More than most professions, the emotional nature of social work means that the sector faces particularly acute challenges with employee stress. The role is client-based, involving complex social situations and requiring high levels of emotional involvement – factors which can contribute to low job satisfaction and burnout. High workloads and time-pressure, other features common to the social worker profession, are also related to negative work-related outcomes such as stress.
The Happier, Healthier Professionals (HHP) research programme aims to build evidence around what works for social worker well-being. Three trials were developed in consultation with 35 local authorities across England, with trials launching between April and October 2019. Final data collection concluded in March 2020, with some of the data collection interrupted due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on local authorities.
The three interventions which were designed and evaluated were:
- An online Goal-Setting programme;
- A personalised letter of recognition to staff from senior management (‘Symbolic Awards’), and;
- Access to free tea and coffee in the office.
The Social Worker Goals and Well-being Programme aimed to increase social workers’ self-efficacy, sense of autonomy and work-life balance, by prompting them to prioritise and plan out specific actions and goals, both in and outside of work. The personalised letters from senior management and the intervention providing access to free tea and coffee in the office both aimed to increase social workers’ sense that they were valued by their employer.
The trials aimed to evaluate the effectiveness of the interventions on a range of outcomes for social workers, including subjective well-being, sickness absence and sense of belonging with their employer.
How we went about it
The programme involved running three randomised controlled trials with 11 local authorities in England, where 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. A total of 2040 social workers were recruited for the trials. Data on well-being and other psychological outcomes was collected using surveys, while administrative data was collected to record sickness absence and turnover information.
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. Nevertheless, the study provides us with valuable insights into how future interventions might be designed and framed for the workforce.
This 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 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, 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 events in 2020, this report nevertheless highlights several valuable findings which can be used to inform both how senior management at local authorities can support their staff, and also areas of promise for future research in this area.
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 non-monetary signals of appreciation. Perhaps equally important is the finding from our goal-setting experiment that the degree of time-pressure experienced by social workers is such that some types of intervention are unlikely to be effective in the social work context. This further highlights the pressing need for well-being interventions to address these challenges inherent in the social work profession, and perhaps implies that they might be more effectively implemented at the level of the team or the organisation.
Work on a second round of HHP 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.