The case for small wins

Anna Bacchoo
Director of Practice

24 January 2022

Social worker well-being has long been a cause for concern and data from 2020 show that things aren’t improving – 14% of social workers say they don’t think they will still be working at their local authority in 12 months’ time. Recent press coverage about the tragic deaths of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson has led to social workers being targeted with horrific abuse and a resurgence of negative public opinion towards the profession. This, on top of stressors such as high caseloads, staff shortages and a return to homeworking, mean it’s a very difficult time to be a social worker and employers are under increasing pressure to take measures to support workers and improve well-being.

Since 2019 we’ve been researching ways of improving social worker well-being and you may be aware that our early trials found that social workers’ felt valued and recognised by receiving a personalised letter of thanks from a senior leader. In the current context, we need small wins like this more than ever. Today we’re publishing a new report that details a number of new studies we’ve worked on – some that build on what we learnt in our first Happier, Healthier Professionals research programme, and other interventions that are new. Take a look at the summary or the full report to see all the findings, including some positive results on increasing diversity in recruitment and the impact of sharing messages of gratitude from young people.

Some of the studies produced surprising results, for example an intervention we affectionately called SWING – Social Workers Inspiring the Next Generation – gave a result I wasn’t expecting. We worked with colleagues at Frontline to test whether newly qualified social workers benefit from receiving a weekly well-being text from a more experienced Frontline alumni. This was inspired by an intervention that had positive effects on emergency call handlers in Canada.

However in this instance, our RCT showed that weekly well-being texts had no impact on newly qualified social workers. During interviews, social workers said they found the messages overwhelming, particularly as they already received lots of well-being information through work. So it seems this was a case of well-being-overload! But, it’s an excellent example of how RCTs can be very helpful – without this kind of research, employers might have wrongly assumed that this intervention would be beneficial for social workers’ well-being, because it had worked for a different group of employees in Canada.

Our Happier, Healthier Professionals interventions have generally been ‘light-touch’ initiatives, in other words, simple, cheap and easy to implement. In our most recent publication however, we share the findings of a pilot study about flexible working practices that fall outside of the ‘light-touch’ category. Borrowing from an Icelandic study that found positive impacts on a whole host of outcomes through reducing the working week (without a reduction in pay), we tested a 9-day fortnight in local authority social work teams. Because this was a pilot study, it couldn’t tell us about causation or outcomes, but participants reported a meaningfully positive impact on their well-being. Furthermore, participants felt their productivity was also improved as a result of a better work-life balance. Local authority employers were positive about flexible working practices and the pilot provides some indication of how to improve implementation, such as good coordination between teams to cover duty services and supporting staff to refrain from working during their time off. We are looking at whether further research in this area would be helpful, so do get in touch if it’s something your social care organisation is interested in.

Clearly the social care system needs more than flexible working to address the complex challenges that social workers face. However, small wins shouldn’t be dismissed – they are wins nonetheless. And anything employers can do to slightly ease the impact this work has on people’s well-being has got to be a good thing. Let’s hope that 2022 brings more opportunities for social workers to feel supported and valued in their work. We definitely need more of that.