Behaving more positively towards public sector workers

Thank you sign at the side of the road

Keep up the great work, the country needs you”, “Never doubt that the work you do, matters”, messages like these, and hundreds and thousands of “thank you” notes are digitally sent to social workers in Canada, as outcomes of an experiment of Utrecht University researchers Gabriela Szydlowski, Noortje de Boer and Lars Tummers. They found out that citizens can be stimulated to act more positively toward public sector workers and this is crucial for their well-being and performance. 

We carried out this study in Canada, as part of a larger international study on stereotypes of public service workers funded by the Dutch National Science Foundation (NWO), led by Prof. Lars Tummers, says Gabriela Szydlowski. The results are published in the paper Compassion, Bureaucrat Bashing, and Public Administration in Public Administration Review.

In Canada, social workers are bashed quite often, by the general public, after reports in the media. Whenever stories on child protection, or domestic violence, or poverty and crime are in the news, people tend to point their finger at social workers, Szydlowski continues. You should have prevented this, you were not successful in helping this family, etcetera. We tested if people would act more compassionately towards social workers if they knew the daily struggle of the work and the sometimes difficult work situations. And they did. They were much more compassionate than before.

Compassion for social workers Tumblr website screenshot

People showed much more compassion when they knew the sometimes difficult work situations of social workers

Please don't lose hope

Gabriela and her colleagues interviewed five social workers with different type of tasks: working with elderly, working with children, working with drug addicts and other expertises. They wrote down their stories and the problems they sometimes face on the job: anger and frustration of clients, a high workload, overtime, sometimes low payment, role conflicts and bureaucratic burdens. They then tested the effects of these stories in a large representative sample of over 1,000 Canadians.

After people were shown vulnerable stories, they were much more likely to send words of encouragement on the online Tumblr board that the researchers created. It is still receiving a lot of heartwarming messages, for all the world to see. “You are the glue that holds a community together”, one person wrote. “Please don’t lose hope”, added another.

It is a solution oriented experiment and that’s what I like about it

A study of positive behaviour

How citizens behave toward public sector workers is crucial for the well-being and performance of workers. Scholars have mainly focused on understanding negative citizen behaviors, such as aggression. Szydlowski, De Boer and Tummers have now studied a positive behaviour, namely compassionate behaviour. In this way, ours is more of a solution oriented experiment and that’s what I like about it, says Szydlowski. We also tested if stories with bureaucrat bashing resulted in less encouragement messages, but this had no effect. That’s hopeful.  I think that if you would redo this experiment in the Netherlands or the United States instead of Canada you would get more or less the same results. Our way of thinking about public service workers is very similar.

My main take away is that showing your weakness can be a strength, says Szydlowski. One of the ways to combat negative views of yourself and the work you and your colleagues do, is to show your difficulties and your vulnerability. Next to that, results show that citizens can be stimulated to act more positively toward public sector workers.

Explore the messages still being added on the Tumblr board, created for this purpose:

Tumblr board Compassion for Social Workers