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Evidenced-based practice in social work

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The Iriss Evidence Search and Summary Service (ESSS) was set up to help social services providers use evidence to help support practice, service improvement and continuous learning the social services sector in Scotland. As a part of this, we’ve been looking into the research around evidence-based practice (EBP) in social work. In this post, we’ll be sharing some of the key issues highlighted in the literature.

Defining evidence-based practice

“EBP is a process, a verb, not a noun.” (Thyer and Myers 2011)

Like so many slippery subjects in social services, there is disagreement about how we define EBP (Gray et al. 2009). Some researchers argue that the phrase itself, which originates from medicine, is too rigid, and prefer the term evidence-informed practice (EIP) (McLaughlan and Teater 2017). EIP is considered by some to be a more inclusive, non-hierarchical notion (Webber 2015), implying that practice knowledge and interventions might be enriched by prior research but not limited to it (Epstein 2009).

There was some consensus, however, that EBP is a process that involves many different factors with the long-term goal of positive outcomes for service users. Generally, there is a lot of discussion around the barriers to EBP. These tend to be focused around the evidence itself, practitioners and organisations, and we’ve summarised some of these issues below.

What is evidence?

“Much research is ‘of the wrong kind’ – that is, it focuses on problems not on evaluating solutions.” (Webber 2015)

In the studies we read, there was agreement that the strict, narrow, scientific view of evidence traditionally associated with EBP was not wholly appropriate for social services (Gray et al. 2009). Rather than a strict hierarchy, there is a tendency to place equal value on organisational, practitioner, policy community, academic and user and carer research (Pawson et al. 2003). See our post on social services evidence for examples of resources relevant to the Scottish context.

A broad approach to gathering evidence is often necessary; as social work covers a diverse field of activity, the research base is correspondingly fragmented (Booth et al. 2003). The complex issues surrounding interventions in social work do not do not easily lend themselves to experimental designs (Berger 2010; Gray et al. 2009). Many social workers embarking on research might find limited academic evidence relevant to the diverse populations they support and their unique agency context (Bledsoe-Mansori et al. 2013). Other issues related to evidence include:

  • Lack of fit between the type of research undertaken and requirements of practitioners (Gray et al. 2015)
  • Slow process of academic publishing means evidence can quickly become irrelevant in practice context (Wike et al. 2014)
  • Evidence around effectiveness, such as what type of intervention works best with a certain group of clients, is most useful for practitioners, but the majority of evidence tends to be descriptive or explanatory (Berger 2010).

What role do practitioners play?

“[I]t is inevitable that professional judgement will always take priority over evidence in informing decision-making.” (Gray et al. 2009)

A survey on 152 social workers found that approximately a third found it difficult to practice evidence-based social work, and 17% did not feel it was feasible to use EBP when providing interventions for clients (Teater and Chonody 2017). The literature also shows that social workers tend to draw on their practice wisdom and experiential knowledge rather than privileging empirical research (Gray et al. 2015).

The responsibilities of EBP frequently fall on the shoulders of practitioners, who might be given little support to implement these changes in the way they work (Yates et al. 2015). Social workers were found to differ in terms of whether or not they see themselves as needing to be involved in locating, appraising and applying research in order for EBP to be best implemented; a survey of 364 social workers found that 41% felt practitioners had a responsibility to appraise and apply research themselves, while 42% believed EBP involved the use of guidelines and protocols developed by others (Gray et al. 2015).

The barriers to EBP experienced by practitioners will undoubtedly be familiar:

One of the main themes emerging from the literature is that social workers tend to consult with peers, supervisors or mentors to alert them to relevant research (Booth et al. 2003) and for support in making practice decisions (Teater and Chonody 2017). Peer influence is also thought to play a part in their exposure to and willingness to adopt new practices (Wike et al. 2014). There is potential for more research around how this way of working might be leveraged to integrate EBP.

How can organisations support EBP?

“Evidence-based practice is the endpoint of a massive research, policy and practice infrastructure pushing the practitioner in a particular direction.” (Gray et al. 2009)

Research in this area consistently finds that organisational culture and availability of resources have a significant influence on the uptake of EBP (Bledsoe-Mansori et al. 2013Cheung et al. 2015; Gray et al. 2009; Gray et al. 2015). These resources include dedicated staff time, funding support and an infrastructure providing access to evidence (Gray et al. 2015).

Some of the recommendations for supporting EBP in an organisation include:

  • Giving practitioners access to research and time to engage in EBP (Teater and Chonody 2017)
  • Working towards organisational cultures marked by norms of achievement and motivation, development of staff abilities, positive interpersonal relationships, and mutual support (Wike et al. 2014)
  • Incorporating the direct experience social workers and clients have regarding the impact and effectiveness of interventions into evidence-generation (Gray et al. 2009)
  • Developing agency–university partnerships to motivate social work practitioners to increase adoption of EBP (Bledsoe-Mansori et al. 2013)
  • Framing research utilisation within an organisation as mission-relevant and as connected to growth, learning and innovation (Yates et al. 2015)
  • Providing ongoing training and/or mentorship and support from peers or experts in the field (Teater and Chonody 2017)

Want to know more?

Get in touch with the ESSS team for support finding and using evidence in your practice or within your organisation.


Berger, R (2010) EBP: practitioners in search of evidence, Journal of Social Work, 10(2), pp.175–191 (paywalled)

Bledsoe-Mansori, SE et al. (2013) Implementing evidence-based practice: practitioner assessment of an agency-based training program, Journal of Evidence-Based Social Work, 10(2), pp.73–90 (paywalled)

Booth, SH et al. (2003) The need for information and research skills training to support evidence-based social care: a literature review and survey, Learning in Health and Social Care, 2(4), pp.191–201 (paywalled)

Cheung, M et al. (2015) Research–practice integration in real practice settings: issues and suggestions, Research on Social Work Practice, 25(4), pp.523–530 (paywalled)

Epstein, I (2009) Promoting harmony where there is commonly conflict: evidence-informed practice as an integrative strategy, Social Work in Health Care, 48(3), pp.216–231 (paywalled)

Gray, M et al. (2009) Evidence-based social work: a critical stance. Oxon: Routledge

Gray, M et al. (2015) What supports and impedes evidence-based practice implementation? A survey of Australian social workers, British Journal of Social Work, 45(2), pp.667–684 (paywalled)

McLaughlan, H and Teater, B (2017) Evidence-informed practice for social work. Maidenhead: Open University Press/McGraw Hill

Pawson, R et al. (2003) Types and quality of knowledge in social care, Knowledge Review 3. Social Care Institute for Excellence (open access)

Teater, B and Chonody, JM (2017) Identifying as an evidence-based social worker: the influence of attitudes, access, confidence, and education, Social Work Education, 5479(January), pp.1–16 (paywalled)

Thyer, BA and Myers, LL (2011) The quest for evidence-based practice: a view from the United States, Journal of Social Work, 11(1), pp.8–25 (paywalled)

Webber, M (2015) Applying research evidence in social work practice. London: Palgrave

Wike, TL et al. (2014) Evidence-based practice in social work: challenges and opportunities for clinicians and organizations, Clinical Social Work Journal, 42(2), pp.161–170 (paywalled)

Yates, M et al. (2015) From a provider’s perspective: integrating evidence-based practice into the culture of a social service organization. Child welfare, 94(2), pp.87–106 (open access)

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