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At first glance, social work is in crisis. The average social work career lasts eight years, and 73% suffer emotional exhaustion as a result of work. These statistics do little to attract new workers to the profession, nor do they help to motivate the existing workforce.
It is a myth that money is the solution to motivating any workforce. The largest ever study to investigate the relationship between pay and job satisfaction concluded that, for roles other than the most basic mechanical tasks, an increase in pay led to a decrease in worker engagement. Instead, paying workers enough to remove pressing financial concerns and improving other working conditions produced the highest job satisfaction. With the question of money removed from the equation, a more creative response to social worker motivation is required.
How would you choose to spend a completely free Saturday? You’d probably choose something you found stimulating – a hobby, sport or spending time with loved ones. Engagement is more reliant on the ability to choose than on the activity itself.
Social work is becoming increasingly process driven; particular forms completed on particular occasions and set tasks completed within set timescales. This seeks to prevent workers from going wrong, rather than inspiring them to excel. In social work, we work with people who are more unpredictable than the one size fits all processes we use. Social workers need the space to be creative, to make use of their experience and to act according to case-by-case judgments.
In 2006, for example, Hackney children’s services completely overhauled its processes and paperwork, replacing them with a system that gave social workers increased space to determine best practice creatively. This halved the number of staff going on sick leave and reduced the number of children going into care by 40%. To increase worker motivation and improve client outcomes, social service providers must take a fresh perspective on existing processes and support social workers to think outside the box.
Back to your free Saturday, why have you chosen that particular activity? We often choose to return to the same activities because we see progress, such as learning to play one musical instrument well instead of every instrument in the orchestra.
As a highly skilled profession, social work requires an in-depth understanding of the humanities and social sciences, as well as proficient interpersonal and communication skills. Despite requiring an intelligent and talented workforce, the skill of social work is held in poor regard. The solution is simple; celebrate our work and praise those striving to improve. This can be achieved in any social work team by offering positive feedback on exemplary practice and giving awards for major achievements. It can also be achieved by government bodies and politicians praising outstanding work publicly, supporting a nationally recognised set of awards, and standing alongside struggling services to encourage better practice – rather than condemning them for poor Ofsted ratings.
This would cause a change from the expectation that all social work must meet a certain standard, to an environment where there is no ceiling and where all workers are supported to improve. Outstanding social work practice already exists in the UK. By recognising and valuing it, workers will become increasingly motivated to remain in the profession and improve.
More than 15 million people gave their time voluntarily at least once a month between 2012 and 2013 – but why? We are all intrinsically motivated in some way to leave a positive imprint on the world around us. This is often a strong character trait in social workers who enter the profession to see lasting improvements in people’s lives.
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, and are disconnected from the true purpose of their work. This calls for outstanding leaders who are capable of holding on to the wider vision of the service, and who work hard to keep their team in sight of it.
Vision-centred leadership does not only apply to positions of responsibility, but to all social workers. We have a responsibility to encourage and support our colleagues, and rescue them when they wallow in the difficulties of the profession. If we commit to holding to a vision of making a difference, we could change social work from a place of negativity and defeat, to recognising our everyday successes and aspiring for more.
We need a shift in the culture of social work; away from compliance and towards creativity, away from inadequacy and towards celebrating proficiency and building a culture of encouragement and vision-centred leadership. If we achieve this, we may see a profession where workers are as motivated by their jobs as they are by a free Saturday.
David MacFarlane is a newly-qualified social worker. This is an edited version of the overall winning entry of an essay competition on the future of social work, organised by Liquid Personnel. Read the essay in full here.
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