Lots of studies, in various areas of both social work and other related disciplines, have looked at how different professionals view and apply the evidence-base that underpins their practice.
In many ways social work was very late to the party, but from the 1970’s onwards it has worked hard to be seen as a profession (Hanley, 2020). An increasing range of research and review now sits within social work qualifying programmes and academic institutions. With this being the case why does there seem to be a disconnect between social workers on the front line, working with people on a day-to-day basis, and the research and evidence that indicates the interventional approaches that are most likely to be effective is supporting positive change?
This paper sets out the very reasons the National Elf Service exists, and so it seemed like an excellent paper to relaunch social care elf and re-start the conversation around the woodland. What is it about research and evidence-based practice that is seen as somehow threatening or an additional pressure rather than a tool by which we enhance our understanding and bring depth to our interventions.
Other Social Care Elf blogs on the subject include:
- How is evidence-based practice understood in social work? June 2015.
- What is the evidence for evidence-based practice in social work? October 2015.
- Social work students and evidence-based practice. December 2015.
Kagan’s paper starts by providing a narrative literature review setting out the various factors that have been found to impact on social worker attitudes towards EBP. At the outset she provides a helpful summary of work over the last twenty years of various studies and provides discussions on several key themes that have repeatedly been identified in similar studies. These are not exclusive and are selected to support the perspective and direction of the study being reported, but there are a number, and combined they are compelling.
In this study there is a focus on issues of workload, burnout, length of practice experience, including whether EBP was part of the social workers initial training, and the level of support provided to them and EBP more generally in their employing organisations, however Kagan does acknowledge the limitations of the review and the areas that are missing which is always a good thing to see in a study.
The research itself is a self-selected sample of 560 social workers in Israel, recruited via professional networks, workplaces, and social media, who completed a range of scales and self-assessments in relation to their views and attitudes to EBP and different aspects of their personal characteristics and organisational environments. It uses a range of different scales, subject to statistical analysis and the author reports that all data was anonymously collected, with the aim being to identify what drives social workers attitudes towards, and use of, EBP in their work with people.
As with other studies before it (e.g. Mathiesen, S.G., 2016; Grady, M.D. et al, 2018; Finne, 2020 ) Kagan’s study identifies that social workers are less likely to adopt evidence-based approaches when they are under pressure or not properly supported. Organisational support is identified as a key factor, with social workers more likely to embrace EBP if their peers and colleagues are receptive, and their organisation supports it.
Good mental health is one of the other key factors that is highlighted, which lines up with what we know about resilience and wellbeing in other areas, with Kagan making explicit links made that suggest that when a social worker’s wellbeing, both personally and professionally is positive and supported, they are more receptive to EBP as both a concept and a practice; Whereas when they are feeling burnt-out, overloaded and unsupervised, they are more resistant and likely to see EBP as a bureaucratic or controlling process that interferes with the relationship and their ability to work flexibility with the individual and their specific needs.
The paper concludes by considering both other things that can impact on how social workers respond to and use evidence in practice and how improving the organisational support, culture and skill development may all significantly improve social workers attitudes to implementing evidence-based practice.
As Kagan says in her conclusions:
“Practitioners’ attitudes towards EBP might have fundamental consequences for the implementation of EBP process and its outcomes.” (p.4512)
What is interesting in Kagan’s conclusions, and something which chimes with what we know about professional resilience and wellbeing of social workers and its impact on practice is that personal factors, such as demographic and diversity factors, as well as mental health and overall wellbeing at work, all have an impact and need to be considered. It may be that overwhelm and workload pressures act as a barrier to evidence-based practice and that practitioners need the support of their employers to make EBP a reality.
Strengths & Limitations
The study was carried out in Israel with a sample of 560 professionals. Among this group gender profiles are broadly similar to the UK, with a greater number of women represented in the profession, however age profiles show a younger average age across the cohort than would be expected here at home (36 rather than the UK mean of 46). This is one of the factors that the authors identify as a key variable, and one which is similarly likely to impact on attitudes of UK social workers given the increasing focus on evidence-based practice in social work education and beyond that has developed in more recent years.
