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, consider this: maintaining the status quo could actually be doing more harm than good—and costing more—to your agency in the long run.

Below are five risks to think about if your agency relies 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, and the potential for turnover is always looming.

Paperwork burden and inefficient tools contribute to social worker burnout

In fact, turnover has reached crisis levels in some states, often due to overall job stress, overwhelming caseloads, inefficient tools, and other factors that stand in the way of workers actually being able to do their job.

The paperwork burden is a significant contributing factor to the burnout and turnover cycle, too. As one child protection social worker told us before her agency went paperless, "Cases just seem harder, they take longer and there's just tons of paperwork with everything. That's my biggest challenge, that paperwork piece."  

It's an endless cycle: if 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.



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.


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. Child welfare social workers need to know every child’s story, inside and out, to ensure the child is safer tomorrow than they are today. However, the information that tells this story (the "dark data") is often hidden or virtually impossible to retrieve.

Social workers are forced to sift through hundreds of pages in a file to familiarize themselves with the complete history of a case before making critical decisions or launching an investigation. Because of the overwhelming amount of information available, finding the specific evidence that will conclusively support these decision can be overwhelming, if not impossible.

If social workers are unable to access and use the information they need while caring for vulnerable children and families, there could be fatal consequences.



The amount of time social workers are required to spend on paperwork is frustrating and discouraging to workers who have a passion to serve and want to be doing all they can to help families.

Manual, time-consuming processes limit these workers' ability to engage clients, build trust, and do actual work.

As one children’s services program manager told us, “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.”

A child support worker at the same agency shared a similar sentiment, "It’s just so much paperwork. It’s hard on me because you know that the families aren’t getting the money they need for that month."

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

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


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 and caseworkers—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.


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


Subscribe to Northwoods' blog for human services


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.