Improving social workers’ wellbeing: the possibilities and limits of ‘light-touch’ interventions

Research into the impact of small actions to improve practitioner wellbeing, such as free tea and coffee, shows the potential of symbolic recognition of staff - but also the need to tackle the fundamental sources of stress

Image of a cappucino coffee, by Takeaway - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
A cappucino coffee (credit: Takeaway / Wikimedia Commons),

By Shibeal O’Flaherty and Chris Mitchell, researchers, What Works for Children’s Social Care

Social work is a difficult job – managing high caseloads, the complexities and nuances of working with families and children during difficult times, and a huge amount of responsibility. Social workers do vital, often underappreciated work. It’s perhaps unsurprising then that social workers leave the profession at an alarming rate – some 50% higher than teachers.

Retaining more social workers in the profession is an ambition with the potential to make a huge impact across the workforce. It can reduce caseloads, or money spent on recruitment and agency staf. It means that children and families experience fewer changes in worker, and that relationships – critical to successful social work – can flourish and be maintained. Beyond these reasons, there is a moral imperative to support social workers in their day-to-day jobs. They are public sector workers, doing difficult and important work – and they are human beings. They deserve to feel happy and respected in their chosen career.

It was with this in mind that What Works for Children’s Social Care launched the Happier, Healthier Professional programme in 2019. The academic literature in behavioural science demonstrates that light-touch interventions can make small yet meaningful differences when the conditions are right, and that they have the virtue of being scalable and fairly straightforward to implement.

Last week, we published a report describing the results of the first three randomised trials we conducted, after consulting with 35 local authorities across England and launching interventions in 11. The three trials were an online goal-setting programme; personalised letters of recognition to staff from senior management; and access to free tea and coffee in the office. These trials were not without their challenges – not least the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic – but no study ever is.

Mixed results

The central finding from the goal-setting trial was that uptake among participants was very low – around 20% of the treatment group engaged with the intervention at any time, and fewer than 2% actually completed the six weekly modules. Subsequently, no differences were observed in our four outcome measures.

The personalised letters of recognition intervention was found to positively impact social workers’ sense of feeling valued, while other observed measures such as subjective well-being, motivation and sense of belonging also showed positive directional changes, though outside of the conventional thresholds for statistical significance. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, only three of our five participating local authorities were able to launch the trial, and it is possible that with a larger sample these thresholds might have been met.

Although the tea and coffee trial was interrupted by the pandemic, we were able to collect administrative data on sickness absences from the participating local authority, though this indicated that there was no difference between the treatment and control groups. Short interviews conducted earlier this year did however indicate that the intervention was well-received by social workers in Kent. The social workers interviewed reported that the intervention had a positive impact on staff’s sense of feeling valued by the local authority, and even contributed to helping build a sense of community as team members would congregate around the coffee machine to talk.

Key implications

While some elements of our evaluation of the three well-being interventions were disrupted by the events of 2020, the research nevertheless highlights several valuable findings which can inform both how senior management at local authorities can support staff well-being, and also areas of promise for future research.

Our letters of recognition trial provides evidence that employers can, with relatively little time or cost, positively influence employees’ sense of feeling valued and supported by their local authority. Insights taken from our coffee trial, while limited, further support the view that staff might respond positively to small perks that signal appreciation. Taken together, these findings suggest that there is promise in interventions which provide symbolic recognition for staff, and that taking the time to provide feedback and to thank social workers is worth the effort. These small acts of kindness are an important part of public service.

Perhaps equally important is the finding from our goal-setting experiment. Light-touch interventions cannot have an impact in an environment where they cannot take root. As was shown by the low take-up of the tool – a tool which had an existing evidence base behind it and which was created in response to social worker demand – if social workers do not have the time or mental bandwidth to engage, no intervention can be effective. This further highlights the pressing need for interventions to address the challenges in social worker wellbeing and retention, while bearing in mind the context of the social work workforce, which is highly time-pressured and stressed, and implies that larger changes to their working environment are likely to be needed.

Work on a second round of well-being interventions, including up to six randomised controlled trials and two pilot studies, is ongoing. Results from the first of these studies will be published in the second half of 2021.

