I decided early on in my research that I should speak to a cross-section of stakeholders connected to different social enterprises so as to build up a broad picture of potential impacts on health.
I made a point of including ‘service users’ in this cross-section. This group is different for every social enterprise but they represent the ‘social’ element of a social enterprise’s work, and I therefore assumed would be the recipients of any health impacts generated by the social enterprise. They may be adults with learning difficulties, long-term unemployed people, the population of a particular community, and are often categorised as ‘vulnerable’ or ‘needy’ groups. As well as interviewing these groups, I also asked staff and leaders of the social enterprises, as well as regional and national stakeholders, about the effects of the social enterprises on those groups. I hoped that this method would give me a number of different views of how those vulnerable groups were being helped. However, what emerged wasn’t entirely what I expected.
When asking open questions regarding the organisations’ impact on health, a number of respondents immediately interpreted the question as referring not to service users, but to the staff of the organisation: support workers, administration staff and others who were certainly not the intended beneficiaries of the social enterprise. Early interviews revealed that there were certain benefits that employed staff experienced through their work, with respondents describing it vaguely as a kind of satisfaction associated with ‘doing good’, which was beneficial to their mental health.
Following these early interviews I began asking different stakeholders about these impacts directly to try and dig deeper into this phenomenon. Two very different respondents that I happened to interview on consecutive days almost repeated each other word-for-word: people who work in social enterprises can make more money for doing the same job elsewhere, but they choose not to.
Why? What would compel a logical, rational adult to work often longer hours, for less pay, in a sector which regularly struggles to remain sustainable, instead of taking a cushy alternative in the public or private sector?
Last week I put that question directly to staff at one of my case study organisations. The answer was not straightforward and it was clearly difficult for some to put into words. One described as ‘selfish’ the positive feeling he got from helping people, and described the private sector alternative as ‘boring’. Another spoke of how ‘lucky’ she felt at being given the opportunity to help people in the community and how she couldn’t imagine herself working in the overly restrictive public sector which didn’t adequately respond to people’s needs.
What was clear from both, and indeed from others I have spoken to previously, is that the impacts on staff of working in these social enterprises cannot be replaced by a salary increase or job security. Could it be that these staff members have indeed found something better than money: the warm, fuzzy feeling (and ensuing health benefits) which comes from delivering social and economic benefits not possible in the public or private sector? Could it be that they are indeed thinking logically and rationally but are seeking to maximise their own wellbeing, not their bank balance? Either way, it is clear that my research will need to consider the impacts on the health and wellbeing of the staff of social enterprises, as well as their service users. The challenge will be to translate ‘warm and fuzzy’ into acceptable academic language.