Using Behavioral Science to Improve Well-Being for Social Workers

BRIAN KENNY: Job stress. We’ve all felt it, some more than others. According to US News & World Report’s ranking of the 20 most stressful jobs, surgeons top the list. And that’s understandable if a surgeon has an off day, someone could die. In fact, medical professions occupy six of the 20 spots. Police and lawyers make the list as do bartenders and IT managers. And nestled away in the mid-point, are child and family social workers. The article points out that this is a profession where you can do a lot of good but coping with the hardships of children can lead to a lot of stress. So the social workers are looking out for the children, but who’s looking out for the social workers? Today’s case unfolds in the UK, where a team of behavioral scientists is taking on this very issue, attempting to improve the well-being of social workers in the country. Today on Cold Call, we’ll discuss professor Ashley Whillans case entitled, “What Works Center: Using Behavioral Science to Improve Social Worker Well-being.” I’m your host Brian Kenny, and you’re listening to Cold Call on the HBR Presents Network.

Ashley Whillans studies how people navigate trade-offs between time and money, her research investigates whether and how intangible incentives affect employee motivation and wellbeing. Her new book is called, Time Smart: How to Reclaim Your Time and Live a Happier Life. And I think that just came out recently, Ashley. Is that right?

ASHLEY WHILLANS: It did, it came out on October 6.

BRIAN KENNY: Congratulations for that.

ASHLEY WHILLANS: Thank you so much.

BRIAN KENNY: And thank you so much for joining us today. It’s great to have you on the show.

ASHLEY WHILLANS: Thanks for having me.

BRIAN KENNY: We’ve all experienced job stress. We certainly have, but I think everybody who has paid attention would know that social workers face a different kind of stress than most of us do in our day-to-day jobs. And I think the case does a great job of diving into that and then talking about some of the interventions that these behavioral scientists have used to try and improve the well-being of those social workers for their benefit and their client’s benefit and everything else. So I really appreciate you taking the time to come on and talk to us about it. And I’ll ask you to start by telling us, what would your cold call be to start this case in class?

ASHLEY WHILLANS: My cold call is: Which of the three interventions do you think will be the most effective at increasing wellbeing, reducing stress, and lowering turnover among social workers, and why?

BRIAN KENNY: Why did you decide to write this case? How did you hear about What Works? And how does it relate to the research that you do?

ASHLEY WHILLANS: As a behavioral scientist, the social psychologist by training who’s interested in applying the insights from psychology and economics in the world, hopefully to improve the lives of workers and organizations more broadly, I’m interested in small changes around the margins that can have powerful impacts for employee happiness, job satisfaction, and retention. So this case was a natural fit in terms of my broader research program, which seeks to understand how the decisions that we make on an everyday basis significantly impact our everyday happiness. And in this case, the happiness that we experience at work.

BRIAN KENNY: And happiness is one of your areas of expertise, which I think is a really cool thing to be studying, happiness.

ASHLEY WHILLANS: We were really trying to understand, well, what are some ways, without changing financial incentives, without paying people differently or more, or promoting employees, what are some small changes we can make to improve employee happiness in this context? So this case actually came out of a broader research program, looking at: What is the role of appreciation? What is the role of small perks in the workplace for moving the needle on how employees feel when they show up to work?

BRIAN KENNY: Behavioral science is a term that I think we probably use without really understanding what it’s all about, and I look at that and know that on this show we’ve had political scientists, we’ve had historians, and so people who think about management don’t necessarily think about some of the other disciplines that have come into play, probably more recently like over the last couple of decades where we’re moving beyond just like general management disciplines of accounting or marketing. And looking at behavior as a way to get better at work. Is that fair to say?

ASHLEY WHILLANS: Behavioral science is a growing and increasing trend in the academic space, but also more broadly in management. And behavioral science really seeks to draw insight from the social sciences like psychology, sociology, and economics to change people’s behavior in happiness producing ways or utility maximizing ways if you’re an economist, by reshaping an individual’s decision making environment. And most importantly, and as I outlined in the case, it has this historical precedent, this strong requirement of not just knowing through interviews and surveys but testing different strategies in the field to learn what works in real time in this specific context that you’re working in.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah, that’s the term science, I guess. Right?

