. What this means is that investing in health and well-being should not be seen as a benefit for employees – it is equally beneficial for the long term success of the organization. Good health really is good business!

Event: Protecting the frontline against burnout: Creating cultures to promote resilience and wellbeing for social care and health professionals– 10th March 2015
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Uncertainty about what to do

Even when senior leaders in an organization are convinced of the benefits of better well-being it is often difficult for them to know what actions to take, especially in the area of psychological well-being.Tasked with improving people’s physical health, most policy makers within an organisation would know what to do. They would make changes to diet (or the food available to workers), they would implement schemes to help people exercise, they would fast track referrals to physiotherapy etc.

Taking action to improve psychological well-being is much more challenging and many will simply put in place an employee assistance or counselling service. These are effective for their purpose – but do not deal with the root causes of psychological well-being issues.

In my experience the most successful organisations buy into the importance of employee well-being and mental health at the most senior level. They will select some key performance objectives to measure progress – such as use of agency staff, service user satisfaction and/or absenteeism.

Business imperative

This means they are not doing it simply to be nice to their employees, they are doing it because there is a clear business imperative for it.

They will use survey data on what the current situation is and then the best organisations build solutions from the bottom up. They will go to their employees with the survey data and ask them for suggestions to improve the situation.

This can be frightening for senior managers because they think employees are going to come up with the impossible. Yet often the opposite is true. Most employees are sensible and thoughtful and their solutions are far better, more realistic and more sustainable than those offered by top-down approaches.

Ivan Robertson is emeritus professor of organisational psychology at Manchester University and the co-founder of Robertson Cooper Ltd, a consultancy specialising in employee well-being and workplace psychology. He will be speaking at Community Care’s Conference on Protecting the frontline against burnout in London on March 10th.

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