Unprecedented levels of burnout and turnover are an unfortunate reality for many human services organizations today. Agencies are feeling the effects of staffing shortages and a shrinking pool of quality candidates to fill their vacant positions.
But there’s good news too! Thoughtful leaders across the country are putting a great deal of energy and optimism into tackling this issue in a way that can both address immediate needs while positioning the industry to be more sustainable in the future.
Solving this crisis will take all of us—from agencies sharing ideas and best practices, to vendors and consultants collaborating with one another on your behalf and as your partners. We must act quickly and boldly, employing multi-pronged strategies that are new and innovative. Here are a few ideas:
Change the Perception of Working for Your Agency
Your agency has a reputation that precedes it when applicants see open positions. Is it one of great benefits? Toxic work culture? Do they see deadlocked bureaucracy or a group of passionate people working together to make a difference?
Oklahoma Department of Human Services' efforts to be perceived as an “Elite Employer” is a notable example to learn from here. The department’s effort to change their culture and re-think recruitment and retention strategies has brought turnover levels down from where they were before the pandemic.
Foster a Culture of Psychological Safety
Psychological safety centers on making your workers feel connected, engaged, accepted, and supported, and there are a ton of ways you could operationalize this concept.
Bring in counselors, therapists, or other mental health professionals that workers can process within a safe space. Make every decision or action, good or bad, a learning opportunity. Consider team-based decision-making or practice models that keep workers from feeling isolated. The goal here is always to take the onus off individual workers—they are already juggling enough.
Prioritize Staff Wellness
Agencies that don’t approach worker wellness on an organizational level will soon find themselves struggling with even more vacancies. How can you 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.
Another example here: New Jersey established an entire Office of Staff Health & Wellness in their Department of Children and Families to offer these types of resources.
Partner with Local Academic Institutions
Social work programs enroll thousands of students every year who will enter the labor market specifically looking for work in this critically important field.
Find the academics in your area who are passionate about developing the next generation of human services professionals and get to work on building mutually beneficial relationships that can help your agency establish a pipeline of enthusiastic talent. Local students need quality placements for their fieldwork, and you need well-prepared staff. It’s a natural partnership.
Personal anecdote and example: I’m a graduate of the UW-Madison Title IV-E Traineeship program, in which students are specifically trained and prepared for child welfare and receive support in the form of tuition and/or stipends. In return, trainees agree to work in the field for a certain length of time. The use of Title IV-E funds in Wisconsin benefits both students and agencies, and ultimately the families they serve.
Examine Your Policies to Ensure They Are Not Barriers
Are your hiring policies inadvertently creating barriers to getting motivated candidates in the door? Consider how your required qualifications may push people away, even if they have a wealth of experience.
The same goes for your certification or licensure requirements. Instead of requiring someone to fully complete the process prior to beginning work (which can take months), consider probation periods or other path-to-certification supports that make your agency better positioned to recruit.
As an example, the state of Illinois re-examined its licensure requirements, which led to an influx of applications.
Embrace the Demand for Flexible/Hybrid Work
Human services must embrace the way workers want to work and know it is possible with current technology. Remote workstations were scraped together due to necessity in 2020 and 2021. Now, if you have not already, it’s time to look at investing in the tools to fully equip your workforce to be successful in a hybrid model.
Technology that allows staff to work from anywhere is clearly important here. So is putting strategies in place to help workers stay connected and focus on the mission, no matter where work gets done.
Stay Competitive in the Broader Labor Market
A turbulent labor market and “the great resignation” mean agencies are now competing with local retailers, fast-food chains, and other lower-stress job alternatives to attract talent.
It can feel impossible to compete with the private sector’s ability to be flexible and increase wages, especially for agencies beholden to pre-determined budgets. But the reality is that many workers will leave the field if they can find higher wages and opportunities elsewhere.
Pay raises, recruitment and retention bonuses, benefits, workplace flexibility arrangements—all of these are more valuable than ever right now.
Offer Professional Development Opportunities and Promotional Pathways
Opportunities for education, training, and professional development are critical in keeping your workers fulfilled over time.
Examples here can include mentorship programs that pair trainees with more experienced workers to help them navigate field work or offering tuition stipends for staff who want to get advanced degrees. These types of supports can be powerful for both recruitment and retention.
View these resources for many more examples of how agencies have put these ideas into action, plus get additional best practices and strategies to bolster your agency’s recruitment and retention efforts: