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‘Resilience’ is best supported by organisational culture, not individuals

Julian Groves 17 February 2020

An article is critical of the use of resources for individual social workers to address their own resilience in the workplace. Julian Groves, our head of staff engagement programmes, agrees.

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An article published in today’s Guardian – ‘Building ‘resilience’ won’t stop traumatised social workers quitting’, by Diane Galpin, Annastasia Maksymluk and Andy Whiteford – flags a number of important issues about the pressures facing social workers. This is an area we have been involved in for the last year thanks to a partnership with the What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care, which is supporting children’s social services to pilot Schwartz Rounds.

Our involvement in children’s social work stems from a firm belief that the issues faced by so many working in health apply equally to social workers. The challenges of high-stress, emotionally charged work, without time or space to reflect on experiences, are acute. Add to these a working context of squeezed finances, sluggish pay growth, labour shortages and enhanced public scrutiny, and perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised if people quickly start to feel they want to move on.

In the health context it is clear to us that high quality care cannot be delivered unless those providing care feel safe and secure, and able to reflect on their experiences to make improvements. This may seem intuitive, but there is evidence for it as well. You only have to read the reports from public inquiries into high-profile health scandals to see what can go wrong when people lose touch with the human-to-human nature of their work, or don’t feel able to speak up about poor care.

The authors in today’s Guardian point out the importance of a stable workforce to high-quality social work, and the impact of workforce pressures and high staff turnover. This again reflects the ‘happy carers = better care’ maxim.

There is no easy solution to any of these issues. Social work – like health work – is inherently tough on the people who perform it. So the authors are right to criticise an approach to workforce resilience that lays responsibility for looking after mental wellbeing at workers’ doors. For all the reasons outlined above, there are many factors outside of individual workers’ control that contribute to workplace stress. The answer to improving retention in health or care is not to pass responsibility from people running and commissioning services to those tasked with delivering them, but to look holistically at how services are managed.

Resources for individuals may have a part to play – but they will not on their own solve the crisis of culture that is making health and care work so difficult. The evidence for Schwartz Rounds is that they help to reduce instances of psychological distress among regular attendees. Schwartz Rounds are not therapy or self-help; they are part of the culture of an organisation which says to its staff: ‘we care about you, we support you’. Their strength lies in bringing together people from across organisations – clinical and non clinical, doctors, receptionists, nurses and executives – to listen to each other in a supportive environment.