Strong Relationships With Employment Caseworkers Help People Get Jobs

This blog is based on an article in Social Policy and Society. Click here to access the article.

A strong relationship between social assistance recipients and their caseworkers increases the likelihood of employment and participation in education. This is the main finding of our new article in Social Policy and Society: “Relationships Matter – The Impact of Working Alliances in Employment Services”.

Prior research on employment services and active labour market policies (ALMPs) has not paid sufficient attention to the outcomes of the relational and collaborative aspect of work within employment services. This is surprising since a central assumption in theories of social work, employment services and psychotherapy is that a positive relationship and high quality collaboration between clients and caseworkers brings about the best results.

We have tested the importance of the working alliance in employment services. The case study is a local municipality in Denmark that has invested in improving employment services by hiring new caseworkers and reducing caseloads.

The working alliance

We use the theory of the working alliance, which was originally developed in the field of psychotherapy. A number of controlled experiments found that psychotherapy was effective in alleviating mental health problems, but failed to demonstrate the superiority of one method over another. This led to the realization that the active ingredient in psychotherapy was the quality of the relationship and the collaboration between the therapist and the client. The term ‘the working alliance’ was coined to capture this. Since then, many researchers have argued that the theory can be applied to other fields and areas, where collaboration is central for achieving desired outcomes. We test the theory on the relationship and collaboration between recipients of social assistance and caseworkers.

Employment services are not conducive for strong working alliances

The context of employment services are not necessarily conducive for building strong working alliances. First, the objectives are not necessarily mutual and shared. Some recipients of social assistance may not want to find a job. If the unemployed person is not willing to participate or cooperate, the employment services may enforce economic sanctions. Second, participation in activation programmes is mandatory; payment of income benefits such as social assistance is conditional on participation in activation programmes. Finally, strong bonds between clients and caseworkers may be difficult to forge when caseworkers have limited time, resources and energy. Employment services are by implication a critical case for working alliance theory.

Working alliances seem to work even in employment services

We use a survey amongst social assistance recipients to measure the strength of the working alliance and later merged it with register data containing information on employment and educational outcomes of the clients the year after the survey was conducted. When we control for other factors, we find that clients with a very strong alliance obtain 3.9 months more in education and employment one year after, compared to clients with a very weak alliance. We interpret the results as an indication of a relationship and collaboration effect. The implication of the finding is to promote employment services that are more conducive to building strong working alliances between caseworkers and clients.


About the authors

Rasmus Lind Ravn is a postdoctoral researcher at The Department of Politics and Society at Aalborg University. His main areas of research are disadvantaged unemployed, employment services and active labour market policies, and evaluation theories and methodologies.

Thomas Bredgaard is a professor at the department of Politics and Society at Aalborg University. His main areas of research are active labour market policies, flexicurity, evaluation, disability and employment.

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