My perspective when answering this question comes from 30 years experience working in various roles and teams within children and families social work. I have also considered the broader aspect of people management and how legislation and the social work hierarchy decision making process impacts on outcomes.
According to the Office for National Statistics at June 2016 total UK public sector employment was at its lowest since the series began in 1999. The proportion of social work staff as public sector employees has been reduced drastically particularly in the last few years. As a consequence experience and expertise has been watered down and replaced by a tick box culture that panders to government targets putting pressure on workers and tarnishing the status of an otherwise worthwhile and rewarding profession.
Historically people did not take roles in public sector social work expecting high salaries. Their motivation was to help others, but more people now recognise that the benefits that once brought them to the sector and gave them a safe platform to carry out their vocation including job security, state pensions and a sense of status are no longer guaranteed. A sense of purpose can drive initial engagement; this is a testament to the average 8 years of service, but without careful management, such passions can lead to burnout.
To drive engagement in social workers over longer periods, decision-makers need to be mindful that the most valuable resource any social work team has are its staff and they need to be treated as such. Some ideas to promote retention are as follows –
Train managers to deal with issues facing the profession – Managers should be experienced social workers and possess a high level of emotional intelligence. Managers must be sensitive to workloads and support and protect workers to stand up for the right course of action. Managers should not be appointed unless they have the appropriate experience and training in people management and a sound subject knowledge base. Encourage managers to promote resilience by setting up team events that encourage employees to eat healthily, promote exercise and drive positive mental health, all factors that can improve engagement and health.
Provide ongoing opportunities for training and development – Social workers need time to train to ensure their knowledge base is informed and current concerning their client group. This will engender positive development and a basis for growth and progression. Providing social workers with the opportunity for mastery in preferred areas of practice can also help to drive engagement.
Manage workloads with both the cases and the social workers in mind – Monitoring caseloads on an ongoing basis helps workers to feel more secure in their roles and confident their practice will not be compromised by employee shortages and new allocations to already full caseloads. Supervision of social workers can take many forms, but the most important thing is that the worker feels they have the support and the protection of their agency. Managers need to take responsibility for the team workloads and have the backup of additional human resources should the team not have the capacity to take on additional work. They should not delegate to reduce the burden of responsibility on themselves if staff already has full caseloads. More creativity around shared workloads and joint working can take pressure off and also provides a sense of team ownership and security in working relationships.
Increase a sense of control, not salaries – the strain on resources in the public sector means that the quick fixes such as a rise in pay may not be possible. Instead ask people what would support them to be effective in their role, be honest about what they can’t have – e.g. higher pay – but talk to them about what might be possible and find out about what might make their job easier, such as:
- Involving employees in shaping practice – provide transparency about what’s happening and ask for ideas to improve processes.
Giving people more freedom to work from home – this may help them to manage their work-life balance by reducing time wasted in travelling.
Concentrate on recognition rather than reward – People want to feel appreciated for their work, particularly with the baby boomers retiring and the millennium workforce becoming dominant; nowadays recognition is a key driver of engagement. Unfortunately, recognition and reward are often confused. Recognition is an intangible, non-transferable and unexpected asset. It is something the employee has earned and can never be taken from them. Recognising someone with a simple verbal thank you, a genuine handwritten note, or introducing an employee to a useful contact that could aid career progression, can promote resilience even in demanding working conditions. Recognition does not need to come only from managers; encouraging peer recognition can spread responsibility and encourage innovation.
Reshape performance management and make goals achievable – In the past, the focus was on assessing how people worked rather than focusing on areas of future development. Supervision sessions need to be more frequent but less onerous, short but regular conversations keeping manager and social worker up to date with what is happening. Spread responsibility by having buddy meetings where people can support each other; overall this provides more control and support in the team. Legislation underpins the social work task, however legislators need to be more realistic when matching ideology with the reality of resources to ensure best practice and give social workers a fair chance to achieve positive outcomes.
Improve the brand/image of social workers – Last but not least, to mitigate some of the most difficult and sometimes mismanaged cases that hit the media, share success stories with the wider public to showcase the positive difference workers make. Driving promotion in education, particularly at the secondary and university level could help to instill a desire to work in the field and increase recruitment.