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Posted Tuesday, August 1, 2017 by Greg Tipping

Pitfalls of Relying on Too Much Paper in Human Services

Going paperless is a priority for plenty of human services agencies, yet many organizations lack funding, resources, or proper justification to invest in technology and are forced to continue relying on time-consuming, labor-intensive, paper-based file systems and processes.

For those readers that fall into the latter, have you ever stopped to consider that maintaining the status quo could be doing more harm than good—and costing more—to your agency in the long run?

Consider these five risks associated with relying too much on paper documents and manual processes.


It’s no secret that working in human services can be stressful. Every day is an uphill battle, with increasing caseloads, shrinking budgets, and the potential for turnover always looming.

In fact, 40% of workers we surveyed say they’ve burnt out due to overall job stress and the nature of the profession.

Paperwork burden and inefficient tools contribute to social worker burnoutBut that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Those who do understand the job to be stressful still never expected the added strain of having to spend so much time documenting their work, so another 37% of workers cited paperwork, as well as inefficient tools and poor systems, as reasons for burnout.

The paperwork burden is a significant contributing factor to the burnout cycle: when one worker leaves, each that remains has to take on more work, causing more stress and strain.

Employee morale declines, families don’t get the level of service they should, and the agency suffers.


Learn more: Breaking the Burnout Cycle [Webinar]

 Watch the Breaking the Burnout Cycle Webinar



It’s a given that complete, accurate, and readily accessible documentation is a critical component of compliance best practices in human services.

But, the heavier the paperwork burden and the more manual your documentation processes, the more prone your agency becomes to the inefficiencies and possible human errors—e.g., incomplete files, missing documents, conflicting information, etc.—that make it difficult to demonstrate that you’re meeting mandates and requirements.

Further, think about the amount of time, labor, and resources required for a paper-based agency to prep for an audit.

In this situation, chances are multiple staff members would need to be pulled away from their duties for several hours at a time, possibly over the course of several weeks.

That’s a significant labor cost, and an even more significant opportunity cost: workers that get pulled into the pre-audit frenzy are not serving clients or improving outcomes, which negatively impacts agency operations.


Learn more: A New Perspective on the Real Cost
of Compliance for Human Services Agencies

Download The Real Cost of Compliance for Human Services Agencies


Dark Data

Every piece of content has the potential to contain critical information about a case, but it gets buried deeper and deeper in the file as more new information gets added—especially for agencies that still rely on paper files.

Technology can help human services agencies uncover dark dataLet’s look at child welfare as an example. According to conversations with our customers, a typical child welfare case file contains over 1,000 documents, or approximately 4,000-5,000 pages of information, and the average caseload is between 24-31 cases.

Assuming one worker falls on the lower end of the spectrum, that’s 96,000 pieces of paper across their clients’ case files.

So, what happens when said worker needs to find one specific piece of information buried somewhere in those files?

Even if that person knows what they’re looking for, they’d still have to sort through thousands of pages of information to find it.

Without the right information, it’s tough to make an informed decision.


Learn more: 

Shining Light on Dark Data in Child Welfare [eBook]

Shining Light on Dark Data in Adult Services [eBook]

Download the Traverse-Dark Data eBook Download the Traverse-Dark Data eBook



The amount of time social workers are required to spend on paperwork is frustrating and discouraging to workers who want to spend more time with the families and children who need their services.

As one Children’s Services Program Manager told us, “We only have more and more and more paperwork. It's always documentation, documentation, documentation. That's just our world. I don't know when we have time to do all this documentation and then to actually have face-to-face time with families.”

Workers forced to rely on paper spend up to two more hours per day on documentation activities than those that don’t.

That means they have significantly less time to engage clients, build trust, and do actual work—a major disservice to the kids, adults, and families that rely on agencies’ services.

Further, relying on paper makes it much harder for workers to access information when they’re in the field interacting with clients.

Simply put, outdated, paper-heavy systems and processes make it extremely difficult for agencies to be truly efficient.


Learn more: 5 Hurdles Blocking
Social Worker Productivity [Business Brief]

Download 5 Hurdles Blocking Social Worker Productivity


Storage and Security

With more paper comes more space required to store and keep it safe.

We’ve visited agencies where ceilings are close to caving in because the boxes of paper stored in the file room above are so massive and heavy. We’ve heard horror stories of fire and flood damage, mold issues, and other hazards.

Technology helps human services agencies protect important informationCould you imagine the implications if years and years of case information literally went up in flames? Or the amount of time it would take to reconstruct hundreds, possibly thousands, of client files if everything came crashing through the ceiling?

In the off chance that disaster strikes within your agency’s walls, having too much paper stored on premise could lead to all sorts of problems.

Also, don’t forget that storage and security issues aren’t contained within your agency’s walls.

All humans—even social workers—are error-prone, so there’s always the chance that a worker might accidentally lose a paper file or leave it behind after a client visit held elsewhere than the office.

Storing sensitive case information in the cloud instead of on paper would increase the security of your data while clearing up some much-needed space in the office.


Learn more: Yadkin County Cuts Paper Usage and
Case Review Time by Half with Northwoods [Case Study]

Download Yadkin County Case Study


Now that you know the pitfalls of relying on too much paper in human services, what can you do about it?

Check out these case studies to get a better look at the real results human services agencies have seen by eliminating paper and modernizing processes:

Beaufort County DSS Reduces Turnover with Mobile Software for Social Services

Robeson County Goes 100% Paperless with Northwoods' Social Services Software 

Social Services Agencies Dramatically Impacting Retention with Mobile App

BeaufortCountyCaseStudyThumbnail.png RobesonCountyCaseStudyThumbnail.png RetentionThumbnail.png
Download Beaufort County Case Study Download Robeson Case Study Download Social Worker Retention Case Study


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Greg Tipping, Vice President, Complex Solutions Group, Northwoods

Greg Tipping—vice president of Northwoods’ Complex Solutions Group—helps agencies uncover and solve their most complicated, challenging, and unique business problems. Equipping agencies with custom solutions to deliver services better, Greg fulfills his mission to make a difference in the lives of folks that rely on support from agencies to get by day to day.