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January 29, 2024

Trialling what works to improve wellbeing of client-facing staff working in homelessness

Paul Sargent

Working in the homelessness sector can be described in a multitude of ways - exciting, rewarding, valuable, crucial. But it can also be demanding and stressful. These things can happen across a working week, a shift, or all at once. - If you work in a role delivering homelessness services you hope the balance of excitement and rewards against stress and demands feels reasonable and fair.

The winter period leading into Christmas and beyond is a complicated time for people experiencing homelessness, and also for those supporting them. Staff are putting in maximum effort and sacrifice every day, and especially during tough times. We know that currently, staff across the sector are experiencing substantial difficulties in terms of burnout and wellbeing. In 2022, more than half (58%) of client-facing workers reported feeling that their role had a negative impact on their wellbeing. In addition, the negative impacts of the recent cost-of-living crisis, combined with increasing organisational challenges, such as staff shortages and greater demand for homelessness services, have all led to worsening working conditions for workers. In fact, 12% of client-facing workers were worried about becoming homeless themselves.

As it stands, we don’t know enough to confidently manage all the issues that impact how we feel at work. To try and address this, with the generous support of St-Martin-in-the-Fields Charity, the Centre for Homelessness Impact (CHI) and What Works Centre for Wellbeing (WWCW) are leading on a programme of work to better understand how to improve wellbeing for client-facing staff across the homelessness sector.  

“To do what nobody else will do, in a way that nobody else can, in spite of all we go through” - Rawsi Williams

Listening to client-facing staff and asking the right questions is key, but we don’t know enough to respond effectively to all the issues that impact how we feel at work, and the sometimes acute levels of stress. Over the past six months CHI and WWCW have run workshops with 101 staff members across 21 organisations. We heard staff describe the factors impacting their wellbeing from feeling valued for their work and feeling that work makes a difference, to pay and the cost of living, and traumatic events. Encouragingly, many people described how caring their colleagues were, and how having a compassionate and supportive workplace culture was very important in protecting them from stress and burnout. WWCW has also carried our a literature review of existing academic research into wellbeing at work and interventions to prevent burnout.

So what next for our project? In February 2024, we will be running a trial through St-Martin-in-the-Fields Charity's Frontline Network, which supports workers from the public, statutory and voluntary sectors working on the frontline with those experiencing homelessness. The trial will evaluate whether regular stories and messages about good practice and positive experiences can help staff to feel connected and encouraged about their work. This intervention has been shown to be successful with other workforces prone to burnout and, importantly, is linked to workshop discussions where staff told us that interventions aimed at encouraging them to feel connected to each other have the greatest impact. Even though online interventions weren’t as popular as face-to-face among workshop attendees, running things online is often easier and can be done more frequently.

This trial will hopefully show how important simple, light-touch messages between colleagues across services can help them, and whether it is enough to make a difference to staff feeling stressed and worn out. 

During the workshops we heard about exciting peer-led initiatives, often just between small groups or services, all put in place to help boost connection and support among colleagues. Staff spoke enthusiastically about them, and explained how small projects created on the ground can be creative, impactful and well designed because staff know exactly what they need. We want to know more! If you work in client-facing services and are involved in such an initiative or are thinking about setting something up, please let us know via paul@homelessnessimpact.org

  • Paul Sargent is Implementation Lead at the Centre for Homelessness Impact
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