Getting It Done: The Value of Workload Studies

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Getting It Done: The Value of Workload Studies

Sarah Covington

At the heart of all human service agencies lie the goals of providing quality services and improving outcomes for the individuals and families served. However, accomplishing these goals can be challenging in the face of conflicting pressures. These pressures can include government-spending reduction, growing target populations, evolving practice expectations, and high staff turnover.

The workload study approach developed by NCCD provides valuable knowledge on how the cumulative impact of these challenges can be mitigated. What constitutes “adequate staffing,” as determined by a workload study, is critical knowledge to help an agency address these challenges and achieve positive outcomes.

The fundamental question that our approach asks is, how many staff are necessary to perform work in a manner that adheres to agency standards and performance expectations? As a result, agencies are equipped with empirical evidence to justify funding requests for increased staffing to meet performance standards designated by policy. A workload study may also suggest ways to meet performance standards without increased staffing, by highlighting areas in which staff or tasks can be reallocated in such a way as to be more efficient.

What makes our study design unique is that it is prescriptive in nature, rather than descriptive. In other words, rather than conducting a study in which workers are asked to record everything they do for some period of time (which may simply document overworked, sub-optimal conditions), our method estimates the time required to perform work at a prescribed level of performance. In this sense, it puts onus on policy makers: if this is the work you expect an agency to perform (at minimum), here is the amount of staff required to carry it out.

While the primary objective is to help determine staffing demand, agencies may glean many other meaningful insights from workload study results. If staffing needs cannot be met, in what other ways can an agency adjust workload demand to ensure workers can provide quality services?

Identification of Obstacles

Workload studies not only show how much time is required to meet standards on a particular kind of case, they also help describe how workers spend their time serving cases. Best practices often entail spending face-to-face time with people. However, other job responsibilities may limit workers’ time to spend with their clients. Sluggish and poorly designed data systems are an unfortunate reality of many human service agencies, as are long travel distances and demanding court mandates. The results of a workload study can help identify what kinds of activities consume workers’ time. For instance, how much time do workers spend face to face with families compared to time spent documenting their work in the data management system? This information may help inform agencies on how to restructure practice so that workers can focus on providing quality services. Are there opportunities to reduce redundancy in work, either within the agency or across agencies? Could responsibilities be reassigned to other staff?

How Resources Are Targeted

Human services agencies target those most in need in order to promote positive outcomes with limited resources. Workload studies can highlight whether workers are actually spending more time on higher-risk clients or if they are spending too much time on lower-risk cases. Using a workload accounting system that accounts for the varying demands of different types of cases served by an agency helps ensure that workers have the capacity to focus on those most in need.

The Impact of Changing Practice Expectations

Adequate staffing is essential to successful implementation of new practices. As new practices are introduced, workload studies help agencies understand the impact of implementation on workers’ time. For example, are agencies allowing sufficient time for staff to be trained or to polish these new initiatives? Government funding to support human services agencies is increasingly limited. Therefore, with the implementation of new practices, other expectations may need to be taken off the table or handled in a new way. For example, agencies may wish to explore opportunities for collaboration with community resources to provide services.

Collaboration: How It All Comes Together

While there are many potential opportunities for workload studies to help agencies achieve their goals, collaboration is a vital ingredient. NCCD’s approach involves working with a designated workload committee consisting of frontline staff, supervisors, and administrators, representing different regions and areas of specialization. In order to maximize the results from the workload study, we work closely with the committee to ensure the data-collection instruments used reflect performance expectations and standards; policy and practice concerns; and other important work characteristics, such as regional variation in services and staffing methods. Through this collaborative effort, workload study results will not only address the fundamental question of how many staff are needed, but also open up many other opportunities to gain meaningful insight on how to improve practices and outcomes for individuals and families served.

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