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.
The second phase of the HHP research programme (HHP2) was launched in January 2020, with interventions implemented in ten LAs, and twelve organisations in total. More than 2,800 participants were recruited for the trials. As part of the programme’s funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the group of eligible participants was extended to include other frontline professionals across England.
The interventions included in this report are:
- Symbolic Awards: Messages from Beneficiaries – Social care staff were sent a video of care leavers from their LA talking about their positive experiences with their social worker.
- Social Workers Inspiring the Next Generation (SWING) – Newly qualified social workers and social workers in-training from Frontline received weekly messages, written by Frontline alumni and experienced social workers, reflecting on the challenges they had faced at the start of their career in social work.
- Ministry of Defence Inspiring the Next Generation (MoD-ING) – Eight weekly emails were sent to MoD employees, written by current MoD-DI wellbeing/diversity and inclusion leads, senior leaders, and experienced employees, which described the shared experiences, challenges, and the rewarding nature of their work.
- Increasing Diversity in Social Work Hiring – This study consisted of two online experiments designed to test interventions that might reduce bias in social worker recruitment processes. For both experiments, participants were asked to evaluate fictitious CVs for a hypothetical managerial position within Children’s Services.
- Dictation Software (pilot study) – A dictation software app – ‘Dragon Anywhere’ – was provided to social workers in two LAs. This software allowed social workers to quickly and easily dictate their case notes and reports rather than typing them.
- Flexitime (pilot study) – A flexible working policy in which social workers are permitted to ‘compress’ their working hours into fewer days, so that they work either a four-day week or a nine-day fortnight.
The RCTs aimed to evaluate the effectiveness of the interventions on a range of outcomes for social workers and MoD staff, including subjective well-being, sickness absence and sense of belonging with their employer. The pilot studies aimed to understand the acceptability of the two interventions among social workers, and gathered information on our hypothesised outcomes to understand the potential effectiveness of the intervention.
How we went about it
The programme involved running four randomised controlled trials and two pilot studies across ten LAs, and twelve organisations in total. In the RCTs, around half of the social workers in each trial were assigned to receive the treatment and half to the control group in order to compare outcomes between the groups and understand the impact of the interventions. Data on well-being and other psychological outcomes was collected using surveys, while administrative data was collected to record sickness absence and turnover information. Our pilots involved providing the interventions to a smaller number of social workers, and conducting interviews with participants to understand their views on the acceptability of the interventions and their potential impact.
RCT 1: SYMBOLIC AWARDS: MESSAGES OF GRATITUDE FROM CARE LEAVERS
We did not observe a significant impact of the intervention on any of our outcome measures. However, during interviews participants were very positive about the intervention, reporting that it had a positive impact on their motivation and well-being. This is supported by exploratory analysis which indicated that the intervention may have been effective in the weeks directly following its launch, before the effects appeared to attenuate over time.
RCT 2: SOCIAL WORKERS INSPIRING THE NEXT GENERATION
The messaging did not have a statistically significant impact on any of our outcomes. Interviews conducted with participants suggest that this could in part be due to general fatigue from the high frequency of well-being related communications they receive, which had increased in intensity over the Covid-19 pandemic. Participants also indicated that they would have preferred more practical advice.
RCT 3: MINISTRY OF DEFENCE INSPIRING THE NEXT GENERATION
We did not observe a statistically significant effect on any of our outcome variables of interest post intervention. In interviews, team managers indicated that the felt well-being interventions for their staff should be more resource intensive or personalised.
RCT 4: INCREASING DIVERSITY: TWO ONLINE EXPERIMENTS TO REDUCE BIAS IN SOCIAL WORK HIRING
In our first experiment, candidates with names typically associated with Minority Ethnic Groups were significantly more likely to be selected to progress in a fictitious hiring process when evaluated alongside another candidate than when assessed individually. They were also significantly more likely to be progressed than the candidates with White British names in this condition. In our second experiment, we observed no differences in the evaluation scores of candidates when they had either a name typically associated with White British or Minority Ethnic backgrounds, or when the name was removed in the ‘blinded’ condition.
PILOT 1: DICTATION SOFTWARE: REDUCING ADMINISTRATIVE BURDEN
There was high variance in rates of uptake from participants, with some participants regularly making use of the software while others barely used it at all. There was, however, some indication from participants that their usage may have been higher had they had access to the software for a longer period of time. There was also a range of perceptions of the impact of the software. Some participants reported substantial time savings of up to 6 hours per week, although others saw fewer opportunities to use the software and therefore enjoyed little benefit.
PILOT 2: FLEXIBLE WORKING FOR SOCIAL WORKERS
The flexible working policy was considered by participants to be a more reliable, and therefore preferable, means of redressing their work-life balance than time off in lieu (TOIL). Workload and team managers were also seen as important factors in determining whether participants adhered to their flexible working pattern. Participants were generally very positive about the policy, indicating that it positively impacts motivation and feelings of work-life balance. However, senior staff reported challenges in balancing staff’s working patterns with service delivery.
There is a lack of evidence showing how LAs might address challenges in retention and well-being of their staff through the introduction of policies or interventions. The findings we present in this report represent meaningful contributions to this evidence-base which will inform the decisions of policy-makers as well as the choices of future researchers.
Our two pilots provide two possible avenues by which LAs might reduce the time-pressure felt by their staff. While the dictation tool was not adopted widely by participants, our findings indicate that solutions which address reporting burden might be hugely beneficial for social workers.
Analysis of our online experiments provides evidence that LAs which embed explicit candidate comparisons might increase the diversity in their candidate pool. Removing candidate names from assessment processes presents another means by which LAs can protect against bias in their recruitment.
The effects of our three messaging interventions – SWING, MOD-ING and Beneficiaries – appeared to vary greatly, suggesting that policy-makers should carefully consider the delivery mechanism for this type of intervention. The results of the Beneficiaries trial provide tentative evidence that LAs might benefit from creating more mechanisms for social workers to receive positive feedback from the children and families they work with.
Our findings provide valuable insights from which future evaluations of workforce interventions can be designed. Interventions which aim to improve administrative burden, such as those in our pilots, or which target reporting processes, are one area which might be considered. Similarly, the impact of our evaluation nudges might be tested in field experiments to understand their effectiveness in real-world contexts.
Read the report
Read the research protocols
Read the research protocol for the Beneficiaries trial
Read the research protocol for the SWING trial
Read the research protocol for the MOD-ING trial
Read the research protocol for the Increasing Diversity online experiments
Read the research protocol for the Flexitime pilot.