One of the common questions which I received during my mentoring sessions is 'How do I know if it is time for me to move on?'
Supervisees hesitate to talk about their thoughts of leaving the organisation with their supervisors because it is an uncomfortable subject, to begin with. Supervisees might feel that raising their feelings about exploring other organisations as part of career development would be misread as a diminishing loyalty to their current organisation. Some might fear being seen as abandoning the team, especially when there is an existing organisational issue which everyone is grappling with - leaving during this time of adversity is akin to abandoning ship and a betrayal.
In my years as a social worker, there were occasions where I too had wondered if I had spent too long a time in the organisation. I wondered if I was restricting my professional growth by staying in just one place. Would a new working environment, a different field of social work practice or even a different clientele group provide more variety and opportunities for growth?
Watch Out for Triggers
The idea of leaving an organisation does not appear overnight. Workers are likely to face issues that trigger these thoughts, and they are not necessarily due to situations within the organisation. Workers who are facing life transitions like marriage or expecting a child ( or another child ) would contemplate about how they can meet the added financial responsibilities while still in their current employment. Would a new job offer better income and prospects? Some could also wonder if these transitions would fit into the commitments of social work; often defined by long hours, attending to crises and emotionally draining work.
Other hygiene factors like being in an emotionally toxic working environment, facing rigid organisational policies that are disempowering, having conflicts with colleagues, piling caseload and poor supervision can leave a worker dissatisfied, angry and feeling hopeless about seeing better days at work. Would another organisation offer a happier place to work in?
Ask the Question
Some social workers who may have obtained a certain level of expertise may feel stuck doing tasks that are getting too mundane. They may be looking for more challenging work that provides them with a sense of achievement. Others may long for acknowledgement, appreciation and recognition by the organisation for the hard work they have put in. And there are others who want opportunities to lead or take on more significant responsibilities.
While annual appraisals may be the platform to discuss career goals and work struggles, thoughts of leaving the organisation can arise anytime. Supervisors must be sensitive to the needs for job satisfaction and motivation and broach the subject with an open heart and mind. Be courageous enough to ask the question if you suspect supervisees are thinking about leaving the organisation. Supervisees may see this as permission to talk about their struggles and aspirations.
Address Job Satisfaction and Motivation
An open non-judgemental approach will allow supervisees to share reasons why they are having thoughts about leaving. Supervisors should take these as serious feedback on the issue of hygiene and motivational needs. Can these issues be addressed? Will addressing these issues make a difference now?
Unfortunately, some social workers may be too far ahead in their plans to leave. Still, having this conversation with them is still necessary to ensure a smooth transfer of tasks as well as in managing the team's reaction to a colleague's departure. Plans can be made even before the resignation letter is submitted. For supervisors, responding positively is essential to ensure their supervisees leave in good standing, with a caseload that is properly tied up and smoothly transferred for their colleagues to follow-up. The worst that a departing social worker can do is to leave a trail of 'unfinished business' that others have to clean up grudgingly.
Moving on can be Helpful to the Organisation too
Being gracious enough to let supervisees move on to explore new opportunities in other organisations for their betterment will ensure the link between the worker and the organisation remains amiable. See it this way: you are not losing a social worker, you are extending your influence and increasing your networks of supporters for your organisation. At the same time, having continued good relations with the worker opens the possibility of them returning to serve the organisation again, more experienced and better equipped to take on bigger roles to drive the organisation forward.
Tips for Supervisors when Asking Supervisees about Wanting to Leave the Organisation
1. Keep calm. Being anxious will only communicate that you are not ready to 'hear the bad news'. Your supervisees are social workers who are sensitised to pick up emotional cues. They will not want to open up to you if they do not feel safe enough to share their thoughts.
2. Help your supervisee identify the real issue. Just like with clients, problem-solving will need a clear understanding of the problem first. Listen carefully to the issues that the supervisee has raised. Clarify perceptions, concretise the concerns and determine the extent of the issues within the context of how they are impacting the supervisee's work. Would addressing these issues change the supervisee's thoughts about leaving?
3. Assess if the issue is within your power to address effectively. If the issues are the supervisee's personal struggles, can you or the organisation be of help? Would this improve the situation? Or if the issues require change within the organisation, is it within your power to address with senior management - for example, would an internal transfer to a different centre be helpful? Is the supervisee willing to work with you on the issues together?
4. Encourage reflection. While efforts can be made to address the hygiene and motivating factors that led to these thoughts of leaving, the supervisor can also encourage the supervisee to reflect on how the supervisee sees him/herself staying while the change process happens. Will the supervisee be willing to give the organisation the time?
5. Check-in. Set a time to follow-up with the supervisee regarding this issue. It keeps your supervisee updated on the progress of your joint action plans. At the same time, it also helps you to determine any new developments with the supervisees - for instance, has a definite decision to leave been made? Have they submitted job applications? Checking-in will allow both of you to communicate your intentions clearly and adjust follow-up actions accordingly.
Find out more about what makes social workers stay in the organisation. Read the following research article:
Retaining Social Workers: The Role of Quality of Work and Psychosocial Safety Climate for Work Engagement, Job Satisfaction, and Organizational Commitment by Martin Geisler, Hanne Berthelsen & Tuija Muhonen.