Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Children’s social workers: are tea and coffee cures for sickness absence?

I didn’t know whether to be amused or whether to be driven to despair when I read that researchers from the What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care were planning a study into whether providing free, high-quality tea and coffee at work reduces social worker sickness absence rates.

I did go to the trouble of reading their project outline and was impressed by the statistical sophistication of their randomised control trial design and by the impressive affiliations of members of the project team (Harvard Business School and UCL School of Management). 
What I wasn’t impressed by was the thinking behind this study.

My first thought was: have these people heard of Herzberg? 

Every management student learns at the beginning of their introductory course in organisational behaviour about Herzberg’s two factor theory. In the 1950s Herzberg distinguished between what he called ‘motivators’ (achievement, recognition, growth, advancement, responsibility and the work itself) and ‘hygiene factors’ (salary, status, company policy, security, supervision and working conditions). He argued that only the motivators were sources of satisfaction at work while hygiene factors were sources of dissatisfaction. We can include tea and coffee in hygiene factors because they are a part (and only a small part) of working conditions.

The outrage of some of the tweets quoted in the Community Care article on this research seems to be due to children’s social workers feeling patronised by the suggestion that all they need to work more effectively may be unlimited free hot drinks. Very rightly some say that what they want is more scope for achievement and more responsibility for their work. 

One, Tracey @traceycjwright, is quoted as saying: “It's absolutely patronising. We need more staff, less paperwork and much less arse covering processes. Give us the time to build relationships and provide actual support. Maybe even throw in some positive reinforcement and appreciation in supervision.” It seems that Tracey wants more motivators, not more hygiene factors and I expect that most children’s social workers would agree with her. 

Most children's social workers who burn out or go off sick with stress, chronic fatigue, anxiety or depression do not do so because of domestic arrangements in the office. They go off sick because they find their jobs overwhelming, anxiety provoking and deeply dispiriting.

My second thought on reading about this research was: do they know anything about sickness absence? 

Nearly 20 years ago now, I did some research for a medium sized local authority in the south of England, which provided the full range of services including children’s services. The chief executive wanted to know about sickness absence and how to reduce it. I was able to download many years of sickness absence data from the authority’s HR IT system and analyse it. The first thing that was apparent was that sickness absence was very much higher in certain units of the council than it was in others. Employees who daily faced members of the public in what might be called ‘challenging circumstances’ were hugely more likely to sign off sick than employees who worked in offices and had little contact with the public. 

The highest sickness absence rates were among emergency housing officers, parking wardens and social workers. Children’s services, in particular, had alarming rates of sickness absence compared to the finance and IT and other administrative departments of the council.

The second thing I found was that the pattern of sickness absence was characterised by what is called a Pareto distribution (sometimes known as an 80:20 distribution). In fact about 80% of the sickness absence was caused by less than 20% of all employees. There was a small group of people who were chronically and seriously sick and who had to take off many days each year. In the administrative jobs (finance, IT etc.) these tended to be people who had heart attacks, diabetes or cancer. In children’s services the main causes of sickness absence were anxiety, stress and depression.  
My guess is that most of the sickness absence in the children's services departments where the What Works Centre’s research project will take place is explained by a few people who have serious chronic conditions, some due to the stressful work they undertake. Rates of sickness absence are unlikely to vary greatly as a result of most people taking a few more or a few less ‘sickies’ and they are very unlikely to be influenced by hygiene factors such as the provision of hot drinks. 

Tackling this kind of sickness absence requires not simply nudges – it requires serious thought about the design of the services and the effect of the design on the health and happiness of employees. That, in my humble opinion, is what the What Works Centre should be researching.