‘Light-touch’ interventions may improve social worker wellbeing, new research finds

Research finds evidence that some low-cost interventions to improve social workers’ wellbeing – such as free tea and coffee – may be effective, but found that social workers “lacked the time, space and opportunity” to take advantage of other interventions.

01/04/21

‘Light-touch’ interventions may improve social worker wellbeing, new research finds

A study has found evidence that some low-cost, so-called ‘light-touch’ interventions may improve the wellbeing of social workers.

The research, published by What Works for Children’s Social Care (WWCSC), evaluated behavioural science-inspired interventions to improve wellbeing that could be implemented and scaled quickly, easily and with minimum cost.

Researchers tested various strategies, including sending staff a letter from a senior figure in their local authority expressing gratitude for the social worker’s hard work, providing free tea and coffee, and a goal-setting programme designed to support social workers’ work-life balance by prioritising and planning out specific actions and goals.

The study found that social workers’ sense of feeling valued was positively impacted by receiving a letter from a senior figure in their local authority. The letter, which also contained two lines of personalised positive feedback from their direct line manager, was observed to be linked to “increases in subjective wellbeing, motivation and sense of belonging” on average, though these increases “were not statistically significant”.

One trial, which sparked controversy when it was announced, providing free tea and coffee to social workers in seven locations in Kent was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and administrative data from the trial showed no difference in sickness absence levels between the social workers who received the intervention and the control group.

However, qualitative interviews with participating social workers indicated the provision of tea and coffee was well received by social workers, and “may have contributed to a sense of feeling valued and helped to cultivate a more sociable work environment”.

A goal-setting programme designed to support social workers’ work-life balance – based on a successful similar programme for Civil Service employees – that prioritised and planned out specific actions and goals, received low-uptake.

Researchers said feedback from focus groups suggested a number of barriers to the success of the intervention, including “time poverty” preventing social workers from dedicating the required time to participate in the programme.

Though the study was impacted by the pandemic, researchers say the report highlights several valuable findings which can be used to inform both how senior management at local authorities can support their staff, and areas for future research.

The symbolic awards 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, the research argued.

Though only showing limited results, researchers said the trial providing free tea and coffee supports the view that staff might respond positively to “non-monetary signals of appreciation”.

The degree of time-pressure experienced by social workers, however, is such that some types of intervention are unlikely to be effective and further highlights the pressing need for interventions to address the systemic challenges facing social work, such as high-caseloads.

Dr Michael Sanders, Chief Executive, What Works for Children’s Social Care, said he was “heartened that these findings reinforce the importance of kindness.”

“While we try to tackle the bigger problems around caseloads and work-life balance, we must not forget that small things can still make a difference.”

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