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Researchers tasked with improving children's social care investigate benefit of staff getting motivational messages from leaders

What Works for Children's Social Care centre's pilot on Ministry of Defence employees branded 'a bit odd'...

Michael Sanders, chief executive of the centre

By Professional Social Work magazine, 2 August, 2021

A government-funded centre set up to improve outcomes in children’s social work is researching if a weekly email from senior managers improves job satisfaction – with a trial on Ministry of Defence staff.

The pilot by the What Works for Children’s Social Care unit wants to know if “light-touch messages” reduce burnout and turnover rates.

However, the British Association of Social Workers said there were “more fundamental reasons” for staff dissatisfaction that needed to be addressed such as high workloads and poor work conditions.

The investigation is the latest from the unit launched in 2018 and backed by £20 million from the Department for Education.

Two years ago it caused a stir with a study looking at whether free access to “high-quality tea and coffee” helped reduce sick rates among social workers.

Last year it suggested evidence for the effectiveness of family group conferencing was “weak” though academics questioned its research methods.

The centre’s latest project will see eight weekly messages sent to MoD defence intelligence staff who have joined the workforce within the last three years.

“This project builds on recent research showing that light-touch messages sent to staff which aim to increase social belonging and support can help to reduce burnout and turnover rates,” it said.

“The messages will contain content from MoD-DI senior leaders and existing employees focused around eight different themes and aiming to build a shared sense of professional identity and social belonging in the workplace.”

MoD staff were chosen for the trial because the nature of their work – including responding to disasters and child exploitation – means they are exposed to “distressing material and traumatic situations”.

Such staff, said the centre, “are likely to have higher rates of work-related trauma as a result of their work and this is reflected in the key reasons for sickness absence rates amongst staff”.

Newer staff were selected for the research as they are likely to have experienced less work cohesion since the shift to working from home during the pandemic.

BASW England national director Maris Stratulis said: “It seems a bit odd that the What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care would choose to trial this on MoD staff and not social workers.

“While there may be some merit in a weekly message from senior leaders to help create a cohesive workforce, there are more fundamental reasons for social workers suffering stress and burnout to do with high workloads, work conditions and lack of resources.”

The study is inspired by an experiment with dispatch workers in Canada sent six weekly emails designed to instil a sense of “common positive professional experiences”.

It found that employee burnout and turnover declined six months later.

“Wellbeing interventions” drawn from psychology to cultivate a stronger sense of social support and connectedness represent latest work practice, say researchers.

The study is part of a wider research programme called Happier Healthier Professionals looking at how to improve wellbeing among public sector workers.

The free tea and coffee study was part of this along with another project looking at the benefits of staff receiving personalised letters from senior management to their home.

Another project looked at how “goal-setting” helped increase wellbeing and reduced staff turnover. However, a low participation and a completion rate of fewer than two per cent of participants meant no difference was observed.

Weekly or monthly messages from chief executives or senior leaders is something that has grown in workplaces in recent years, though there is little research to evidence how effective it is in motivating staff.

Interim findings from the MoD study be published later this year. 

The What Works for Children's Social Care unit was contacted for comment.