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.
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.
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.