Social work has long relied on the goodwill and dedication of its practitioners but our exclusive survey finds that they are less than happy with their conditions, writes Andrew Mickel
It’s no secret that social workers don’t have the best working conditions, but seeing the extent of the problem in the Community Care/Unison pay and conditions survey still has the power to surprise. Only 22% of those surveyed consider their promotion prospects to be excellent or good with their employers.
That rate of satisfaction rises to 26% for the state of their caseloads, 44% for the quality of supervision and 45% for decision support. Factor in typically long careers in social care, long working hours and low pay rates – the average respondent has worked 18 years in social care yet earns only £32,110, and has a 41-hour working week despite being paid for just 35 – and it is little wonder that the profession has such a high turnover.
Yet these figures bear no correlation with job satisfaction. Nearly three-quarters of the respondents are either very or fairly satisfied, a number that rises to 82% in the voluntary sector, even though they earn less and work longer hours than the average.
Nearly 1,400 people were surveyed, drawn from all levels of children’s and adults’ social work in the state and voluntary sectors. The study does, of course, overlook one major group: those who were so unsatisfied by the job that they left social work altogether. So why is it that so many social workers are so unhappy with the conditions of work, yet satisfied with their jobs. Are they simply gluttons for punishment?
Not so, says Hilton Dawson, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers. He is part way through a listening tour of the country to hear what social workers think of the profession, and he disagrees with the idea that so many people are satisfied. “I think sometimes there’s a bloody-minded determination to do social work in the face of adversity,” he says. “I don’t recognise satisfaction. They are dissatisfied, demoralised and feel undervalued and unrecognised. I suspect that the answers reflect people’s dedication rather than satisfaction.”
As the survey results show, there is plenty for social workers to be dissatisfied with.
On the day that he met social workers from Cornwall, Dawson said: “People are crying out for a career structure to allow specialist roles or give them advanced professional tasks which keep them close to practice. But some areas, like where I’ve been today, are reducing their numbers of specialist practitioners to focus on making sure that basic statutory work is done.”
There is some variation of jobs. In the survey, just 25% of respondents had the title social worker; 27% were managers or leaders, with smaller percentages holding more than a dozen other titles, including senior practitioners and social workers, head of departments, area or district managers, directors, commissioners and key workers.
Despite these wild variations in titles, it is true that there is less of a career ladder for social workers compared with other sectors. Helga Pile, national officer for Unison, points out that it is most striking for adults social workers who work alongside colleagues in health, who have a career and pay scale to climb. She also concurs with Dawson’s assessment. “More senior roles are disappearing, sometimes under the guise of making things flatter but then, when you look, it’s just the more senior practitioner roles that are being taken out,” she says.
The situation could improve with the advanced practitioner status, announced in the government’s response to the Laming report, allowing experienced social workers to remain on the frontline rather than moving into management.
Consultant practitioner roles are also being developed in adults’ services by some local authorities. With the average respondent age for the survey 48 and the majority spending most of their careers in the sector, there is no shortage of long-serving social workers who could fill those new jobs.
“We’ve a degree of career grading but they don’t take you into the £40k salary bracket that people think should be their ambition,” says John Nawrockyi, of the Association of Directors of Adult Services workforce development policy network. “The [consultant role] works well. The jobs have been popular and oversubscribed.”
Working conditions is a broad catch-all term, and Nawrockyi emphasises that there is no single answer to complex questions. “I’d like to think that if there were issues in a given council they would come out in staff surveys,” he says. “We have them in Greenwich [where Nawrockyi is director of adults’ services] and it can flag up big issues for us. We can work with the trade unions as well.”
But that is far from the general picture. Hot-desking has become a hot topic for staff who want their own workspace; equipment is scarce in some places; and substandard offices are now the norm.
“I’ve now done my 29th meeting with social workers across the country – that must be about 1,000 social workers,” Dawson says. “People report appalling working conditions. They don’t have some of the basic machinery. Photocopiers don’t work; social workers in Cornwall have just had their essential car allowance taken away from them; and the fad for hot-desking breaks up teams and undermines effective team working.
“Plus they have little clerical support. Social workers have become typists. As well as doing, say, highly detailed work on children in care, they are booking taxis, typing up the notes for meetings and sending them out.”
Such sub-standard working conditions do not have to be the norm, even in cash-straitened times. Respondents from the voluntary sector, which appears to have been hit harder and faster by the recession than the statutory sector, register higher levels of satisfaction on all measures.
Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations and a former social worker himself, says less scrutiny frees staff in the voluntary sector to do their work. “The sector has a degree of independence and is probably less bureaucratic than the statutory sector,” he says.
“The structures are flatter and there’s more professional discretion which is key for professional engagement. It’s also easier for staff to feel that they have more control over the direction of their agency. People feel like they have more control over their decisions.”
However, the situation is far from perfect in the voluntary sector, as councils have cut contracts and job losses have followed. One-fifth of respondents in the voluntary sector lost their previous job through redundancy, compared with 6% of all respondents.
“Most services are provided to local authorities or primary care trusts on contract,” says Etherington. “There’s more aggressive competition with the private sector and some suggestion that local authorities are insourcing contracts again.
“I think the voluntary sector will hold up as well as it can but will find it tough.”
The recession is likely to have an impact on social workers’ jobs, but only in certain areas. Consider the factors that job hunters think are important: the location of the job (96% consider it very or fairly important when looking for a new job) and the job description (94%) are unlikely to be severely affected by the recession. But salaries (97%) and the quality of supervision (92%) could well both suffer as councils have less cash to spend.
Pile says there are already signs that training budgets have been scaled back, with some cases of social workers being placed on waiting lists to do post-qualifying training.
But the quality of supervision should, for the newest members of the workforce through the newly qualified social worker programme pilots, be strong. However, Dawson says that isn’t the case. “I’ve heard from newly qualified social workers who were supposed to be part of the pilot who haven’t had their workloads reduced and have been given tasks beyond their training to do,” he says. “Most don’t have regular enough supervision and have to pack it into their caseloads.”
Given all these problems, why aren’t more people leaving the profession? In lieu of decent promotion prospects or higher salaries, it would appear that many people decide to change jobs to keep things fresh.
Even though the average respondent has spent 18 years in the social care sector, they have spent typically five years in their current role. Just under half have spent less than three years in their jobs, and generally it takes less than a month to find a new one.
Those statistics are even more exaggerated in the voluntary sector, where many people work in smaller projects and promotion prospects are even fewer. Half of the voluntary sector respondents foresee their next job being with a new employer, compared with 35% overall.
Finding ways to work with difficult situations is a social worker’s job, and that attitude is being passed on to the next generation of practitioners. Despite Dawson claiming that some newly-qualified social workers are “burning out” in just 18 months on the job, the survey shows that for those earning under £25,000, only 8% are looking for their next job outside of the social care sector.
The results show poor working conditions, and the experts show little faith in them improving. But this is hardly a new situation for the social care workforce.
“We often get the response that people do well despite employers,” Pile says. “There is the impression that people do derive satisfaction from their commitment to people’s lives.
“There’s a sense of vocation that people carry with them more in a personal way. People can be satisfied with their personal achievements.”
VIEW FROM THE FRONTLINE: “I’ve been back less than a year. Already I want out”
Lisa* is exactly the sort of social worker that the government wants to lure back to the profession. Having qualified in 1984 she then worked in children’s teams, but then left social work and spent seven years as a school counsellor.
She returned to children’s social work as a locum in a London borough last October – weeks before the Baby P story became a tabloid monster – but already now has an eye on escaping the poor conditions she has returned to.
“I think caseloads are too high, and it’s not clear how they are counted as children or families,” she says. “I think I’ve got about 20 families and it’s too much.
“It’s my personal greatest dissatisfaction that I can’t do anything well because I’m rushed around and making mistakes in organising things. Plus there’s a lot admin in this particular post.”
Lisa identifies with many other key issues flagged in the survey. There are only enough computers because the team was bought some small laptops which are uncomfortable to use. Staff turnover is high and much of the team comprises locums, who Lisa says have to move between a child in need and referral and assessment roles depending on time pressures.
As a senior social worker, Lisa is wary of what future she would have in social work without going in to management, but says that an advanced practitioner role could tempt her to stay if the bureaucracy of the job was reduced.
However, it is the issue of pay that angers Lisa most. “I don’t think the salaries are particularly good given the expectations and length of the training,” she says, adding: “And I’m one of the better paid.”
*Not her real name
This article appears in the 30 July 2009 edition of Community Care under the headline “Bloody-minded determination”
‘Unsatisfactory’ social work pay levels prompt calls for a review