A blog by Professor Donald Forrester

When I first heard that the What Works Centre (WWC) was going to study the impact of free, high quality coffee and tea I thought it was a really, really stupid idea. Maybe not up there with electing Trump President, but certainly one of the stupidest research ideas I had ever heard. The families social workers deal with are struggling with the impact of austerity. Services have been cut to the bone -and beyond – and workers often have huge caseloads and not even a desk or a parking space. Offering free coffee seemed at best a sticking plaster and at worst an insult. Why on earth would the WWC research it?

I’ve changed my mind about this study, and I want to explain why. I might add that it is not a study I have any involvement with.

This study is one of several designed with the lack of resources in mind. The question is: given there is very little money around, how can managers look after social workers better?

Free, high quality coffee and tea was something workers identified, there is evidence it helps people feel appreciated and many non-social work workplaces therefore provide it. In fact, it has been shown to improve worker retention and reduce sickness – though not in social work settings. Not by very much – but more than enough to pay for the coffee. Would it have a similar impact in children’s services?

Crucially, for me, the study is incredibly cheap. The tea and coffee costs about £5,000. The research costs are tiny as existing or very easily collected data is being used; perhaps a few days of research time. This is maybe something like 0.03% of the WWC budget. We are rightly spending big money on projects addressing the big issues – like devolving budgets to workers so they can address practical issues for families, getting workers closer to communities and families, finding out what the impact of secure accommodation is or trying out new ways of supervising workers.

I hope the WWC will also look at the big issues in how we look after social workers – like workload and professional development. For now, this study quickly and cheaply allows the WWC to try out some methods and measures that may be useful for those bigger studies.

What has been interesting is the response to the proposal. Some people think workers should be provided with free tea and coffee and we do not need a study to show that. Others – including senior figures such as Sean Holland chief social worker in Northern Ireland – think public money should not be spent on such things. Interestingly, while both groups think the study is not needed, they do so for completely the opposite reason: because it is obvious to them that we should/should not provide free tea and coffee

The research will not provide a definitive answer to this question, because research never does. Rather research makes a contribution to a conversation. In this case, if the provision of free tea and coffee actually saves money – by increasing morale, reducing sickness and improving worker retention by even a very small amount – then that makes a powerful contribution to suggesting it is something we should spend public money on.

But the most important point about all this is that the study is not really about tea and coffee. It is about how leaders can show the workforce that they appreciate people and the work they do, even when there is very little money around. Many leaders already seek to do this, and I hope the various studies will provide new ideas for how they might do this – and perhaps help them make the financial case for small investments in looking after staff.

Sadly, in too many authorities workers do not feel valued. If this and related studies can provide evidence that thinking about how to look after your workers – even in little ways – really matters than it will have made a small contribution to addressing what I believe is one of the most important issues in children’s services – and that is that we do not cherish the people who give so much to help children and their families enough.