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.
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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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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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