Posted Thursday, September 21, 2023 by Team Northwoods

Creating a Sustainable Workforce: 3 Keys to Support Human Services Heroes

Sustaining the workforce. Increasing capacity. Building resiliency. If you work in human services, you’re certainly familiar with these terms.

As agencies across the country continue to feel the effects of staffing shortages and a shrinking pool of quality candidates to fill their vacant positions, leaders are looking to address one of the major underlying causes contributing to the workforce crisis—staff burnout.

The reasons for burnout are many, including long hours, low pay, and lack of support. While many workers who enter the field expect the job to be stressful, they don’t anticipate the added burden of paperwork and bureaucracy. Yet, 64% of their burnout stems from these work-related causes.

Loree Walker, protective services program administrator for Jackson County Job & Family Services (JFS), shared how workers’ inability to keep up leads to increased pressure and overwhelming stress. “Every CPS worker needs more hands, more eyes, more ears, more time to complete all of the requirements of this job and to do it well,” she said. “We have seen huge turnover in child welfare for the last several years and it all goes back to that feeling that there is simply more to be done than what is possible.”

September is Child Welfare Workforce Development Month, making it a great time to rethink your strategies for supporting your workforce. If your agency is looking for meaningful ways to impact workers, we’d like to offer three key strategies to do so. Keep reading to dive more into each one.

  1. Foster an agency culture that prioritizes worker well-being and psychological safety.
  2. Leverage purpose-built technology to free up caseworkers’ time to focus on work that matters.
  3. Provide dedicated support for caseworkers through managed services.

Divider in a blog about supporting human services caseworkers

Foster an agency culture that prioritizes worker well-being and psychological safety.

“One of the biggest things that we've been working on is climate and culture,” said Tammy Osborne-Smith, director for Jackson County JFS. “Creating a psychologically safe environment, supporting staff, reducing burnout, and ensuring employee retention is always a high priority.”

Research shows organizational culture is a significant factor for both retention and turnover. (Culture is also foundational for realizing the full potential of technology, managed services, or any other new initiative since you must be open and willing to try new ideas if you want to benefit from them!)

If you’re not familiar, psychological safety centers on making your workers feel connected, engaged, accepted, and supported. It’s a foundational element of the National Child Welfare Workforce Institute’s (NCWWI) holistic framework for worker well-being. For human services agencies, some examples of how to prioritize worker well-being and psychological safety might include:

  • Make room for every decision or action, good or bad, to be a learning opportunity.
  • Consider team-based decision-making or practice models that keep workers from feeling isolated.
  • Mandate worker mental health and well-being PTO or offer wellness stipends that employees can use on things they need to support their mental and emotional health.
  • Bring in counselors, therapists, or other mental health professionals that workers can process with in a safe space.
  • Carve out time for workers to connect, catch up, and recharge, without making them feel like they need to sacrifice other responsibilities to participate.

The key to all this is recognizing that psychological safety and worker well-being stem from the organizational culture of your agency and cannot simply be another individual responsibility on your workers’ plates. It must be led from the top down. It must be implemented and practiced well.

Beyond supporting your existing workforce, this concept is also critical to attract new workers. “This new generation is demanding mental health. They want to be OK. And we want them to be OK,” said Justice Johnson, child protective services program manager for Cabarrus County Department of Social Services.

Divider in a blog about supporting human services caseworkers

Leverage purpose-built technology to free up caseworkers’ time to focus on work that matters.

Investing in technology allows workers more time to do the job they signed up to do—assisting clients in being healthy, safe, and successful. This in turn demonstrates that your agency is committed to helping caseworkers grow as both people and professionals, which is critical for retention and supporting safety culture.

“As directors, it is our sole responsibility to clear the path and move obstacles out of the way for people to stay in our agency,” said Joe Kellerby, child welfare director for Mesa County Department of Human Services. “Any time you can give caseworkers more time with families, it helps with their morale and their balance. That ultimately has a positive impact on the work we’re doing.”

Considering how many tools have become available in recent years, there are endless ways that your agency can leverage technology to help workers increase capacity to focus on mission-critical work. Here are a handful of examples:

“The push for documentation, information, and data to look at trends and areas of need is an important part of what we do. But for workers on the front lines and for supervisors the biggest thing we need is to spend time with families and make sure kids are safe,” said John Kalamas, supervisor for Jefferson County Department of Social Services. “Having more technology that we can use to do these things makes it so much better for everyone involved.”

Kara Davis – performance, evaluation, and innovation manager for Cuyahoga County Children & Family Services, also shared how technology helps get new workers in the door to fill vacant positions. “I think having the technology itself really speaks to the younger generation,” she said. “We are attracting them and maintaining them because they have the tools they need in order to do the job they have to do.”

Divider in a blog about supporting human services caseworkers

Provide dedicated support for caseworkers through managed services.

Think about all the administrative tasks that workers are responsible for doing, in addition to spending time with clients. Completing and compiling documentation, collecting signatures, organizing files—the list goes on. Often caseworkers have more of this type of work to complete than hours in the day.

While technology can certainly help minimize administrative burden, some agencies are recognizing that they can also support workers by removing these types of tasks from their to-do list altogether. That’s where managed services come in. “It's really not a luxury,” Loree said. “It's more of a necessity now to have that additional support to do this work.”

Consider some tasks that your agency might outsource if you had a dedicated partner to help:

  • Requesting records: Think about how often your team needs to request medical information, mental/behavioral health records, treatment records, school information—everything you need to gain a more complete, holistic understanding of the families you serve. Imagine having a team dedicated to calling and following up with external providers to collect this information in a timely manner, so that your agency has more information to guide your interaction with families.
  • Making referrals for services: Referral forms are some of the most ubiquitous forms that caseworkers complete. What if you had a team to initiate the process, submit the necessary documentation to support the need, and help families start services faster?
  • Preparing for court: Preparing to testify and compiling paperwork for court can be incredibly stressful for a child welfare worker who’s pressed for time. Imagine how much more supported they’d feel if someone else could take on these tasks, provide council, and help them prepare answers to questions that are likely to arise.
  • Supervision: The amount of tasks that come out of a case review meeting can often be overwhelming. Adding an extra set of eyes and ears to those meetings—someone who can track and organize the tasks, as well as complete them—can eliminate a lot of the burden previously placed on each worker. This extra support helps workers feel less overwhelmed and more confident when their workload is more manageable. It also allows supervisors to focus on coaching and being able to address workers’ questions and concerns.

Administrative work will always be important, but it’s simply not where workers want to spend most of their time. Having a team dedicated to organizing and prioritizing administrative work allows workers to focus on what their priorities are: driving meaningful outcomes for families. Agencies that offer this additional support have higher morale and are more likely to keep and attract staff.

“When you reduce staff burnout, that contributes to and supports staff retention. We have been fortunate enough to see staff stay and continue working,” Tammy said. “As a result, staff are becoming better trained, developing their critical thinking skills, and becoming the ideal caseworkers that we need to have out in the field working with families and children.”

Divider in a blog about supporting human services caseworkers

Capacity, resiliency, and wellness are top of mind during Child Welfare Workforce Development Month, but investing in your workforce should be a priority any time of year. You can provide the support your team needs (and deserves!) at the intersection of technology, services, and safety culture. Here are some resources to keep learning more:

Divider in a blog about supporting human services caseworkers

New call-to-action