Valued Workforce, Valuable Service

Throughout my working life I had been positively and negatively influenced by the impact of being managed, both as a basic-grade staff member and as a manager.  I would like to believe that being subject to poor management would not impact on my motivation and desire to positively work with and influence the lives of young people.  Yet can a staff member/team that is not well respected, protected and cared for provide an effective service that meets the needs of the young people it serves?


I was recently told a story about a residential child care worker who had been punched whilst trying to break up a fight between two young people.  The worker had completed his shift and had immediately and independently reported the incident to the police.  Several of his co-workers were extremely annoyed.  They believed that the actions of the worker and the resulting possibility of a conviction for the young person concerned could be extremely detrimental to the young person’s future.  This, they asserted, was not what residential child care was about. 

I would agree that we should be very careful concerning any decision to involve the police and that such a decision should not happen lightly.  I believe, however, that the manner in which this incident occurred highlights some serious underlying problems in relation to the quality of the management the worker was subject to.

In the child care profession, upholding the rights and promoting the ability of young people to thrive is of paramount importance.  It would seem, however, that in order to meet the needs of young people, the significance of establishing a unified, motivated, well trained and organised staff is often overlooked.  

What I took from the above-mentioned story was the experience of a care worker who was obviously uncomfortable in approaching his management for support.  His co-workers were divided and judgemental in their attitudes towards him.  They recognised the implications for the young person but ignored the degree to which the worker felt so isolated, powerless and vulnerable that he would disregard policy and procedure in an attempt to gain retribution. 

His experience, I believe, is an example of a working environment where limited value and space is given to promoting a shared vision and setting aside time for team members to discuss and reflect on their practice. Only in such an environment will staff who have been hurt, physically or psychologically, be able to seek the support of colleagues and expect to get an understanding response.

A valued workforce is an efficient workforce.

Good management is integral to a competent and dedicated workforce.  It is shaped by the broader political and economical climate and as such its operation within organizations is one that evolves. There has been a great deal of emphasis in recent years on things such as ‘performance indicators’ and ‘audit trails’ which are well recognized as involving a huge increase in the volume of paperwork. 

The term ‘managerialism’ is used to describe how this approach has come to dominate in areas such as social work, where previously individual professionals/workers had much more autonomy or discretion in how they carried out their  work. 

Among the key concepts of this ‘new management’ in the public sector is the idea that we should be orientated towards a quality service which is a direct result of better relations with staff and customers.  It focuses on empowering staff in order to build commitment through involvement, participation and effectiveness, thus creating a homogenous and shared culture that can only serve to benefit service users. 

The overarching principles of managerialism, however, require that managers are responsible for what they deliver but not necessarily responsible for how they deliver it.  It is the results and not always the methods that count.  Yet if the staff team that directly facilitates the service is not considered integral to its results, is the quality of the service provided not compromised? 

Most senior managers of social care services would say that the care staff team of any residential setting for looked after and accommodated young people are its greatest resource.  The team interprets the organisation’s mission, creates the day-to-day environment and has the direct contact with young people that sustains and promotes a successful placement experience.   The care staff team are the process in which good outcomes are created.  As the organisation’s number one resource, I believe that, apart from it being an employee’s right, it is also within the organisation’s best interest that staff receive ongoing and effective support, training, and education.  It is vital that they feel valued and listened to. 

Meeting need versus a valued staff

Public sector management has a wide range of accountability – to policy makers, front-line workers, service users and the general public.  Managers are therefore subject to a significant amount of demands from a variety of stakeholders, as they are now often called.  In the residential sector, where there are few empty beds, the pressure for places is one of the most difficult problems to manage.

Residential services for looked after and accommodated children are constantly inundated with requests to place more young people.  People like to see results and do not like to see young people homeless.  For a manager this can be a difficult decision to make.  Do they provide a vulnerable young person with a bed for the night, regardless of the impact it may have on the staff in the residential setting, (and, as a result, on the young person), or do they turn the young person away?

In my experience it is sometimes easier for management to say ‘yes’ to supporting a young person rather than thinking of the responsibility that they have to staff.  In fact I would assert that such a decision – to take a child even if it means going over-numbers – would usually be supported by the staff team involved. 

Individuals who work in children services are generally compassionate, philanthropic and would in many cases offer the shirt off their back if it would help protect a young person at risk.  In residential child care we hear frequent tales of care staff lone working to cover shifts, sleeping on pull-out beds in the office, working 24 hour shifts with no ‘set’ breaks, providing support packages with no previous background information on a young person and not receiving supervision for months on end. 

Although such working practices may support a young person in need, I think that treating staff in such a manner is unacceptable.  I do not think that young people should be left homeless but a young person should not be placed in an environment where there is no effective management and no respect for staff. 

It is the responsibility of management to treat staff members with the same respect that they expect service users to be treated.  A manager should not be asking a child to sleep on a blow-up mattress (although I am sure this has been done). Why then should a staff member be asked to do this?  It implies that “You are not important to me, you are not valued”.

Managing staff is crucial to the overall success of the service.  Poor management slowly destroys trust, impetus and, perhaps most dangerously, commitment to the service in which the employee belongs.  Workers must be trusted, respected, and motivated in order to provide a sound service.  Respected and motivated staff members are more productive than staff members who are not.  Child care services support people and are provided by people.  Management should consider the rights and needs of both people in order to have an efficient service. Spending time to value staff, maintain morale and make reasonable responses to their needs will directly impact the establishment of a safer, more efficient and positive residential experience.

I believe good management is like using water to make a flower bloom.  It is rare that a flower will bloom to its full potential by simply adding water straight to the bud.  It is by adding water to the roots the flower is more likely to grow into its most beautiful state.  The care staff team members are the roots that support the flowers, the young people.  They work daily with young people to help them grow and develop.  If a manager puts time, energy and effort into supporting staff, they will feel respected, heard, valued and, therefore, more equipped and able to provide an effective service that encourages children and young people to achieve their potential. 

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