Wolfgang Sierwald

Social Researcher SOS Children's Villages in Germany

Anchor looking at both sides of the coin: research on living and working conditions in SOS Children’s Villages families

Once upon a time, some seven years ago, there were rumours in SOS Children’s Villages Germany. They said “If nothing changes, in a few years there will be no more Children’s Villages families (CVF)”, because SOS mothers and fathers were overburdened with the strain, unable to cope with the worries and felt discontented. Unless the strain could be reduced they would soon burn out and no new mothers and fathers would be found. But this was only one side of the coin. On the other side was the story about the best job in the world, working with children and giving them a home and a loving family, often told by marketing people, fundraisers and the human resources department. In view of this situation the management board sent for the research unit to find out which side of the coin shows the truth about living and working in SOS CVF?

One questions was left unanswered
So the research unit - and I am one of the researchers - looked at internal papers and standards, scientific literature and research instruments which could help them to investigate, analyse and report. We developed a questionnaire with questions on a great number of topics. But a key question was left unanswered: do SOS mothers and fathers (CVMF) see their work and the circumstances as stresses and strains, or as a rewarding challenge which gives meaning to their lives? We could find questionnaires for each side of the coin, but they still seemed unsuitable.

Why not look at both sides of the coin simultaneously?
Then one day, mulling it over at my desk, a new idea came to me: why shouldn’t we, or the respondents look at both sides of the coin at the same time? With this idea in mind it was only a short step to developing a questionnaire and this was done in a kind of flow.

We asked the participants to think about one aspect (all in all there were more than sixty) of their work, e.g. living with children or documentation tasks. Then they should evaluate whether they experienced this aspect as a resource, meaning they thought it was rewarding, motivating and gave them satisfaction. And, for the same aspect, rate whether this aspect was experienced as a stressor, meaning whether it gave them strain, lowered their motivation or led to dissatisfaction. The clue was that they did not need to decide either/or but they could say that both of them – or none – is more or less true. For the most important aspects they should also write down the reasons for their assessment.

Too complicated? Let’s give it a try!
Initially co-workers in the national office and members of the management board tested the questionnaire which was really long. It needed about two hours to be filled out. They thought it would be too long and complicated. In particular, they doubted whether the part on resources and stressors would lead to answers. But we wanted to give it a try and went to a nearby SOS Children’s Village (CV) to test the questionnaire with some SOS parents and with educational co-workers in this village. When we gave them the questionnaire, there was some initial muttering about the length and the quantity of questions. But after about 15 minutes a very concentrated working atmosphere developed and this kept on for the next two hours, until most of the participants had gone through all the questions.

Initial feedback: true picture of a complex situation
When we asked them afterwards how they felt about the questionnaire, they all agreed that it was truly complicated to look at so many aspects but this gave a true picture of their complex working situation. To be asked in detail showed them that the association really wanted to know how it was to live and work in a CVF and they felt really appreciated by this. In the part of the questionnaire about resources and stressors they also felt that, through this way of looking at both sides of the coin, they could really express properly how they often felt about their work.

They have to balance both sides and, as long as they can feel resources coming from their work, they can cope with the stresses and strains. According to them the tool worked well for expressing their perspectives and allowing them be heard. Some respondents even said it helped them to better understand their own situation.

Successful inquiry: high rates of return and meaningful results for a better understanding
After this feedback we kept the questionnaire mainly as it was: long and complex. When it came to the field phase, 80% of the questionnaires sent out were returned and filled out with a high level of commitment and diligence – a big success. In the analyses “looking at both sides of the coin” was really useful. We could show different patterns of perception. We found very different patterns of balance for some aspects, e.g. for the question on how private life and vocational life could be connected. For some respondents this was a really great strain due to the long working hours, cutting them off from friends and family. For others working as a CVMF and living in the CVF is the perfect way to integrate both major aspects of life. Some felt both improvements and problems and were really ambivalent on this topic while, for the last group, it was not important at all. So we were able to show that not all CVMF and co-workers needed the same changes to feel content with their work. The majority of the SOS parents cope well with it. Nevertheless, the question of how to combine living and working in the same place – in an SOS Children’s Village programme – as well as possible, seems to be the main obstacle to deciding whether to become an SOS Children’s Village mother or father and whether to opt for this profession.

Research with impact: communication, decisions, development
In the further development process the results of this instrument and the whole questionnaire were recognised as a valid and empirically tested basis for decision. This examination has an impact and shows how working and living in CVF is perceived. It provides a good basis on important topics to be developed further. The results also provided the opportunity to enhance communication between CVMF, quality development staff and the management board. What needs to be stabilised and enhanced in this working field is now clearer. The results help facility leaders and leaders of special services to understand problems in this field of work and, last but not least, they give SOS Children’s Village parents and co-workers a better understanding of their own situation.
This instrument therefore developed into a success for me, for the research institute, for the association and for the co-workers. It is my conviction that it will facilitate high quality care for children and young people in CVF in the end. And, as many fairy tales end: if SOS-Kinderdorf e.V. doesn’t decline, it will go on to do this work for a long, long time to come.


Wolfgang Sierwald

is Social Researcher SOS Children's Villages in Germany in Munich since 1999.

Wolfgang works as a researcher in the field of youth care with the goal of improving the work in the programmes of SOS Children’s Villages. A key area of his work is to connect statistical results with the voices of children, caregivers and parents. Research for him is less about proving and more about understanding, as feedback often shows.

Family is important to Wolfgang. He keeps close connections with his siblings and his adult children. He has been married for 25 years. Singing is what makes Wolfgang’s day better. He sings in a choir and is also part of a theatre group. It is a highlight to connect these activities by performing in musicals. He also enjoys playing volleyball and cycling, as sports help him to stay in shape and to clear his mind.
Wolfgang comes from Germany. Germany is a major economic and political power of the European continent and a historic leader in many theoretical and technical fields. He has lived and worked in Munich/ Bavaria his entire life. He feels privileged to live in a peaceful country, without war or major catastrophes.