To mark World Social Work Day, the European Social Network (ESN) and the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA) are joining forces to highlight the global importance of the social services workforce (often used interchangeably with "human services" workforce in the US). We are united in the belief that a strong, healthy, and resilient workforce is key to delivering quality social services and advancing the well-being of all people.
Difficulties in the delivery of social services are exacerbated by challenges experienced by the workforce, which ESN has documented in reports here and here. The ongoing COVID-19 crisis and the developing war in Ukraine only add fuel to the fire. It is important therefore that the workforce is and feels fully supported to carry out its work.
And even though we are currently facing new challenges worldwide, how to best support the social services workforce is not a new issue. In a 2017 APHSA member survey, concerns about the workforce topped the list of what keeps health and human services leaders up at night. Over the years, US agencies have deployed a multitude of recruitment and retention strategies, training approaches, technology investments, and trauma-informed support systems. Some have had more success than others, but progress has been incremental and too often fleeting.
Currently, almost all European countries have an ongoing shortage of qualified staff in social services. The lack of recognition of the sector has translated over the years in under-investment, which in turn has led to low wages and a lack of career progression opportunities yet very demanding conditions as needs soar due to increasing social demands. All these factors contribute to a high turnover rate of current staff that in many instances are not being replaced.
ESN’s report, Investing in the social services workforce, outlines how the right type of investment in staff support and development as well as technological innovations can contribute to successful retention strategies.
In APHSA’s first Cornerstone publication, we captured the fundamental role the social services workforce plays, further amplifying the need to invest in the workforce, both in the United States and Europe:
The human services workforce is an essential part of the skilled construction crew that allows us to build well-being. Like a registered contractor who knows the best tradesman and tools for the job, the human services workforce helps assess the need and connects people to services and supports that will work for them. To unleash the full potential of the workforce, we must ensure they are healthy and well, and have the modern tools they need to do their jobs. We must create more opportunities for workers to spur innovative approaches and to partner with families to co-create solutions together. And, we must promote workplace cultures and environments where staff and community work transparently together to build the muscle we need to re-design our systems and put an end to structurally driven inequities.
Put another way, absent a workforce that is healthy and well-equipped, it is nearly impossible to achieve the outcomes we desire for communities.
"The work that social workers do is crucial to improve the quality and coverage of social services, care, and support. As we have seen during the COVID-19 crisis, the social services workforce has been fundamental to ensuring the continuity of care. It is therefore key to provide social services professionals with the support they need to help them adapt to new ways of working and be responsive to future crises," said Alfonso Lara Montero, Chief Executive Officer, ESN.
As part of ESN’s 2023-2025 work programme, we will be running a series of workshops on how public social services can develop workforce strategies that respond to these challenges and needs. Each workshop will also consider the diverse needs of social services and social care professionals and the different skills required according to the populations with whom they work, whether children, people with disabilities, and older people with complex needs.
At APHSA, we are committed to sharing practical resources for leaders that support individual and organizational workforce health and well-being. The APHSA Organizational Effectiveness team has continued to distill lessons from on-the-ground experiences of agencies and will be sharing new tools (and a new learning management platform) in the spring. And, to help increase awareness of the contributions of social services workers worldwide, sharing stories of impact through this special series with ESN.
"The way forward requires ingenuity, intentionality, and adaptability. We have witnessed what’s possible when we come together to share our learnings and innovations. And we must trust and invest in the very people we all rely on to do the work day in and day out—the time is ripe for doing so," shared Tracy Wareing Evans, President and CEO, APHSA.
We hope you stay tuned in the coming months as we highlight APHSA and ESN members who are investing in their workforce through recruitment and retention, innovation, and health and well-being to, in turn, realize the full potential of all people in all places—both near and far.
For more information or to share your story, please contact:
Jessica Garon, Communications Director, APHSA
Tanja Sheikhi, Membership & Operations Officer, ESN