10 Responses to Improving social workers’ wellbeing: the possibilities and limits of ‘light-touch’ interventions

  1. Nigel March 31, 2021 at 5:48 pm #

    I work in one of the LA’s which participated in this. In December 2019 we got sent a group card and a tangerine each. In February 2020 I contracted covid-19 and had a thankfully brief admission to hospital. In March 2020 while still off sick with covid related fatigue I received a letter from my team manager informing me that I had triggered the LA’s sickness/absence policy with the bonus that my fitness to work would have to be considered by the Occupational Health service. I think the tangerine was not much of a compensation for the added stress. No amount of free coffee, “treatment” nor a computer generated ‘personalised’ letter can compensate for that. Nudge unit greeting card platitudes may work in the shiny happy headquarters of think tanks but sadly when I trapse around the dank estates of the families I visit, this tokenism rather than inspire enrages me. DfE funded research that suggests we are happy with this drivel rather than have a pay rise, smaller casoads, better work environments, quality training and competent managers and supervisors, now why is that not a surprise. Granted PSW’s love it though. If I had the energy I would be bitter.

    • Jeanne Bradley April 3, 2021 at 2:42 pm #

      As with the need for social workers to have a relationship with the individuals and families they work with it is also important that our seniors and higher management have a relationship with us understand the amount of complexity we work with an appreciate the amount of time this takes to move forwards whilst bring the individuals and families with us, it is far more cost effective to do a job once rather than be rushed or prevented from moving forward due to resource restraints than for the cycle to keep turning.

    • Alison April 4, 2021 at 7:26 pm #

      Couldn’t have put this better!!

  2. Alec Fraher April 1, 2021 at 9:10 pm #

    Behavioural science coupled with utility theory ushered in managerialism. What good has it done?

    Social Work has been nudged away from its ethical standards for decades by successive Governments, relying on behavioural economics and discounting to justify low investment in publicly owned services and in favour of market stimulation in and amongst the profession.

    It was said that ‘advocacy arises from the ethic of caring, of entering into a relationship with another human being and acting on the basis of this conviction and as if their concerns were your own’ Abraham 1976.

    This statement was, once, the basis of feature articles in the, then, Health and Social Services Journal now the HSJ.

    Nurse Advocacy has been completely removed from their role and partitioned off as a separate function. It’s a slow burn privitisation that’s been going on for decades.

    The same is happening to Social Work.

    Coffee, anyone?

  3. Dawn Nicholson April 2, 2021 at 2:07 pm #

    I have been a social worker 22 years on front line in UK.
    Today March 2021 I experienced management that is extreme in blame SW high case load 38 , no compassion no support or understanding, derogatory
    Comments about parents and no understanding of the pressure on workers
    Currently several members of the team left and I am suspended. I have no income no support and am in limbo. I gave my notice and since that point the manager has targeted me and threatened that I’m only as good as my last reference , what if I lose my job and they have my back but if I leave …
    I had a new role to start . Now I’m pending investigation though all was great at 38 cases.
    I am struggling day to day ..confidence in social work is zero I have always had great references until now.

    I love the work and hate the lack of support and compassion within the management and our treatment of each other.
    Sorry for the disillusionment.

  4. JT April 3, 2021 at 7:42 am #

    Social work is like guarenteed secondary trauma. The political ideology since 2009 has been blame, shame and persecute the poor and vulnerable. Social work is therefore like trying to bake a cake with no oven.

    Wellbeing will improve and retention will improve when outcomes for families match the goals and aims that social work have internationally.

    Also there is a lot of smokers and obesity in social work…tea and coffee (other than being the taboo environmental disaster industry that no one mentions) make people sit in their bums even longer.

    Social work needs less beaurocracy (use tech to our advantage) and more active community engagement. Run the youth clubs, walk the streets where county lines operate, be visible and aproachable and connect with people. Local authority social work only suits the tory agenda!

  5. Lesley Steere April 3, 2021 at 8:26 am #

    I have worked as a social worker since 1992. The last twenty years as a Team Leader in a social work team for older people. It has long been a part of the culture that we promote small acts of thanking frontline workers. Individual first line managers buying small treats for example, chocolates, flowers, cards. I do think its very much appreciated. During the pandemic it has been more important than ever to think of ways to keep and promote a sense of support, connection between team members. It was lovely when I was ill at the end of 2020 to recieve small gifts, from team members sending best wishes. We all also recieved a card from the local authority thanking us for our efforts in the pandemic. Personally any small act of kindness, appreciation is valued whether its personal or from the organisation as a whole. I do think it does make a difference in keeping us going.

  6. Kerri April 5, 2021 at 9:22 am #

    Actually it’s not that we don’t have “the mental bandwidth” to appreciate how much we are loved. Exhausted though we are, we can still see whose behind the green curtain.

  7. David April 5, 2021 at 7:34 pm #

    The reason social workers are treated with contempt by politicians and employers alike is that our gratitude is so cheaply bought.

  8. Nigel April 18, 2021 at 9:17 am #

    There’s a difference between collagues and friends sharing gifts out of love and concern and employers giving out a pretend appreciation on the instructions of consultants who assure them it will be good for their image. I’d rather be traduced openly than by greeting card inanity.