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What's Happening to Human Services? Why Employee Attrition is Off the Charts

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What's Happening to Human Services? Why Employee Attrition is Off the Charts

by: 
Stefanie Gause, Altus Dynamics

Human Services are just that—human. They’re run for people, by peopleThat’s why the high staff turnover rate (24.26% in Child Welfare Services alone) in these types of organizations has critical implications for organizational effectiveness and human well-being. 

According to a study published in the Journal of Social Work it appears that there are five major reasons why support workers and frontline staff are choosing to leave human service organizations (and subsequently putting more work onto the remaining staff’s plates).

In order to fix a problem, you first need to identify what it is. So, while this post does highlight a number of problems, it also offers a solution. By recognizing these issues, Human Services can adapt within their organizations to become even more effective and continue to deliver the life changing services that improve our society.

#1. Inconsistencies between Expectation and Experience

All of us want to enjoy and feel proud of the work we do. For the staff in human services, the desire to improve the lives of their clients is a core reason why they seek employment in this field. So, if they begin working in these roles and are unable to deliver the level of impact they expected, a dissatisfaction in their position and the organization can occur. These workers feel as though they are just glorified data-entry machines - constantly pushing paper but seeing little to no result out of the work they do. This copious amount of paperwork, coupled with the lack of monetary incentives or flexible hours, only works to increase employee unhappiness. Although many understand that a job working in social services won't make them a millionaire, when low pay is added to a tremendous workload—that has more to do with meeting federal policy regulations than with helping clients—it pushes employees to consider searching for new roles.

#2. Perceptions of Training

The work your employees are able to do is dependent on the training they receive. Many frontline staff of human service organizations report that there are many discrepancies in the training that staff receive, causing subsequent discrepancies in the work being done. If new staff are improperly indoctrinated into organizations, it only sets them up for dissatisfaction in their work. Also, because of poor training, employees may misinform clients or omit important information during meetings with them, which can cause concern for clients' well being. In order for staff to feel and act successfully in their jobs, they need a proper, structured way to receive training and information, one that is preferably an ongoing process so that staff are able to understand and keep up with the constantly changing policies of this sector.

#3. Insufficiency of Resources

It is an unfortunate reality that many human services organizations have extremely tight resources to help their clients, which also affects the employees at these organizations. Problems such as unsafe environments for staff - in both their office spaces and in interactions with hostile clients - are two major issues brought up by former employees. It was reported that some workplaces even compromised client safety and privacy by having no locks or security on their files. Because of outdated technology in the organizations, all files were paper-based and could easily be tampered with. This problem of safety, and outdated technology, caused staff to feel extremely frustrated and discouraged by the organizations they worked for.

#4 Workload, Stress, and Critical Incidents

This problem was alluded to earlier, but one of the largest reasons for employee attrition in human services is the unexpected amount of work and stress. Most staff even call their work level “unmanageable” or “overwhelming.” The root cause of this issue in most organizations is not having the necessary HR functions in place. Often these duties get displaced onto front line staff, adding to their workload and taking away from their ability to dedicate time to their clients. It was found that 81% of human services workers strongly agree it is easy to burn out in the work that they do and 70% reported always having too much work to do. All of this added stress leads to an increased turnover of staff, putting the remaining employees into an even worse position as they are left understaffed.

#5 Organizational Culture and Opportunities for Growth

Being supported, valued, and heard were all things that frontline staff reportedly did not feel in the study mentioned earlier. What’s really upsetting about this is that these three feelings are what human services work to achieve with their clients. Often this issue stemmed from the staff’s perceptions of management - they felt that management did not support, respect, or appreciate the work the staff did. Frontline staff often said that they were never recognized for the work they did with clients or the extra hours they always put in. Another issue that prevents human service organizations from retaining their best employees is not presenting them with enough opportunities for growth. Some caseworkers said that the reason they left the organization was because they realized that in 15+ years’ time they might still be employed as a caseworker. Many others viewed their positions as “dead-end jobs."

So, what can be learned from all of this? Surely not that Human Services are doomed to be locked in a vicious cycle of employee attrition. All of the above problems are definitely a challenge to face and some come with heavy restrictions like a lack of funding, but there are solutions that are achievable. Human Services need to understand what their problems and limits are so that they can move towards progress. By capitalizing on the incoming generation of Millennials and learning how to manage change within their organization, Human Services can stop this attrition cycle.

Interested in how they can do that exactly? Our recent webcast, The Intergenerational Workforce: Best Practices for the Human Services Sector, dives deep into how technology, change, and harnessing the skills of both older and younger generations will improve Human Services’ effectiveness.