Commentary: Wage increases are welcome, but gaps remain in Singapore’s social service sector
While wage increases can alleviate some effects of burnout, larger systemic issues in the social service sector need to be addressed too, says Cindy Ng of Children’s Aid Society.
SINGAPORE: The Ministry of Social and Family Development’s (MSF) and the National Council of Social Service’s (NCSS) announcement on the revision of salary guidelines came as a pleasant surprise. Employees across all professions and job levels in the social service sector can expect pay raises between 4 per cent and 15 per cent from Apr 1.
Much spotlight has been cast on Singapore being the most fatigued country in the world, and how the social services sector isn’t spared from this trend. A Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) study, which interviewed 308 professional social workers in June 2020, found that a majority of respondents, or 56.5 per cent, were suffering from anxiety.
Many put in unearthly hours each day to fulfil their requirements in their roles.
This raises some challenging questions: How far do the salary increases go in rewarding social service professionals and incentivising people to join or remain in the sector? Are wage increases alone adequate to address challenges that social service professionals face on the ground?
THE EXPERIENCES OF SOCIAL WORKERS SUE AND KATIJAH
Sue* is a new care staff in a residential home. She cares for children who have been removed from their families by the Child Protective Service. Every day, she supervises children who struggle with behavioural issues such as anger outbursts and low moods. She puts in an average of 9 hours a day for 5 days a week, working shifts.
Sue sometimes struggles to find meaning in her work. The children she cares for show very slow progress, especially in their school attendance and academic performance. She is also often helpless when dealing with the children’s behavioural issues. While she welcomes a pay raise, she isn’t sure if she is making an impact on the children’s lives.
Katijah* is a senior manager in a community-based organisation. She oversees a team of 15 social service professionals who handle approximately 25 families at any time. She also manages the budget needed to operate the service.
Katijah often juggles providing clinical inputs to her social service professionals and looking at the numbers in her monthly statements of accounts, ensuring that all funds and donations received are well spent, especially in light of rising costs in Singapore.
Straddling these two roles takes a toll on her mental health, as she experiences fatigue daily. She also worries about the well-being of her team, wondering if they are overworked seeing that they are not able to complete administrative requirements of their jobs. She also worries if the team can meet the funding agreement’s key performance indicators.
She isn’t sure if revisions to salary guidelines would change the way her team works.
Sue and Katijah display signs of burnout, which will require more than just wage increases to mitigate. A display of the above signs in employees should worry leaders. Burnout not only reduces productivity, it also leads to employees feeling disconnected from their jobs and even severe mental health issues.
There are many ways to address employee burnout, from prioritising rest in workplaces, valuing employees’ contributions and managing workload. However, less has been said about how organisations can review systemic issues such as the sustainability of their service model and their manpower structure.
REVIEWING SERVICE MODELS
Such a review gives staff clarity on who the organisation is serving, the organisation’s theory of change and the impact they are trying to achieve through their interventions.
For example, Sue’s residential home exists for children who have been abused, and her team aims to provide a care environment for the children to heal, develop resilience and grow. Keeping this in mind helps Sue stay focused on caring for the children’s psychosocial well-being. She is less likely to see the child’s academic progress as her key responsibility in the home.
Organisations must also find concrete ways to evaluate their impact. This goes towards identifying pitfalls and allowing employees to celebrate their successes and milestones. Imagine the joy that Sue would feel if the home can, with time, identify a reduction in anger outbursts or trauma symptoms in the children.
Therefore, organisations need to ask themselves, from time to time, the following critical questions: Who is the organisation serving? Is it clear to all staff who their key service users are? Are staff aware of the impact that the organisation aims to create? Is the impact achievable, clear and measurable?
ESTIMATING MANPOWER RESOURCES
Katijah knows that her team is suffering from burnout. However, she isn’t sure where to begin to gauge if her team has enough resources to make the impact they hope to achieve.
If she can accurately estimate her team’s workload capacity, she would be able to better articulate the manpower requirements her projects and programmes need. She would also be better able to advocate for fairer resource allocation with her senior management and funders.
After all, an organisation that aims to do too much with too little will wind up with frustrated employees and service users.
Organisations should thus ask themselves questions like: What are the key work activities required of a social service professional and how many hours are needed to fulfil each activity? How much full-time headcount will be required to fulfil daily activities and achieve desired outcomes?
With a clear estimate on manpower capacity and resources required, social service agencies can optimise the human resources they have. There will also be more productive discussions on resource allocations between the organisation and funders or stakeholders.
HONEST CONVERSATIONS NEEDED TO ADDRESS BURNOUT AND HIGH TURNOVER
While wage increases are important and can alleviate some effects of burnout, larger systemic issues must still be addressed.
Having this difficult conversation, while anxiety-provoking, allows organisations to take an honest look at their service model and manpower structure.
If there is clear workload capacity, accurate resource estimates and regular service reviews, gaps in the service provision can be identified and addressed promptly. This can lead to the development of targeted policies to support social service practitioners in their daily work.
It is insufficient for the conversation to focus only on resource allocation to social service agencies or salary revisions. Systemic and structural issues that perpetuate the high turnover rate among the social service practitioners need to be confronted boldly by leaders in the industry. Only in doing so can the age-old problem of burnout among social service practitioners be addressed.
Cindy Ng is Director of Melrose Home at Children’s Aid Society. She is a social worker by training with extensive experience working with low-income families and persons experiencing violence and abuse.
*Names used in this commentary are pseudonyms.