The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Agency Climate and Culture: Do Perceptions Vary By Exposure to the Child Welfare System?

Saturday, January 18, 2014: 2:30 PM
HBG Convention Center, Bridge Hall Street Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Sonya J. Leathers, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL
Errick Christian, MA, Research Specialist, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL
Jill E. Spielfogel, MSW, Project Coordinator, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL
Purpose: Agency climate and culture affect worker morale, staff turnover, receptivity to learn new practices, and ultimately services. Understanding how perceptions of climate and culture relate to the types of tasks and stresses associated with different positions in social services is critical to understanding the challenges with improving services.  Child welfare employment, in particular, has characteristics including high caseloads, exposure to secondary trauma, court and media scrutiny, and pressure to ensure child safety that potentially affect climate (engagement, functionality, and stress) and culture (proficiency, rigidity, and resistance). However, despite the assumption that child welfare case management units are at high risk for these difficulties, little research has examined this. This study examined these questions in a large child welfare agency that provided the opportunity to compare climate and culture across different units with varying levels of exposure to core child welfare tasks. Greater exposure to core child welfare tasks was expected to be associated with difficult cultures and climates.

Method: The Organizational Social Context Scale (OSC; Glisson et al, 2008) was completed by 113 staff members (response rate, 80%) of a large child welfare agency involved in direct child welfare service provision including child removal, placement and oversight (core child welfare); clinical treatment of children in care (secondary/treatment); and prevention, with no tasks specific to child protection or treatment (tertiary). By using a single large agency, many aspects of the work environment were held constant across the groups. The OSC was analyzed and scored at the aggregate, unit level, with sub-analyses examining differences by administrative level. National norms derived from OSC administration with over 2000 individuals working in either child welfare or mental health agencies were used to test differences in each aspect of climate and culture across groups by calculating the cumulative probability that the national norms (child welfare or mental health) were different from unit scores.

Results: Intra-group agreement was high within each specified group (rwg >.94), indicating that group level aggregation is appropriate. While patterns of perceptions were similar in some areas across groups, with all groups reporting significantly less stress than national child welfare norms, group differences were apparent in levels of proficiency, resistance to change, and work engagement, with greater difficulties generally associated with units with greater exposure to child welfare tasks. Additionally, administrative positions were associated with higher proficiency and engagement. However, even with these differences, all groups profiled more similarly to child welfare units than mental health units.

Implications: Results indicate significantly more difficult perceptions of climate and cultural factors than found in mental health agencies, even among units primarily involved in prevention work. In addition, however, those involved more closely in work with families and children affected by abuse and neglect had more difficulty with perceptions of proficiency, greater resistance to change, and lower work engagement. These findings suggest that implementing change within child welfare agencies is likely to be more challenging than in mental health agencies, particularly with units involved in core and secondary/treatment child welfare tasks.