ASHLEY WHILLANS: Well, there’s a lot of different ways of knowing. I mean, as a social psychologist, I sometimes try to understand how employees are feeling or what’s motivating by asking. Behavioral science takes us a step further and says, “Sometimes what employees say is not actually matching up with how they behave in the real world.” So we’d need to both hear from employees and survey them and understand their thoughts and feelings, but we also have to go a step further and look at their behavior.

BRIAN KENNY: Why don’t we dive into the case a little bit? The protagonist is Michael Sanders. Tell us a little bit about him, what’s his background and what kind of work does he do?

ASHLEY WHILLANS: Michael Sanders is someone I’ve known for a really long time, he was working in behavioral science and behavioral economics in the UK, and someone that I grew up together, if you will, in graduate school. And he used to work for the behavioral insights team which is what is thought to be the first nudge unit in the world, which is a whole group of individuals who started in government, and then expanded beyond government became a large consulting company who sat and really kind of came up with a way to use behavioral science principles and test them in the field at scale. So Michael was the chief behavioral science officer at the behavioral insights team for several years. And his wife is a social worker, he thought, I really want to be solving problems that are personally relevant to her, to my community. And the one thing that he was really frustrated by is that he worked for a consulting firm. Once a client project was done even if they had come up with a good solution that worked, that moved the needle on important outcomes. It wasn’t his job, it wasn’t under his purview to bring that solution to scale. So he wanted to switch careers to switch jobs so that he could start both designing and testing and then scaling the solutions he was seeing in the field, and so that’s why he joined the What Works Centre. He would be able to not only learn but also implement some of the solutions that he was seeing in his data.

BRIAN KENNY: So that’s kind of amazing. His wife is a social worker, so he’s seeing firsthand what she’s experiencing which gives him a whole different perspective on the work he’s doing.

ASHLEY WHILLANS: I think that is really one of the factors that landed so clearly to me in my conversations with Michael is he understood the stress from an academic perspective. We can all read reports and see that social workers in different professions face a whole myriad of stressors due to paperwork, due to burnout, due to increased workloads, and less support internally. And it’s another thing to have a spouse come home at the end of the day and seem exhausted or to take calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I remember distinctly when we were writing the case, we were at one of our friend’s weddings and his wife had to keep leaving the reception to take calls for a case. She was in the US time but it must have been the equivalent of midnight in the UK. And she was on-call constantly because her caseloads were so high, she had so many children and so many parents that she was managing that she really never had a moment off. And I think for Michael, both seeing the potential for these research-based solutions to have a powerful impact on the sector, but then also seeing the struggle firsthand was really the key motivating force for Michael to start this center and really begin on this program of work.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah, that’s very powerful. So you mentioned something a few moments ago, and I don’t want to just gloss over it because our listeners might not know what it means, but you mentioned the nudge movement. Can you talk a little bit about what that is? Because it factors heavily into the case here.

ASHLEY WHILLANS: So a nudge is a change to the decision-making environment that encourages people to engage in behaviors that is good for them but they might have a hard time doing if left to their own devices. The most famous example is defaulting people into 401k plans. So when you provide people the option, if they want to save more for retirement, everyone wants to but fewer people do maybe because they’re not sure which plan they should enroll in. And then they get caught up in other financial goals and they never make that initial decision, but simply defaulting people, making it the status quo for them to be enrolled in a program that they can then opt out of if they don’t want to be in the program, significantly improves the extent to which people save more tomorrow. That’s just one example among many. And the most important part, which makes a nudge a nudge is that it is non-coercive, it does not involve financial incentives and it still preserves free choice. Individuals are still able to make a decision to opt out of the 401k plan, but you’re encouraging them, nudging them into a decision that we think most people want to do that will ultimately improve their life in the future, i.e., you’ll have more money saved for retirement.

BRIAN KENNY: So, a nudge is not a nag, a nag is…

ASHLEY WHILLANS: It’s not a nag and it’s not a strong arm, it’s not a mandate, it preserves people’s freedom of choice.

BRIAN KENNY: I think that’s helpful just as we get into some of the experiments that they ran at What Works. So let’s talk a little bit about that. Can you describe What Works the Centre for Children’s Social Care, and what’s the work that they do there?

ASHLEY WHILLANS: What Works is a constellation of different government centers, if you will, throughout the United Kingdom, tasked with solving important challenges in UK society. The What Works Centre that the case focuses on is the What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care. So in Michael’s role in running the Centre, his team focuses on developing a program of research designed to improve the lives of social workers and the children and families they serve.

