Why small ideas to boost wellbeing – like free coffee for social workers – need to be tested

The What Works Centre explains why it is testing small-scale interventions that may help social work wellbeing given the barriers to bigger changes

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

by Michael Sanders & Anna Bacchoo

Social work is a challenging and stressful job – made harder by rising levels of need, higher caseloads, and a lack of recognition, all happening in the context of falling budgets.

Just under one in six social workers leave the profession in a given year. This high turnover rate is a major problem for the sector. If there are too few social workers, it is hard for good social work to happen.

These are just some of the reasons why social worker wellbeing has been a priority for the What Works Centre from the start. We want to find out what we could do to help support social workers’ morale, their work-life balance, and, perhaps even their health. Anything that helps social workers would be good in itself, but we think that it could have knock-on effects on the families their work with.

There are a lot of big things that could help – lower caseloads, more pay, better supervision, more leave. In a lot of these areas the research is already pretty clear that they’d help. But, we need to be realistic about what we at the centre can achieve – we have a limited budget and timescale. We also need to be realistic about the context we’re operating in – with budgets as they are, it would be a rare local authority that could afford to increase salaries, or increase the number of social workers enough to bring caseloads down and keep them there. However, as some success stories have shown, good practice models can help with this.

Behavioural science

With this desire to try and support social workers in a context of low budgets, we’ve looked at what’s been successful in other sectors – interventions from behavioural science and organisational behaviour that have been shown to support workers in the public and private sectors.

While this was happening we put out a call for local authorities to partner with us on this programme, receiving more than 20 expressions of interest from organisations who share our interest in finding small ways of improving social workers’ wellbeing. We spoke with team managers, senior leaders, and social workers, both as individuals and as groups, to try and understand what factors influenced their morale and their sense that they were valued at work. Listening to these, we came up with a long list of ideas that could work in collaboration with our academic partners at Harvard and University College London who are donating their time to this project.

The series of ideas that made the cut varied from planning tools to help social workers, through to the free tea and coffee project that Community Care reported on last week. These ideas are being piloted in small-scale projects at the moment to see which, if any, seem to have the biggest impact on staff wellbeing.

At this early stage, it’s interesting to capture what people think of the ideas at this point, so last week we conducted an online poll and asked over 200 social workers which intervention they thought would best improve their wellbeing at work. Coffee didn’t fare well, but the results showed that other ideas like resilience training are expected to make the most difference. We’ll have to wait until March next year to find out the results of the trials and we can see if social workers’ instincts were right.


We know that some of the ideas in our workforce wellbeing programme seem too small to have an impact. This is exactly why we think they need testing. We’ve been struck by the extent to which arguments range from “this is so obviously effective why would we test it” to “this could never be effective” – which suggests to us that there’s a question to be answered.

In addition to these small-scale interventions, we’re also testing a slightly larger scale idea – Schwartz rounds, which are group sessions where professionals can reflect on the emotional impact of working with families. These have shown strong promise in healthcare settings so we’re testing with social workers across six partner authorities. While continuing to be low cost, Schwartz Rounds could be an effective way of organisations looking after their workers and addressing some of the vicarious trauma that can mean social workers leave the profession.

Our workforce wellbeing programme is only part of what we’re trying to do, in projects which range from the very small coffee trial to much larger projects like the scale up of the Mockingbird Family Model, and the really big, like the roll-out of three whole system models.

We want to conduct research that’s useful to the sector and to individual social workers – so we will be doing large and small-scale projects covering a whole range of ideas. We’re expecting differences of opinion about whether our projects focus on the right issues and on how we design them. We welcome this challenge and scrutiny particularly when it helps us connect with practice so please keep talking to us and we’ll keep listening. You can contact us at wwccsc@nesta.org.uk or follow us on Twitter @whatworksCSC.

Michael Sanders is executive director of the What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care. Anna Bacchoo is the centre’s head of practice.

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9 Responses to Why small ideas to boost wellbeing – like free coffee for social workers – need to be tested

  1. Decaff Sipper July 10, 2019 at 1:45 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…

  2. Ronnie July 10, 2019 at 5:40 pm #

    This idea does not need to be tested.

    There is already a whole host of such research (see Herzberg’s theory on motivating factors and of course Maslow) which says that ONLY AFTER your needs for safety and fair compensation at work have been met, that rewards such as feeling praised/rewarded will work.

    Free coffee is a symbol of praise and reward, but it is a small symbol and does not replace workplace support and camaraderie.

    So pay well, make sure people work reasonable hours, are physically and psychologically safe at work, are provided with the resources to do their job well and can work in a learning culture.

    Then people can faff about with such research, when it might actually make a difference and give some meaningful data.

    • SCody July 10, 2019 at 11:33 pm #

      Above response from Ronnie sums it up nicely!

