What Works Centre ‘high-quality coffee’ study exploring social worker sickness rates raises eyebrows

Randomised control trial aims to test whether 'a display of recognition' improves practitioner wellbeing and cuts absences

Image of a cappucino coffee, by Takeaway - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26758175
A cappucino coffee (credit: Takeaway / Wikimedia Commons), https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26758175

The What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care has caused a stir on social media after posting details of a new study exploring whether “access to free, high-quality tea and coffee” reduces social worker sickness rates.

The randomised control trial, added to the What Works Centre’s site last week, will see coffee machines installed in the kitchens of buildings accommodating social workers, in numbers large enough to ensure easy access for staff.

“A laminated note will be attached to the side of the coffee machines, addressed to the social worker teams in the building, explaining that it is a token of thanks for the ‘compassion, integrity and dedication they display in their service to the children and families in the region,” the project documentation said.

It added that the experiment was designed to help social workers feel valued, and increase their sense of belonging, motivation and positive feelings towards their employer.

‘Boosting staff wellbeing’

Many studies have highlighted the high levels of stress and burnout social workers experience, especially in children’s services, where annual turnover was 15.2% across English local authorities in 2017-18.

“Research suggests non-cash rewards which emphasise recognition for employees’ efforts can produce disproportionately large effects given the monetary cost, and therefore might be effective in boosting staff wellbeing,” the What Works Centre’s project documents said.

The trial will take place over six months to July 2020 at Kent and Sandwell councils, with all practitioners at or below the level of team manager given daily access to a choice of tea or coffee.

Only certain buildings housing social workers will be included, in order to test the impact of the free beverages without sparking office warfare.

“Randomising at the building level was designed to mitigate the potential negative spillover effects in the social workers who did not have access to the coffee machines,” the project documents said. “[It] also recognises the practical challenge of stopping participants in the control group from using a coffee machine installed in their building.”

The documents acknowledged that the initial two-council study size was likely to be “underpowered” but said more authorities could be added depending on initial results.

‘Absolutely unbelievable’

The latest project from the What Works Centre, which has been established to build an evidence base that informs best practice, predictably caught the attention of the social work community on Twitter.

Lisa Morriss, editor of the Qualitative Social Work journal, questioned whether the project was a spoof, adding that it was “unbelievable” and professing herself speechless.

Mark Baldwin, of the Social Work Action Network, criticised the study for its “stupidity and wastefulness”.

Meanwhile Surviving Safeguarding, a social work trainer and mother who has gone through care proceedings, suggested the money being spent on the trial could be better spent reopening Sure Start centres.

“I’m one of the biggest advocates for self-care and wellbeing in social work there is, but this is ludicrous when families are on the bones of their arses,” she added. “The majority of the social workers I work with just want more time to build relationships with families and young people.”

Former social worker Tracey Wright echoed this perspective, calling this experiment “patronising”.

‘Human right’

But Dez Holmes, director at Research in Practice, who described herself as a “three-cafetieres-a-day-woman”, disagreed, saying decent coffee should be a “human right” and that the study should not be seen in isolation.

Michael Sanders, the executive director at the What Works Centre, said the study was one of a number of small projects around supporting social workers in the workplace being run by the centre under the title of Healthier Happier Professionals, and that it was based on consultation with 20 local authorities.

A What Works Centre spokesperson told Community Care the organisation was still in the early stages of setting up the study and that no coffee machines had yet been purchased.

“As we are still recruiting local authority participants we are unable to give a definite expected [project] cost, as it will depend on the number of participants, building layout and so on,” the spokesperson said. “However, we are anticipating a cost of £150-200 per team of participants over the course of six months. We expect to spend approximately £5,000, but this will depend on the number of participating teams.”

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16 Responses to What Works Centre ‘high-quality coffee’ study exploring social worker sickness rates raises eyebrows

  1. A Man Called Horse July 2, 2019 at 2:53 pm #

    Whats not to like?? You need to remember the Government are helping your customers by cutting their welfare benefits and Housing support, this will help them to into work. Hunger will help them to take rsponsibility for their own families.

    Cutting MentalHealth services wil help people to realise its up to you.

    Self-help is the name of the game.

    Free Coffee yes im all for that, but how about an end to Austerity and proper pay rises that might improve their collective well-being?

  2. Jim Greer July 2, 2019 at 4:33 pm #

    As several people in this article have pointed out, I would be very sceptical that it is going to help social workers who are under high levels of stress or over-work. However, it is possible that for workers who have reasonable caseload and good quality supervision, it could contribute to morale and feeling valued as workers. The most important benefit might be that if a social space is created for the workers to consume the coffee then it may promote supportive conversations of the nature which many people miss having within a hot desking environment.
    I have to say frankly that free coffee is not the first thing I would think of a way of making social workers feel supported. However, if the study yields positive results and the methodology is robust then I may be proved wrong. We have to judge science on the quality of the science, not whether it fits our views or priorities.

    • Denise Moultrie July 3, 2019 at 11:00 am #

      I don’t understand this from a research perspective. As this study has been announced, it will be obvious to those social workers given access to free coffee what the purpose of this is ie not a thank you from their employer but a research study. Therefore we cannot be confident of any findings as we wont know if it is down to a placebo effect, or indeed the opposite if participants have a negative reaction.

      • Jim Greer July 7, 2019 at 6:21 pm #

        Yes you are correct Denise, its a definite methodological flaw.