BRIAN KENNY: So, in the intro, I talked a little bit about the stress associated with being a social worker. That was in the US. From the US perspective, this case takes place in the UK, but I’m going to assume that the stress factors are pretty similar in the UK as to what they are in the US.

ASHLEY WHILLANS: Yeah, absolutely. So really what stands out in reports from the government in the UK is that public- sector employees and social workers in particular make up a huge proportion of the healthcare costs, proportionate to the amount of employees that are employed in these sectors, meaning that they are disproportionately affected by mental health concerns compared to other occupations. And this should come really to no surprise as we walk through the case, both through focus groups and reports, it becomes clear that they’re doing more with less, like so many of us in our professions today. There’s increased paperwork demands, shorter time horizons to complete cases, and less institutional support.

BRIAN KENNY: And these social workers are facing that in their home life too, I mean, they’re dealing with all the same kinds of stresses that we all are in day-to-day life. So they’ve got everything compounded and they’re not getting paid much either, that’s the other piece, right? They’re not that well-compensated.

ASHLEY WHILLANS: That’s true. The compensation is less than what you would expect from someone with the same amount of education. And just to put this stress again into concrete perspective, in a representative survey of social workers in the UK, 80{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} had experienced emotional distress directly resulting from illness among their clients, hospitalization, the death of their clients. So they are not only dealing with all these stresses and strains that all of us experience in the context of our everyday lives. But as you mentioned, they also have post-traumatic stress from a lot of the lived experiences of their clients, which as noted in our focus groups, individuals learn over time how to cope, manage, compartmentalize, but as a chronic stressor in the social workers lives that we studied as part of this case.

BRIAN KENNY: Sanders and his team are finding all this out on the research that they’re doing. What path does that lead them down in terms of figuring out what kinds of experiments to run?

ASHLEY WHILLANS: I mean, of course in a field like social work, there’s so many areas of intervention and it’s worth noting that the case focuses on well-being as sort of the first place to start. We wanted to focus in an area that would be net positive. If we could start moving the needle on employee satisfaction, then we could begin to co-design a future with engaged social workers who would be more likely to stay in the organization. We thought if we can help make employees happier now, social workers more satisfied now, then there’ll be more social workers, more leaders, more managers in the organization to help make more systematic changes later. If you think about behavioral science and nudge units and developing centers that have experimentation at their core, you need a lot of organizational support and buy-in, you need to train social workers and leaders within the organization to run experiments. And so it becomes really important that you start cultivating relationships in the long-term. And so we thought, if we could improve social worker wellbeing now we can really create a future together because we’ll have more employees around for the long run in the organization.

BRIAN KENNY: So, what are some of the ideas that the team came up with? And, how do you even approach something like this?

ASHLEY WHILLANS: We started in the academic literature, really trying to understand what had past studies shown that are simple interventions that we felt would be applicable in the current context that we could roll out at scale. And that included things like resilience training, mindfulness, other well-being interventions. And then we took this menu of options from the literature to social workers themselves and asked for their opinion.

BRIAN KENNY: You did focus groups with this?

ASHLEY WHILLANS: Yeah, exactly. So we did focus groups where we really put forward a host of solutions that the academic literature says could work, should work. And we wanted to get a read on what their opinions or thoughts about our interventions were. That actually kicked out one of the interventions that we mentioned and talked about in the case. So resilience training is something that a lot of organizations talk about and we had partnered and I’ve done some research on resilience training app that’s free and easy to use, can be disseminated on one’s phone. We thought this resilience app that’s on mobile phones would be perfect, but as it turns out, it wasn’t very user-friendly, the social workers that we talked to in these focus groups didn’t like it; they didn’t want to engage with it. And so we decided to throw that out and go with a set of standard options that were both good in the literature and from a perspective of they should work, given what we know in the academic literature and also were positively received by social workers.

BRIAN KENNY: Let me just ask you quickly about focus groups because I’m a marketing person, throughout my career we’ve done focus groups for all kinds of things. And I always find them to be a bit of a mixed bag in terms of the dynamics of the group. And how do you balance it out and make sure that you’re getting helpful information?

