The Health and Human Services Workforce: Igniting the Potential

Part 1

By: Tracy Wareing Evans


In our 2017 member survey, concerns about the agency workforce topped the list of what keeps health and human services (H/HS) leaders up at night: the ability to recruit and retain staff with the right talents and capabilities; how best to develop and train the workforce in a fast-paced, ever-changing world; how to equip them with the right tools; how to ensure the on-going well-being of front-line staff and managers.

Building on the field's shared learning through the Human Services Value Curve and using APHSA's strategic platforms, including our three Collaborative CentersAffinity GroupsOrganizational Effectiveness (OE) consulting practice, Educational Events, and Communication Vehicles — our aim this year is to further support the field in developing a modern workforce that is healthy and well.

The workforce sits at the core of how human service agencies deliver on their missions. Absent a talented, well-equipped workforce, it's nearly impossible to drive the outcomes we desire for communities. We must align internal agency practices with modern policies through a systems-level lens if we are to ensure the success of the workforce and, ultimately, realize the full potential of people and places.

When we see and engage the human services workforce as helping "unlock and ignite human potential," we both energize and honor our workforce and we create an important mindset shift about their role in partnership with families and communities. When we can create an authentic sense of connectedness between the workforce and the community, we can solve problems together.

We know, however, that human services agencies have deeply embedded cultures that too often run counter to the highly agile and adaptive nature of today's world. Agency climates can be subject to pendulum swings based on leadership changes, budget constraints, negative media coverage, and ever-changing laws and regulations, among other variables. We also know that the solutions of the past are rarely the answers to today's challenges.

Hence, tackling cultural change requires that agency leaders act intentionally, repeatedly emphasizing the need for systemic change. As we have captured in our Human Services Value Curve (HSVC) Toolkit:

Leaders must anticipate and respond to resistance to the changes that are a part of [any] transformation, both enlisting the support of constructive resisters and marginalizing those who resist for non-constructive reasons. The development of a sound communication plan helps leaders message the changes in a clear and concise way. These messages should include the rationale for the changes and address the benefits to the organization, staff and stakeholders. Painting a clear picture of the expected outcome of the transformation effort is essential. As the transformation progresses, leaders must authorize the organization to bring an end to the "old ways" and exchange them with new policies, processes and practices that will support the new way of doing business.

To expect our workforce to innovate and help solve problems, we have to set them up for success. To do so, leaders must first hire for adaptability and agility to work within and across the complex human-serving systems. We must also create a zone of safety and support, where there is shared ownership to take risks through a "learn-by-doing" approach. Supporting the workforce also requires that leaders create the time and space for managers to reflect on whether they are focusing the workforce on the "right" tasks and interventions; we must be willing to intentionally "unpack" what it is we do to determine its true value and impact.

A great example of this wholesale shift in culture and climate is Jefferson County, CO, where the turnover rate has been reduced from more than 30 percent to 11 percent in a just a few short years. Inspired by the Olympic coaches who train athletes in their backyard, Jefferson County leadership asked a simple question, "How do we get gold for each family in our community?" Through the lens of the Value Curve and in true partnership with families, the agency created a different mindset by positioning its workforce as goal setters and problem solvers, not "case managers." They began to "hire for the heart and train for the brain." And, by requiring all staff to read books like Jim Collins "Good to Great," they have developed a shared language and strong peer community—not only energized by each other to solve problems together—but also help check each other's thinking when a team member is not operating within their "passion circle."

This is just one example of agency leadership making it possible for an entire workforce to think innovatively by tapping their internal motivations, connecting hearts and minds, moving from program-focused practices to cause-driven services, and enabling leadership at all levels. Over the course of the next year, we will showcase many more examples of such efforts, including:

  • Leadership academies that develop champions across the agency;
  • Innovative approaches in performance management and motivational coaching;
  • Applied learning from neuro- and behavioral science in developing the capacity of the workforce;
  • Mindfulness and other meditation activities to support wellness; and
  • Collective impact efforts from the ground up that are demonstrating how to meet families where they are and connect.

As part of the Igniting the Potential initiative, we will also highlight how data-driven and evidence-informed practices present new opportunities for leaders to increase their agency's impact while reducing inefficiency. As leaders shift resources to data-driven approaches, they must ensure that the workforce is a critical part of that shift, avoiding the temptation to act in a top-down manner. Leaders must ensure that the workforce first sees data as an enterprise asset, and then has the tools to use the data to drive both individual-level and community-wide decisions. The work of our National Collaborative for the Integration of Health and Human Services (National Collaborative) already has a number of tools to support data integration and use; and we will continue to develop guidance to support effective use of data by the workforce.

Finally, in partnership with Dr. Beth Cohen, a licensed clinical and organizational psychologist who has devoted much of her career to supporting public-sector agencies, we will explore what it takes to ensure the health and well-being of the workforce, and how to measure it. Informed by empirical data in the field, our goal is to design a blueprint of a comprehensive organizational model focused on individual and organizational workforce health and well-being.

In much the same way, we have begun to better understand how to more authentically and effectively engage with families. We must consider how to tap the strengths of our workforce and understand what motivates and drives them as well as what causes unproductive stress. Consider whether we ever ask our own staff what their dreams are? Or what impact they aspire to leave on the world or for their own families? Do we know what overwhelms them or do we simply make assumptions about their stresses without understanding them more fully? How do we know when staff needs a break or connection to others? Other sectors exposed to high stress and trauma—including law enforcement, emergency rooms, and the military, have these kind of indicators—why not H/HS? By bringing together practitioners and thought leaders, we hope to develop a set of indicators by which to better understand how the workforce is actually doing, understand the social determinants of a healthy workforce, and begin to develop a set of tools to assess, prevent, and effectively intervene to promote cultural health and well-being.

While this year we will be developing new leadership tools and guidance in support of the H/HS workforce, there are a number of resources already available to our members. These resources include writings and tools on the Human Services Value Curve from our Organizational Effectiveness (OE) team, an Adaptive Leadership Assessment and Improvement Guide (incorporated into the  HSVC Toolkit), Publications from our Affinity Group the National Staff Development and Training Association (NSDTA), and Guidance and Toolkits from the National Collaborative.

NSDTA is particularly well-positioned to help grow the workforce of the future. This peer community is committed to building professional and organizational capacity in human services by sharing ideas and resources on organizational development, staff development, and training. In addition to an Annual Fall Educational Event, NSDTA publishes an Annual Journal dedicated to helping build human capital and leverage new and innovative workforce strategies.

Through the tools and proven practices applied by our OE consulting team, we help organizations strengthen their fundamental skills in managing change and progressing along the HSVC. Supporting leaders and teams at all levels of an organization in this systematic way not only "gets things done" more effectively and efficiently (regulative and collaborative levels of the VC), it serves as a lens for identifying and addressing root causes (integrative and generative levels). Guiding organizations—especially the workforce—to see the world through these upper stages of the VC, where the focus is on understanding why a family seeks services and what is happening in a community as a whole, is at the heart of our consultative approach.


Tracy Wareing Evans is the President and CEO of the American Public Human Services Association.


If your organization has a compelling story to share about how you are supporting and advancing the H/HS workforce — or if you’d like to contribute a feature story to this blog or our bi-monthly magazine Policy & Practice, we would love to hear from you! Please contact Jessica Garon at jgaron@aphsa.org for more information.