“We need to talk about how we bake resilience into systems and teams. Otherwise, the onus is back on the person under stress.” – Dr. Tiffany Lindsey, EdD, LPC-MHSP
I recently listened to Dr. Lindsey speak as part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Social Work Public Child Welfare Training Program Spring Dialogue, and I’ve been thinking about this concept ever since. So much so that I asked Dr. Lindsey, an assistant professor and Safe Systems Practitioner at the University of Kentucky, if she would virtually sit down with me afterwards to speak more on safety culture, promoting worker well-being, and her work with the National Partnership for Child Safety.
Don’t get me wrong. I see the benefits of empowering social workers to care for their own well-being. But like Dr. Lindsey says, it’s not fair to put that burden solely on workers’ shoulders when they’re already overwhelmed and struggling to keep up with casework and their clients’ needs. (An example I’ve used before: “I have four permanency plans due tomorrow; I don’t have time to listen to this Zen playlist on Spotify!”)
Time and to-do lists are just one part of the problem though. Harvard Business Review’s (HBR) article, “Stop Framing Wellness Programs Around Self-Care,” dives into why focusing too much on self-care can also have negative effects on workers’ mental health:
“Human connections are especially critical for addressing the effects of stress, anxiety, burnout, and other forms of workplace distress. When organizations offer individual solutions, it can send the message that employees are on their own when it comes to their mental health. Worse yet, the resulting disconnection is self-reinforcing. As employees are left to manage their pain alone, they can become trapped in destructive cycles of anxiety and shame that make it harder to foster real connections. These patterns are often worsened in national and organizational cultures that revere self-sufficiency and independence.”
Stepping back into my worker shoes for a minute: If I was told yet again to make time for a bath or a walk around the arboretum (while well-intentioned, helpful, and grounded in research), I honestly would be rolling my eyes. These are individual-focused, band-aid solutions to a symptom of a larger culture problem in social work, rather than taking on the more difficult-to-solve issue of what causes burnout and secondary trauma in the first place.
Psychological well-being, a foundational element of the National Child Welfare Workforce Institute’s (NCWWI) holistic framework for worker well-being, “includes job satisfaction, psychological safety, and feeling able to show one’s self without negative consequences to self-image, career, or status. It also includes job burnout, work engagement, and inclusion.” (Hear more on this topic from NCWWI here.)
Dr. Lindsey discussed with me how creating a workplace culture grounded in psychological safety is crucial for organizations to consider when taking on the task of re-focusing on worker well-being. She described a psychologically safe workplace as one in which staff feel “connected, accepted, respected, and supported” and “free to take an inter-personal risk, able to disclose a mistake, able to describe when you have a concern about a decision being made—willingness to engage in a point of disagreement.” (Learn more about how the Public Children Services Association of Ohio (PCSAO) is implementing Safety Culture in Ohio as a great example!)
Failure to approach worker wellness on an organizational level can be detrimental to your agency as well. Burnout and turnover are already a significant problem for social workers, and agencies that don’t prioritize worker well-being will soon find themselves struggling with even more vacancies. As Dr. Lindsey shared, “Psychological safety is one of the most protective factors we’ve found against emotional exhaustion, and emotional exhaustion is what’s driving employee attrition. We know psychological safety is the secret sauce—and it sounds easier than it is!”
Prioritizing Worker Well-Being and Psychological Safety
Dr. Lindsey told me there isn’t a single right place to start. Here are some big and small ways to invest in your workers’ well-being and emotional care, and begin to create a culture of psychological safety in your agency:
Assess your culture.
As a leader, look for where psychological safety is absent. There may be immediately known examples of this that come to mind. “Ask yourself, how do we process and learn when things go wrong? How connected is our response to severity bias? How do we respond to our professionals when a mistake is made – is it restorative or retributive?” This is the advice Dr. Lindsey shared as a place to start, in addition to performing an organizational assessment. This simple one from Amy Edmonson is a great example. Tools like this are useful for creating shared language and level-setting where you are starting from.
