At first glance, social work is in crisis. The longevity of an average social worker’s career sits at 8 years1, with 73% suffering from emotional exhaustion as a result of work2. These statistics do little to invite new workers to the profession, nor do they help engage the existing workforce. This piece will explore the concept of motivation in social work and create simple recommendations that could revolutionise the profession.
First, it is worth busting an age-old myth; to motivate any workforce, money is the solution. The largest ever study investigating the relationship between pay and job satisfaction counter-intuitively concluded that for roles other than the most basic mechanical tasks, an increase in pay decreased worker engagement3. Instead, paying workers enough to remove pressing money concerns and then improving working conditions external to income produced the highest job satisfaction. With the question of money removed from the equation, a more creative response to social worker motivation is required.
Suppose you as the reader had a completely free Saturday, how would you choose to spend it? At a guess, you’d probably choose something you found stimulating, such as a hobby, sport or spending time with loved ones. A key reason why you are engaged with your Saturday is less reliant on the activity itself, but because you were able to choose it.
Social work is becoming increasingly process driven, with particular forms completed on particular occasions and set tasks completed within set timescales. The problem with this is that it seeks to prevent workers from going wrong, rather than inspiring them to excel. Social work involves working with people who are more unpredictable than the ‘one size fits all’ processes that are employed. Instead, social workers need the space to be creative, make use of their experience and act according to case-by-case judgements.
For example, in 2006, Hackney Children’s Services had a complete overhaul of their processes and paperwork, rebuilding a system that gave social workers increased space to creatively determine best practice4. This halved the number of staff going on sick leave and produced a 40% reduction in children going into care5. Therefore, to increase worker motivation and improve client outcomes, social service providers need to take a fresh perspective on existing processes and support social workers to think outside the box in their work.
Returning to your free Saturday, you’ve been given autonomy over what to do with your time, but why have you chosen that activity? Often, we choose to return to the same activities repeatedly because we see progress. For example, when we learn a musical instrument we don’t learn every instrument in the orchestra, we concentrate on one and strive to improve.
Similarly, social work is a highly skilled profession. It requires an in-depth understanding of the humanities and social sciences, coupled with proficient interpersonal and communication skills. However, despite requiring an intelligent and talented workforce, the ‘skill’ of social work is held in poor regard. The solution is simple; we need to celebrate the work that we do and praise those who are striving to improve. On a micro-level, this can be achieved in any social work team, readily offering positive feedback on exemplary practice and giving awards for major achievements. On a macro-level, this can be achieved by government bodies and politicians publically praising outstanding social work, supporting a nationally recognised set of social work awards and standing alongside struggling services to encourage better practice, rather than condemning them for poor OFSTED ratings.
The outcome of this would be a change in culture, a change from the expectation that all social work must meet a certain standard to an environment where there is no ceiling, where all workers are supported to get better and better. There is already outstanding social work practice in the UK, by recognising and valuing it, workers will become increasingly motivated to remain in the profession and strive to improve.
Another way you may choose to spend your free Saturday is to volunteer for a cause that you believe in. Between 2012 and 2013, 15.2 million people gave their time voluntarily at least once a month6, but why? Intrinsically we are all motivated in some way to leave a positive imprint on the world around us; a character trait that is often strong in social workers who enter the profession to see lasting improvements in people’s lives.
However, this motivation to ‘make a difference’ weakens when workers become bogged down in the day-to-day struggles of their process driven, compliance demanding roles, becoming disconnected from the true purpose of their work. Amongst other solutions, this problem calls for outstanding leadership in social work. Great leaders at any level are capable of holding onto the wider vision of the service and work hard to keep their team-members fixed on that vision.
This can be achieved at an individual level, reflecting on positive change in supervision and at a corporate level, publicly praising work that has ‘made a difference’. Although, vision-centred leadership does not apply solely to named positions of responsibility, but to all social workers. If we want to see our colleagues motivated to excel in their work, we have a responsibility to encourage, support and rescue colleagues from wallowing in the difficulties of the profession and fixing our attention on the positive change we create. Overall, if we as professionals and our leaders commit to holding to a vision of ‘making a difference’, we could transform social work from a place of negativity and defeat to recognising our everyday successes and aspiring for more.
In conclusion, this essay proposes a shift in the culture of social work; a movement away from compliance and towards creativity, away from inadequacy and towards celebrating proficiency and building a culture of encouragement and vision-centred leadership. If this was achieved, we may see a profession where workers are as motivated towards their day-jobs as they would be for a free Saturday.
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1: Curtis et al. (2010) The expected working life of a social worker, British Journal of Social Work, 40(5), pp.1628-1643.
2: McFadden et al. (2015) Resilience and Burnout in Child Protection Social Work: Individual and Organisational Themes from a Systematic Literature Review, British Journal of Social Work, 45(5), pp.1546-1563.
3: Judge et al. (2010) The relationship between pay and job satisfaction: A meta-analysis of the literature, Journal of Vocational Behaviour, 77, pp.157-167.
4: Goodman (2016) Lecture at University of Bedfordshire, Luton
5: Rix (2011) How Hackney Reclaimed Child Protection Social Work, The Guardian [Online]
6: Cabinet Office (2013) Community Life Survey: Data, London [Online]
This essay answered the following question: The average career lifespan of a social worker is just 8 years. What can be done to increase engagement among social workers and keep them in the profession for longer?