ASHLEY WHILLANS: So we went on a road trip if you will, and visited in person. And we did try to get a diverse range of perspectives: social workers who had just started, more senior level management. It was helpful in the sense that they weren’t afraid to tell us that they didn’t think that our academic ideas were likely to work. And we did have buy-in from senior management as well, which was completely essential. So senior managers would come in and explain who we are, and then leave the room so that social workers could feel comfortable sharing their true thoughts and feelings with us as outside observers, as researchers, under confidentiality, knowing that anything that they said in any of the insights that they had would be shared back to management but in a sanitized way at a high level.

BRIAN KENNY: Okay, so you’d be able to ensure honesty through that kind of an approach. So what were the experiments that you decided to move forward with?

ASHLEY WHILLANS: So we decided to move forward one, with the symbolic award intervention. So we know from the research that a lot of the reason we feel burnt out or stressed out at work is that we don’t feel appreciated. I’ve been hearing this more and more in my research during the work-from-home period of time because face-to-face interactions, these casual informal conversations in hallways, are no longer happening. So there’s less opportunity for spontaneous appreciation. And this is came out as a central theme of the social workers that we interviewed. They didn’t feel valued. They felt like their work wasn’t being seen and heard by management. And so the first intervention was simple: managers would write personalized thank-you notes to their employees. And we developed a survey, an online tool that would enable us to do this at scale, such that all managers would write thank-you notes to all of their direct reports. We gave a template, we made it very easy, and I think what was really nice about this intervention is these letters were mailed to social workers’ homes, and there was handwritten signatures at the bottom. So it wasn’t a form field email, it was a piece of mail—who gets the mail from their boss?

BRIAN KENNY: Okay, so that’s one experiment. What were the others?

ASHLEY WHILLANS: The second experiment was the provision of coffee and tea. And this came from social workers saying that they didn’t feel supported. So in one particular focus group, one social worker noted, positive feedback from families doesn’t happen very often. And senior management sometimes relays messages of support, but there’s no tea and biscuits or anything like that. And this lack of appreciation is what we’ve come to expect from our workplaces. And we know from the academic literature that small symbolic awards, a certificate, something that doesn’t have financial meaning, can mean a lot to employees. Again, because it helps employees feel a sense of being appreciated and valued. So we implemented the provision of free coffee and tea with a note of appreciation from management in offices all over the UK. Those agencies don’t have a lot of budget to spend. They miss out on the perks that people working in industry might become accustomed to.

BRIAN KENNY: You hear about that. And a lot of these, the tech companies and obviously in the private sector. So I would imagine if you’re on the outside looking in at that you could pretty easily become disillusioned.

ASHLEY WHILLANS: Yeah. So that’s what our thinking was. Why don’t we offer a small perks and small rewards? These small intangible incentives that most people take for granted, it’s something that social workers have never been exposed to. So it might be especially motivating for them, especially in the absence of having had it before. So the third experimental design that we went with was goal setting. So as we’ve already talked about social workers like all of us, like 80{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} of working Americans today, my data report feeling overwhelmed by the demands of work and life. And these burdens, as we mentioned already, are especially high among social workers. And so the third intervention involved helping social workers get all of their work done by planning and agenda setting. So it was a goal management tool to help social workers manage the multiple competing demands that they have with paperwork and case calls and trainings and meetings with their manager and notes. They have a lot to do, and they’re constantly managing very different types of work simultaneously. So the third intervention came out of this idea, how can we help empower employees to take control over their schedule and over their time.

BRIAN KENNY: Okay. So how do you measure, like how do you know which one is working and how do you know how it’s working?

ASHLEY WHILLANS: We focused on three primary outcomes, we focus on self-reported wellbeing, the number of sick days that employees took over a pre-specified period of time, about six months the studies, and turnover—whether social workers quit.

BRIAN KENNY: Okay, what did you learn?

ASHLEY WHILLANS: So, what we learned is that the only intervention that I just discussed that had a positive significant impact on reducing stress, improving wellbeing, and reducing sickness days was the letter of appreciation from one’s manager.

BRIAN KENNY: Wow. I bet that’s a surprise. I read the case, so I knew that going in, but I wasn’t expecting that as I was moving through the case that surprised me.

ASHLEY WHILLANS: Were your bets on all of them? I’m curious what was surprising to you as. As an educator, I’m always curious what people reading the case for the first time were surprised by, exactly.

BRIAN KENNY: I was surprised because to me maybe I’m cynical, I don’t know I would have… I don’t know that I would have thought that that was a sincere expression of appreciation. Although you include the examples of all of these in the exhibits, which I thought was great because I did read the letter and it felt pretty warm, it did have a personal to it. I just thought that the free coffee would be the one that would win people over. People just love to get free stuff, so that’s the one that I figured might work.