This is a small-scale study of self-selected participants but attempts to be robust by using validated structured questionnaires. Some of these are now quite old, and while still applicable and relevant in isolation, are not intended to be applied to the myriad of social work practice settings that are now established both in the UK and internationally. Kagan identifies self-selection bias and the narrow scope of the study in terms of selecting the variables to study and acknowledges that there are a number of other potential areas of study identified that provide direction for expanding on the limitations of these findings.
Implications for Practice
Social work has a strange love/hate relationship with evidence and research generally and this paper shows us that current practice and practitioners are perpetuating these attitudes rather than finding a way to easily link research findings into their day-to-day practice toolkit.
Social work is defined as a profession, with registration and regulation, but one of the key defining factors of a profession is generally recognised to be its knowledge and evidence-base (Saks, M., 2012; Williams, J.H., 2015) and it seems that across the international stage social work and social workers still have a long way to go in this area of their professional culture and identity. Kagan cites ambiguity and rapid social care and unclear roles as all key factors in promoting social worker well-being and hence supporting EBP. This aligns with other work carried out closer to home and the commonalities in the profession in different jurisdictions appear to be based on very similar challenges the world over, despite huge differences in day-to-day practice environments.
In a period where role ambiguity, top-down government control and blame cultures, are all factors present in UK social work (Garratt, P.M, 2021; Rogowski, S, 2020), it is likely that a similar study here at home would yield similar results and Kagan identifies a range of other factors that warrant further study, including any differences in practice context or area of specialism. This made this elf think about the different areas in the woodland and how much more usual research and EBP discussions are in multi-disciplinary services (for example Mental Health services) where there is the influence of other disciplines, rather than more traditional social work or services team, maybe that’s a chat we’ll have with mental elf and come back to it later 😊
While this study took place in Israel, which might seem a million miles away from the urban demographics of a local authority in England or Wales, the issue is common across social work internationally, and the studies Kagan draws on to contextualize her own study includes small scale research in the UK, America, and Norway among others.
For Social Workers in England, the move to a degree level qualification and post-graduate level post qualification framework from 2010 onwards has meant that a separation has been happening between those that see the evidence-base and the link to academia and research findings as core to and informing their practice, and those that perceive it as something abstract or for students rather than those in daily (particularly) statutory practice.
Kagan’s study adds to what we know about the benefits of learning cultures, it reinforces that personal well-being is a key factor in the practitioner’s willingness to embrace an evidence-based approach and that social workers need support, leadership that models the approach, and a clear understanding of the benefits, for both themselves and the people they are supporting, to improve their engagement with evidence-based practice as a professional tool.
Conflicts of Interest
Finne, J. (2020) “Attitudes toward and utilization of evidence-based practice among
Norwegian social workers”, Journal of Evidence-based Social Work, 17(2), pp.149–62.
Garrett, P.M. (2020) Dissenting Social Work: Critical Theory, Resistance and Pandemic. London & New York: Routledge
Grady, M. D., Wike, T., Putzu, C., Field, S., Hill, J., Bledsoe, S. E., Bellamy, J. and Massey, M. (2018) “Recent social work practitioners’ understanding and use of evidence-based practice and empirically supported treatments”, Journal of Social Work Education, 54 (1),163–79.
Hanley, J. (2022)” Social Work England: A regulator that has earned our collective dissent.” Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 34 (3), 48-60
Mathiesen, S. G. (2016) “Social work students & evidence-based practice: An international comparison”, International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, 6 (4), 1–6.
Rogowski, S. (2021) Social Work: The Rise and fall of a profession? Bristol: Policy Press.
Saks, M. (2012). “Defining a Profession: The Role of Knowledge and Expertise”. Professions and Professionalism, 2 (1), 1-10.
Williams, J.H. (2015) “Unification, Crafting Imperatives, and Defining a Profession.” Social Work Research, 29 (2), 67 – 69.