  3. Angela Gadsdon July 2, 2019 at 5:13 pm #

    Is it April 1st? I know cheap alternatives to workplace problems are being sought but this one takes the biscuit…. perhaps they should be included. Save money, stop insulting us with this kind of research and face the real issues.

    • Anniemae July 2, 2019 at 6:31 pm #


  4. A social worker July 2, 2019 at 7:59 pm #

    Ending austerity would be great…but does anyone really think the WWC had the choice between ending austerity and testing coffee machines and chose the coffee machines? Clearly, ending austerity is nothing to do with the WWC. It’s fine to criticise them…but please be sensible about what they can and cannot achieve and criticise them on the basis of that, rather than holding them somehow responsible for government decisions and policy more generally.

  5. Anne July 2, 2019 at 9:01 pm #

    Those supporting this and thinking these ideas are great have completely lost touch with the workplace and practice.
    It’s nice having a job where you eat drink and sell your business and self promote. Now try working with no breaks no resources no staff no services and no support and don’t get your overtime paid or TOIL.
    No wonder social work is struggling with this type of leadership.
    We need politically aware social workers fighting for service users not the latest trendy claptrap.

  6. Nick July 2, 2019 at 9:36 pm #

    I’ve said this for years – small gestures from employers pay large dividends in team morale. At a place I used to work I’d go and buy £10 worth of milk every Monday on my way in about 10 pints overall and, when needed, large containers of (cheap) tea and coffee. Never expected nor received thanks for it since most people in my office didn’t know it was me. I did it because I knew from prior experience that when things got difficult, people got tense and small things like “who used my milk” could get otherwise sane people to lose it, usually when they were working on a court report due 15 minutes ago. As a manager being able to avoid those situations was easily worth a tenner. Just a shame that it had to be my own money.

    Of course, when I left the milk, tea and coffee stopped magically appearing and I heard that there was a sudden drop in morale. It could have been the absence of my winning personality, but I suspect the missing milk had something to do with it!

  7. Adele July 2, 2019 at 9:50 pm #

    I worked in a local authority where staff had access to beverage machines with cappuccinos, lattes and earl grey tea. Lasted a year then the budget was revised and the machines vanished overnight!

  8. Ruth Mueni July 5, 2019 at 5:53 pm #

    Free teas, coffees and milk and 5,000 coffee machines will never compensate poor management , pay disparities across staff with same experience and lengths of service, limited time to build relationships with children’s and their families. Too much administration work which is not factored in performance appraisals, unpaid tear and wear of our cars as we indirectly supplement the local authorities by using our personal vehicles to carry out their legal duties, unpaid overtime and toil and lack of support from managers who only care to achieve their targets irrespective whether a social worker is collapsing under stress or not. I believe social workers can afford their own teas and how are you considering to raise the morale of those who take no hot drinks like I don’t. I thought it should be a fair deal for all. Local authorities employing social works need to start including social workers and listen to what brings their morale down , only then they will start talking the same language. When managers sit in the offices over long periods of time, they start lossing touch with the realities of a frontline social worker. This is possible as social practice is a dynamic in most aspects.
    I would suggest the following
    Salaries, automatic career progression if there is reason to stop progression such as poor performance or any misconduct, compensate for tear and wear of vehicles, show you trust your social workers without micromanaging them and please let every social work have a clear career pathway . This will increase their morale as they know there is no stagnation as long as they continue performing. No one can argue with results . As for me, free tea would do me nothing and I would actually feel discriminated against as I take no hot drinks. Remember I am not the only one does not take tea or coffee or hot drinks. There are others who will feel discriminated with me. Just pay us what we are worth and have confidence in your social workers. They will uphold their morale without you having to do anything. However, for those who take hot drinks, they might feel valued but the gesture will be short lived as it will become normalised like any thing else. Workers want to see progression in their careers in terms of salary as not everyone want to become managers. Majority of social workers would like to do a job that brings a positive experience to the families and add value to their day today living. Most social workers are content when the children and families they work with are. This is a bigger reward that teas, coffees and milk.

  9. Beth July 6, 2019 at 6:36 am #

    Access to supply of caffeine when most offices don’t even have a water machine anymore!
    That’s if you have an office!
    Is that to keep social workers going longer shove more caffeine down them!
    You don’t require research to know that most social workers would want a desk, decent office space, chair that doesn’t give them back ache, pay rise, less cases etc etc etc
    Oh and supervision now and again might help!

  10. Phil Sanderson July 6, 2019 at 5:20 pm #

    I am sure we could appoint a Director of beverages or pay for a consultant to drive this one forward!!

  11. dk July 7, 2019 at 1:55 pm #

    Ridiculous, grandstanding responses from many to this; I’d expect a tiny fraction of the WWC grant is being spent on this, and there is clearly a legitimate hypothesis to test here around how even the smallest gestures of care from employers might benefit social worker wellbeing… And we all know the dividends that would pay to the delivery of services to vulnerable children and families. Potentially huge returns for the tiniest investment.

    You’d be lucky if the money spent on this paid for spare keys to be cut for a Sure Start centre or a few minutes of an agency worker’s time. We have to be more receptive to trying things out.

  12. J July 8, 2019 at 12:44 pm #

    I don’t drink coffee. I don’t drink tea either. So nothing on offer for those of us who don’t drink hot drinks.

    Never mind, thanks to Agile Working, I’m hardly in the office anyway.

  13. Decaff sipper July 12, 2019 at 2:13 pm #

    The suggestion of coffee for social workers in place of adequate funding and resources is incomprehensible, offensive and downright kicking the profession whilst it’s down… Talk about putting a plaster over a gaping wound…