ASHLEY WHILLANS: It is true. It is true. Behavioral science does say that people like free, but what was interesting is that, the coffee and tea and the provision of it was pretty contested. And this goes back to something that we talk about in the teaching note. You really need to be sensitive to the audience and here we’ve already talked about this, but social workers don’t make very much money. And then they are receiving a material object that feels trivial, but it’s still a material object, so they’re thinking the organization bought tea and coffee for all of the social workers in the UK but they can’t give me a raise. And so it actually created a bit of this feeling of injustice, of inequality, of unfairness. It brought up a lot of negative emotions actually, and this dialogue is really important part of the process of experimentation and learning and failing and trying. And we think it was a positive because it meant that we started to build bridges between senior leadership, so now we’re not just running focus groups with managers and employees but also senior leadership is in those conversations when we’re designing our next set of interventions. We actually did think coffee and tea was going to have a net positive as well. It ended up being somewhat negatively perceived and creating a lot of critical dialogue that we think is essential for this work moving forward.

BRIAN KENNY: I’ve been in situations managers have to do things that they thought, you know, would help the situation. And there were the right intentions, but it had the wrong effect, that had an unexpected, negative impact, like, like this did, but when you take the scientific approach to it, you’re able to measure it and gain insights that you can work from versus just becoming cynical and saying, “It doesn’t matter what we do, nobody likes what we’re doing for them.”

ASHLEY WHILLANS: Absolutely. And another insight came from the goal setting intervention. We’ve seen it be effective in other contexts. And here the population was so stressed that I think it’s something like less than 10{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} even tried it once. And so it’s not the intervention that’s not working, it’s that employees don’t feel like they have enough time to even try something new. And so it also points to areas for future intervention. And so now Michael and his team in part with, and I’m collaborating on this a bit now as well, we’re thinking, well, how can we save social workers’ time so that they have enough space in their schedule to engage in goal setting interventions or other learning and development opportunities, which again, we know is important for employee satisfaction and retention, but then employees right now just simply don’t have time to even entertain. And so one thing that we have some promising results on now is a dictation pilot. So a lot of casework involves taking notes, and a lot of this note taking is still happening by hand. And so we’re training social workers to dictate notes in hopes of reducing the paperwork burdens that they all experience. And actually, giving back some more time in their day, so they can have more time to spend in fulfilling ways like learning and developing new skills or learning goal management, goal setting techniques, and other professional development opportunities, which might be part of the reason so many employees are quitting as they feel like they’re so overwhelmed. They can’t even do their job, let alone try to progress in it in the first place.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah, so the experimentation of What Works continues, if we pull the lens back, is it your observation or belief or hope, I guess, that more firms will start to pay attention to these kinds of tools as a way to improve the wellbeing of their workforces? It seems to me there’d be great benefit in it for firms to figure out how to get better at this?

ASHLEY WHILLANS: I’m a strong believer of a quote that Uri Gneezy talks about, he’s a behavioral economist, and John List as well, that firms that learn how to experiment will be leaders in their fields because it’s one thing to read something in a textbook, and it’s another to put it into practice into your own organization, but not just simply drag and drop, but customize the intervention or the solution for the unique needs of your employee population, and for the needs of individuals within your employee population. What’s going to work for younger employees is not necessarily going to be the same that works for your more experienced employees. And so I really see experimentation as a critical tool within firms and within government now and going forward.

BRIAN KENNY: So, Ashley, this has been great talking to you about this case, really interesting. Let me ask you if there’s one thing you want our listeners to remember about the case, what would that be?

ASHLEY WHILLANS: That happiness matters and if you want solutions that work, you will have to experiment and test to get there.

BRIAN KENNY: Ashley Whillans, thanks so much for being on Cold Call.

ASHLEY WHILLANS: Thank you for having me.

BRIAN KENNY: If you enjoy Cold Call, you might like other podcasts on the HBR Presents Network. Whether you’re looking for advice on navigating your career, you want the latest thinking in business and management, or you just want to hear what’s on the minds of Harvard Business School professors, the HBR Presents Network has a podcast for you. Find them on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. I’m your host, Brian Kenny, and you’ve been listening to Cold Call, an official podcast of Harvard Business School on the HBR Presents Network.

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