    • Liz July 10, 2019 at 11:35 pm #

      More staff is a must. I worked in a specialised dementia unit with 12 adults one carer. Most residents needed one to one care. Thier needs were so high. I agree100% with you Ronnie. I called it a beautiful asylum as no matter how hard you tried to help I felt thier needs were not being met. The support was not there from upper management. I also realised how stressful thier jobs were but I was well trained and morally put my lovely wee residents first. Staff are put under constant pressure to meet service users needs.whilst balancing paper work medication and an enormous amount of policy and legislation. I did well I think personally but broke my back and mind doing so .Good quality Training is imperative as most staff dont know basic rights of individuals. I witnessed abuse a lot and challenged it most of the time. I witnessed managers and other carers abusing service users on several occasions. I tried to speak to each of them and to keep it in house but thier autocratic attitude made them angry when I confronted them. I then used the whisleblowing procedure and my reputation preceded me when I moved to other places as advised by my union rep. Little did I know my union rep was socializing with the very people I had complained about. I loved working with people as challenging as it was.I hated the nepotism and lack of support for staff.But nothing was ever resolved and it took its toll on my physical and mental health. So I left. The abusers I challenged are now heads of service. It bothers me still 6 years out of the job. And they wonder why staff retention is so poor. I will always stand up for the rights of the service users.

  3. Anon July 11, 2019 at 10:27 am #

    Basic humanity and sincerity lacking in this sector.

    When the management creates a situation to fail the workers by undermining the workers, being unrealistic and extremely critical of the workers, these tea and coffee bits are simply theoretical issues not evenly remotely connected to the workplace environment that is hostile and antagonistic.

    MANAGEMENT attitude has to change.

  4. Eco Social Worker July 11, 2019 at 11:32 am #

    Well I suppose if it stops managers raiding the workers own tea and coffee to give drinks to people who attend meetings, which happens because there is no hospitality budget, then it might be a little bit of a good thing, but it’s hardly top of my list.

    A desk of my own and heating that works is my little ask to make my day less stressful.

  5. ML London July 11, 2019 at 3:14 pm #

    Ensuring that the directors are themselves
    Social Workers, or at least have SOME training in Social Work, might also have a better impact on how well teams are supported and local services are resourced. Still find it shocking that people with NO social work knowledge whatsoever are in control of this; and keep adding to the increasing work load by altering systems which require continous training on, ‘how to complete panel paperwork forms’, for example, that does little to ensure better outcomes for vulnerable people in desperate circumstances or enable Social Workers to do our job more efficiently.

  6. Robin Sen July 11, 2019 at 9:44 pm #

    A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away……a senior manager was working in a team where social workers felt demoralised and under-valued. They sat down with members of the team and had some difficult conversations about what that was about and then responded in ways that addressed those concerns within the resources they had: management style towards staff, permanent desk spaces and opportunity for social workers to do more direct work and less paperwork.

    There was a small pot of money available to spend on the team and, as part of the dialogue, there was a quick consultation about what the team wished it to be spent on. The consensus was that they wanted decent refreshments at, and access to a decent room space for, team meetings. The senior manager put this in place understanding very well that refreshments and a team meeting space were not the generative mechanisms of improving staff morale but a product of that which was – an open dialogue with the team, and the team seeing that management was doing what they could to act on their suggestions, which in turn supported the team to believe that senior management valued them, and valued the people they were working with.

    After putting these changes in place, the manager used their judgement, based on speaking to team members, speaking to middle managers and observing how the team was functioning, to guage whether staff morale was improving. They continued the dialogue with staff. They continued to be clear about what they had done in response to frontline staff’s requests, including transparency about what they could not do that had been asked for, and why. In doing this, the senior manager recognised that this was evidence, and indeed good evidence, based on multiple data sources. Perhaps in another strange galaxy far in the future, the manager mused, they might not recognise it as such and would insist that only ‘research evidence’ based on Randomised Control Trials could tell anyone anything about life. The manager reflected that this was not that galaxy, and if were ever to exist, it was thankfully a long, long way away.

  7. Simon Cardy July 12, 2019 at 1:34 am #

    Firstly, A limited budget? It may be the case that this project has been allocated about £5000 for the tea and coffee but it was reported that the well-being research is working to a budget of £2m and the centre overall has a budget of up to £20m https://www.cypnow.co.uk/cyp/news/2005220/doubts-over-future-of-dfes-gbp20m-social-care-research-centre.

    Secondly,I’m not a researcher but your methodology is inherantly flawed. If what works centre money is providing the tea and coffee rather than as sincere gesture of good will by the employer, then what are you testing? Moreover I read in the documentation that the research methodology requires partcipants to be ‘descret’ about their coffee perk so as not to corrupt the control group. How are you going to keep it quiet especially now that its all over social media? More worrying still is, how you are seriously going to extract occupational stress data as a cause of sickness abense from other types of sickness absense in order to compare it with the control group. Good luck with that one?