A Reasonable Imperative for Social Work Employers
Focus Group on How Working Conditions Can Be Improved
Following the publication of a special issue of the Chapter newsletter, Currents, on “Improving Working Conditions for Social Work Practice - Implications for Service Quality and People’s Lives” (November, 2006), a focus group of social work administrators was held to determine how some agencies and programs are actually making a difference.
NASW-NYC has been addressing working conditions because many social workers, especially those providing direct or clinical services, have been reporting for a long time that even agencies and programs that are well regarded may have relatively problematic working conditions, making the rendering of professional social work services difficult, and even jeopardizing the lives of clients.
In the November newsletter recommendations were made for improving conditions, some of which were believed to be achievable at minimal or no cost (see www.naswnyc.org for the recommendations). A few agencies were understood to engage in fund raising to increase staff salaries. In addition, some administrators had shared that they gave a great deal of attention to providing an optimal working environment.
Chapter leaders have assumed that if some administrators are able to improve working conditions, it stands to reason that others should be held to an expectation to also make a difference.
Employers Address Working Conditions
Focus group participants were social work administrators identified by members of the NASW-NYC Board of Directors and others. Only administrators from small or mid-sized organizations were included, with the assumption that representatives of larger agencies would have more resources to draw from, perhaps making their lessons and suggestions less applicable to less well financed organizations.
Nine social work administrators participated in the focus group, which was held on June 20, 2007 at the NASW-NYC office. They represented a city-wide family services agency, two community based mental health agencies, one state run mental health facility, two small programs serving seniors, two settlement houses, and a social work department in a university teaching hospital. With the exception of one program, under government auspice, every agency was in the not-for-profit sector.
A Host of Issues
The meeting started by asking the participants what they see as problems in the working conditions of their own organizations. One administrator who runs a small program for seniors, said right off, “salaries, salaries, salaries.” A second administrator, the CEO of a mental health program, repeated her exact words. A third said that in his facility, where salaries are higher than for most social workers, they are still a significant concern. Another said that the increasing cost of health benefits is very challenging to deal with, in addition to salaries.
Then came a host of other issues.
One participant shared that his organization’s auditors told his board of directors that it is impossible for several of their mental health programs to break-even, given the meager level of funding. Despite his desire to hire professional social workers, he said that he has been at times forced to de-professionalize social work positions. He also said that caseloads are increasing, and this has had an impact on morale and the quality of services. In addition, with government moving to performance-based contracting, he said that requirements for documentation have further increased paperwork.
Others added that space is a big issue, as is the lack of support for providing educational advancement and professional development. One focus group member said that this diminishes the “atmosphere” for doing professional social work. The director of the hospital social work department added that social workers feel that professional standards are compromised when they have to move patients so quickly, averaging four days for a typical discharge. He said that this is experienced as “patching things together,” with the result that patients often wind up returning to the hospital because the discharge plan did not work.
Another administrator shared her concern that non-social work program directors, technical and financial staff, as well as some higher level administrators, often disparaged the social workers, seeing them in a negative light. She said that this has had consequences for how social workers are treated and understood within the organization.
Approaches that Work
Most of the meeting addressed the question of what social work administrators have been able to do to improve working conditions. While no one offered a magic bullet, there was a wide array of approaches.
The one approach used by almost all of the participants addressed assuring a good flow of communications between their staff and management, based on a basic assumption that professional social work services are of fundamental importance to their programs and services.
One executive director of a city-wide agency conveying that her door is always open to any member of the staff. A deputy executive director of another agency said that she used her position to increase understanding among other top level administrators of the value of professional social work and has challenged negative assumptions. Others shared that they too saw themselves playing this type of role, and the fact they are themselves social workers greatly informs them doing this. They said that they saw themselves as “advocates” on behalf of the profession and quality services.
One department director within a large institutional facility said that she initiated an educational campaign bringing attention to the contributions of professional social workers throughout the institution. She said that this included putting up posters as well as targeting distinct departments within the organization.