Ask staff for input.
Break out our favorite scaling and “magic” questions typically used with clients. If you find that only six out of 10 staff feel safe to ask for help, ask “What would it look like to get us to 10 out of 10 staff feeling safe to ask for help?” or “If we all felt psychologically safe, what will look different around here?” This effort must be championed by leaders, but as Dr. Lindsey stated, “we all have a role in culture.” All levels of your staff are critical to moving yours forward, from the clerical worker quietly providing free therapy to the unit they support, to the director of a division who sets the tone of culture.
Provide resources where workers are.
Don’t put it on your staff to seek out mental health or safety resources by themselves. Like self-care, that’s just another thing they have to do. Instead, bring in counselors, therapists, or other mental health professionals that workers can process with (in person or virtually) in a safe space.
Offer benefits that promote wellness.
Rethink benefits from a wellness perspective. For example, 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.
Consider new decision making or practice models.
There has been much discussion as of late around the benefits of team-based decision making, like Mindful Organizing, in terms of both family outcomes and worker emotional well-being. When workers feel isolated out on an island, terrified of making the wrong decisions and impacting the lives the serve, the emotional exhaustion begins to accumulate. Think about how decisions can become teamed, workers can stay connected, and crises can be staff in groups rather than solely being the responsibility of the one worker assigned. This TeamFirst field guide from the Praed Foundation can be a great resource as you get started.
Take a restorative approach to learning.
Make every decision or action, good or bad, a learning opportunity. For example, supervisors could use the “Plus, Minus, Interesting” framework to help workers reflect on their cases and identify what they might do differently next time. Ask questions like: What went well? What didn’t go well? What surprised you? What did you learn? This type of reflection can also help support psychological safety.
Provide the right tools to do the job. (Oh, come on, you know we’re going to say it!)
Invest in technology that allows workers to do the job they signed up to do—assisting clients in being healthy, safe, and successful. This could include tools that digitize and streamline forms, make documenting case contacts or organizing case content as light a lift as possible, or support the implementation of new client engagement models like Motivational Interviewing. This goes a long way in preventing burnout, making workers feel more fulfilled, and giving them space to grow as people and professionals. Dr. Lindsey commented,
“Technology is how we connect and communicate, and technology can help us be safer in our practices. We have so much more that we can leverage with technology that helps us to create fidelity in our case practice, have meaningful workplace connections.”
What's Good for the Workforce is Good for Families
It can seem daunting but moving worker well-being from solely an individual responsibility to a group and agency-wide responsibility is crucial to many common goals of better worker retention, better client engagement, and better outcomes for children and families.
As HBR’s article states, “Rather than focusing on self-care, we need to be better at taking care of each other.” And as Dr. Lindsey put it, “What’s good for the workforce is good for the families they serve. That work lives together.”
Investing in your workforce well-being can have ripple effects beyond just those that you employ, but the community you serve. If you aren’t already investing in workers’ well-being on an organizational level, these ideas and resources will help you get started.
PS: Since May is Mental Health Month, this topic has been prevalent for the past few weeks. But it should be a priority any time of year. It’s no secret that social workers are experiencing burnout, depression, exhaustion, and other mental/emotional health issues at alarming rates. Organizations like Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and Mental Health America (MHA) have tons of resources if you or anyone you know needs help dealing with the challenges you’re facing:
- SAMHSA Mental Health Awareness Month
- MHA’s Tools 2 Thrive & Mental Health Month Toolkit
- National Alliance on Mental Illness Mental Health Awareness Month
- The Mental Health Coalition’s Resource Library & Language Guide
Laura Haffield began her career as a social worker in public child welfare. She earned a master’s in social work from University of Wisconsin – Madison as a Title IV-E Public Child Welfare Trainee. As director of advocacy, she draws on this experience to be the bridge between Northwoods’ internal and external audiences. She ensures the social worker is the most important person in every decision, from what we build, to how we implement, to how we support our partners along the way.