World Social Work Day 2023: How social work teams in East Lothian have promoted staff wellbeing and development

21 March 2023

Topic: Health and Wellbeing, Local authority
Author: Rogan Higginbottom

On this World Social Work Day, Rogan Higginbottom, a senior workforce learning and development officer at East Lothian Council (ELC), shares how social work teams have supported staff wellbeing and development following the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and in the face of ongoing recruitment and retention challenges.

There was a real hope of some relief as we started to move out of COVID times and find what seemed to be a new normal of online meetings, hybrid working and blended training. Instead, social work was met with a recruitment and retention crisis and a rise in the volume and complexity of work alongside financial pressures. With the publication of The Promise and Setting the Bar for Social Work in Scotland reports, there has been a spotlight on the importance of supporting the workforce to continue the valuable work with people who experience vulnerabilities:

“The workforce needs support, time and care to develop and maintain relationships. Scotland must hold the hands of those who hold the hand of the child” (The Promise, 2020)

“The workforce must be supported to bring their whole selves to work so that their interaction with children is natural and relational” (The Promise, 2020).

Using the key principles of trauma-informed practice, ELC Children’s Services wanted to share how our staff have worked together to improve the wellbeing of frontline staff. While there are many other examples of best practice, we have chosen to highlight a key few that have had an impact for us:

1. Choice and Collaboration – Staff Survey

Like many social work teams, East Lothian’s Children’s Services has felt the significant impact of the recruitment and retention crisis. With an ever-increasing workload and vacancy rate, the strain could be felt throughout the service. Staff were feeling exhausted, emotionally and physically, with sickness levels rising. Despite these challenges, frontline staff continued to work alongside children and families to ensure they received the support they required. During these challenges, Children’s Services gathered information from staff through a survey focused solely on staff wellbeing. This survey informed our action plan and ensured the voice of the staff was at the centre of the changes. We intend to revisit the survey next year (2024) to evaluate if significant change has been made to staff wellbeing.

2. Trust- Team Development Days

Working from home as a social worker brings a number of challenges: you lose the natural flow of support from the team around you, there is an increased risk of losing your work/life balance and you are trying to help people navigate trauma from your home environment. Some staff had started employment with us during the pandemic and not managed to meet their team members face-to-face. Spending time as a team was a key theme from the staff survey, highlighting how much staff rely on each other for emotional and physical support.

Staff suggested team development days would really help to support staff to reframe their current relationships and also allow them to build new relationships with new staff or people who had moved teams. The staff teams decided how they would spend their team development day, with some doing team activities outdoors and having lunch together:

“It was a day to bring the Team together, boosting our Team moral and closeness after an extended period of stressful and difficult times for the Team, which had left some of us feeling detached”.

“With a lot of new members in the team it was a great chance to get to know people on another level. We laughed, found out more about our families and created a real team ethos”.

- Staff members from East Lothian Council

3. Promoting trauma-informed training

In addition to the staff development days, Children’s Services focused on the training they were delivering to staff and ensuring this communicated staff value, generated a safe space for learning and encouraged staff voice in implementation and improving the service. During Applied Suicide Intervention Skills training, we ensured employees had some information in advance of what to expect during the course; two managers dedicated time to be on hand should anyone require emotional support out with the training; lunch was provided; and wellbeing bags were given to each participant with useful resources for themselves and others, including a candle to remember those lost to suicide.

We have extended this trauma-informed lens into what we provide in some of our key meeting rooms, and support for children and families including a play area with resources for children of various ages.

4. Empowerment – wellbeing

The survey highlighted that staff were aware of some of the services offered within ELC to support staff wellbeing; however, this was not consistent. In order to address this, we invited key services along to our departmental briefings and now have a wellbeing board which information is shared on. This included counselling services, therapy offers, staff benefits, national supports and dedicated people for staff to speak to. We also have examples of frontline workers within teams creating their own wellbeing resources for each other and taking the lead on supporting the team:

“We wanted to try and encourage each other to take a wee break away from the desk to re-set, chill or even off load a bit to each other. Take a 10 Smiley emoji

“As discussed at the team meeting we thought a buddy system might encourage us to stop and take 10 mins to have a wee off load. We aren’t expecting people to take on others problems but it can be a challenging job. A problem shared is a problem halved”.

- Staff member from East Lothian Council

I could probably write a book about all the great practice that our ELC’s frontline staff deliver however I wanted this post to focus on the importance of protecting, nurturing and supporting our staff in one of the most challenging professions around. Ultimately, without well supported social workers, children and families would not have the support they need to remain together.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author/s and may not represent the views or opinions of CELCIS or our funders.

Commenting on the blog posts: sharing comments and perspectives prompted by the posts on this blog are welcome.

CELCIS operates a moderation process so your comment will not go live straight away.

Loading Conversation