Overworked and under-resourced – ‘mission impossible’ for social workers?

By Heather Cameron

A year on from my previous blog on the emotional pressures facing social workers, have the headlines improved any?

Going by a new Guardian survey of social workers, it would seem that the answer is a resounding no.

The Social Lives Survey revealed that while the majority of social workers enjoy their job, two-thirds say they can’t focus on what really matters and only a quarter feel their workload is manageable. Almost 80% work overtime every day, and 86% don’t get paid for doing so.

Heavy and increasingly complex caseloads was the most common reason given for stress among social workers in last year’s Community Care survey.

Unmanageable caseloads

Unison surveyed social work staff from across the UK about their work at the end of a day in April 2014. Just over half (52%) said their caseload size was affected by covering for staff shortages and nearly three quarters highlighted that there was no formal system in place to help manage their caseloads and ensure they are at a safe level. A significant minority (42%) noted that they left work with serious concerns, the main reason for which was being unable to complete paperwork, followed by being unable to speak to other agencies or professionals involved.

Similarly, in May 2012 the British Association of Social Workers published the findings of its State of social work survey which indicated that 77% of the social workers surveyed said their caseloads were unmanageable. One child protection social worker said “the team I work in currently is working at dangerous caseload levels in terms of child protection work”.

The emotional impact of the challenges of social work were highlighted by a number of respondents, as one mental health social worker described:

It makes me so sad that this job seems only to be possible if you sacrifice your own health and wellbeing

The subsequent inquiry into the state of social work report by the All Parliamentary Working Group at the end of 2013 also emphasised the extent of stress among social workers who are overloaded and under-resourced. It heard from a local authority social worker who said:

 “the more cases we have, the more corners we have to cut, and the more corners we have to cut the more we have significant numbers of children for whom we haven’t had the time to do a thorough assessment”.

Another social worker said that as a result of budget cuts, “the conditions for child-centred practice and safe working are being eroded”.

Impact of austerity

A little over two years on from the inquiry, it would seem there is no let up on the impact of austerity on the social work profession.

A huge majority (92%) of social workers who took part in the Guardian’s survey highlighted that spending cuts are affecting services and putting more pressure on care professionals. And it was felt by 88% of respondents that social work isn’t as high on the political agenda as other public services.

With further cuts to hit local authorities from April this year, following the government’s announcement of a 6.7% funding cut for councils, things may get worse before they get better.

To help offset the impact on social care, local authorities will be able to raise an extra £2 billion through a 2% Council Tax precept and the £1.5 billion Better Care Fund.

Nevertheless, it has been argued that this will not be enough to address the immediate social care crisis or to prevent an estimated £3.5 billion funding shortfall by the end of the decade.

‘Bad press’

As well as spending cuts increasing pressure on social workers, the negative perception of the profession was also raised by the Guardian’s survey:

“The government and media need to stop portraying social workers as child-snatchers and do-gooders. They should sometimes focus on the lives we have saved and positively changed.”

It was suggested that newspapers should also focus on the pressures put on social workers rather than always on when things go wrong, and the government should be supportive of the role and address the lack of recognition and support at the national level.

Way forward?

Perhaps the rest of the UK should be looking to Wales for good practice, where the happiest social workers reside.

In Wales there are lower caseloads, more support from managers and better integration with health. According to one social worker, “it’s a better place to be a social worker. Social work is recognised and valued; in England I don’t think it is.”

Social services in Wales have also been more protected from cuts than elsewhere. And you don’t see the same negative language about social workers in Wales as you do in some parts of the media in England, according to the Welsh Government’s minister for Health and Social Services.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Further reading: if you liked this blog post, you might also want to read Heather’s other article on engaging fathers with social work.

One thought on “Overworked and under-resourced – ‘mission impossible’ for social workers?

  1. Pingback: World Social Work Day: promoting community and environmental sustainability | The Knowledge Exchange Blog

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