One of the CEOs in the focus group said that his board of directors has become quite involved in addressing working conditions. He said that after hearing the concerns of staff about the lack of office space, the board raised $300,000 dedicated to renovating staff offices. In addition, his president is now closely involved with the staff, attending program meetings on a regular basis.
The director of the hospital social work department offered a caution about the value of enhanced communication. He said that his facility invited all staff to anonymously share their concerns about working conditions and how to improve them, but resources were never made available to take corrective action. This left staff further alienated from the administration and the institution.
On a more positive note, most of the participants agreed that even when the administration is powerless to make desired changes, acknowledgement and discussion of the problems and issues tend to be appreciated by staff. However, as was pointed out by two focus group participants, a lack of knowledge about the organization’s budget constraints can result in significant distrust.
Some of the focus group participants shared that they involve their social work staff in program and strategic planning. One said that staff are consulted prior to deciding on whether to pursue grants. Some also have staff engaged with budgeting, at least within their own domain of work, as well as in the development of policy manuals. One administrator also said that her agency engages staff in the evaluation of the organization.
Professional Development and Access to Supervision
Several participants said that they support professional development through having more senior staff serve as mentors for other staff, and opportunities are provided for staff to serve as supervisors. Also more than one participant said that every effort is made to offer supervision to LMSWs that would help them become licensed clinical social workers down the road. Furthermore staff is asked to become expert in a specialized area and to then train others.
It was pointed out that, by providing support and recognition through having social workers serve as mentors and trainers, there is a downside of not having enough time for them to carry their full workload. Under such circumstances, what might be intended as an enhancement becomes an added burden.
One of the administrators shared that his agency has now put a premium on addressing issues of cultural competency and racism, and that he saw this as fitting into the context of improving working conditions. He said that staff has responded enthusiastically to this emphasis.
While a few administrators said that their agencies have social outings for staff, including picnics, boat rides and attending ball games, many said that such activities are often experienced by staff as a burden on their time. This was referred to by one participant as “forced fun.” Some of the participants said that they now emphasize involving staff in retreats outside of their facilities, with more of a focus on the substance of the organization’s work and future direction. The assumption is that there are benefits inherent in the involvement in the substance of the work of the organization itself.
Participants also said that they combine social activities with events such as staff recognition ceremonies and provide other benefits and incentives, including child care and flexible spending accounts.
Advocating for Higher Salaries
Salaries were also addressed by the administrator of one of the senior service programs. She shared that she has on several occasions challenged the policies related to contracting, which she said maintains set salary levels, and has pulled funds from non-personnel budget lines to provide her social work staff with what is essentially salary increases. This has been something that she had to insist on, even when it meant that she could potentially antagonize her funder.
Recommendations for Improvements
Focus group participants were asked for their suggestions for what NASW-NYC might do to further address working conditions.
Continuing on the point made about salaries that are determined through the contracting process with government, it was pointed out that contracts outside of human services do not have constraints on providing cost of living adjustments in relation to salary levels. It was recommended that NASW-NYC address this disparity in contracting and advocate with the commissioners of human service agencies to increase the amount of funds available for salaries.
Focus group participants said that NASW-NYC should educate funders, regulators and elected officials about the impact of poor working conditions on service delivery to clients.
NASW-NYC intends to follow up with city government on these points. In addition, the results of the focus group will be shared with social work employers throughout New York City. NASW-NYC’s goal for employers is that there be a clear expectation that employers are responsible for improving working conditions. Some are already making that effort.
NASW-NYC welcomes and encourages its members to circulate copies of the findings of this focus group to their employers and staff and requests opportunities to address how to improve the workplace.
NASW-NYC will also be sharing these findings with labor unions that represent social workers with the goal that the unions will pressure for needed improvements, including and going beyond the findings of the focus group.
NASW-NYC recognizes that improving working conditions will not be an easy task, especially given the economic issues that require human service providers to operate within very tight budget constraints. Nevertheless, the Chapter recognizes that the challenge must be engaged. The ability of professional social workers to make a difference in clients’ lives is too critical to hold back even though the problem runs so deep.