Workloads make it hard for social workers to take a holiday

For some social workers high caseloads and lack of cover make planning holidays very stressful. Louise Tickle reports

In the 21st century, taking leave from your paid work is a statutory right rather than a privilege. And it’s a right that exists for good reason – it’s widely recognised that rest and recuperation is necessary in order to function at optimal levels when you’re in the workplace.

For social workers, many of whom are overloaded with casework and operating under pressure, the ability to properly unwind could be considered essential, not only to their professional competency, but to their continuing mental health as well.

Everyone is entitled to 5.6 weeks of paid leave per year pro rata: this means a minimum of 28 days for someone working a five-day week. But unfortunately, the very stresses that mean social workers often feel desperate for a proper break mean that getting one is far from simple.

The issue drew some comment on’s CareSpace forum (see box). One anonymous contributor who works in long-term child protection, told us: “I spend the week before going on holiday catching up on everything and working myself to the point where if I didn’t have a holiday I would medically need one. Then, on my return, I realise that it was all in vain as I’m two weeks behind on everything and have been allocated extra work.

“Any crises or statutory elements are covered by my already overburdened colleagues, but everything else just stacks up and waits for my return.”

There is no back-up in place for either planned or unplanned leave, the contributor says: “The team just muddles together, as it is a very supportive team.”

Celine,* a social worker in a mental health team with responsibility for older people, agrees. “Never in any situation I’ve ever worked in has anyone ever been brought in to cover,” she says.

“And that’s common. At one point I was off on study leave for several months and no cover was provided. Proposing to get someone in for a two-week holiday would be laughed at.”

Breaking point

If buying in holiday cover is seen as ridiculous then, given the caseloads social workers typically struggle with, it seems fairly obvious that service users’ needs are not going to be met. This is the case particularly in August, Celine points out, when “swathes of people are off” and it would seem that some services could be stretched beyond breaking point.

Is the lack of cover putting vulnerable people put at risk? “There is an element of that,” Celine says. “You want to offer a consistent service, and relationships matter in achieving that. With older people, I know the schedules of my colleagues and I will know to ring them and check certain things at this and that time. But it’s difficult to pick up on anyone else’s cases day-to-day.”

Celine also points out that many vulnerable service users will be unwilling to call the duty number if they know they won’t be able to speak to someone they know.

“Even if they do call with a problem, it is very unlikely it would be dealt with unless it was an emergency,” she says.

Knowing all too well that this is the state of affairs, social workers, it seems, are putting themselves under even more pressure by choosing not to take holiday, or by taking it only in very short chunks, says Hilton Dawson, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers.

He is chairing a series of meetings with social workers across the UK. What he’s heard so far has made it obvious, he says, that “staff are often working well into the evening and six-day weeks are regularly required”.

It is an issue Dawson is passionate about. “People have time off in lieu stacked up that they will never take. And if they do go off on holiday, people are saying that they feel guilty because colleagues are having to carry their cases, or they’re worried that things aren’t getting picked up.”

Dawson hopes to impress on children’s secretary Ed Balls the disturbing nature of the strain social workers are continuing to bear. “I don’t think the government understands the real depth of the crisis,” he says.

He adds that some social workers are so worried about the impact of their absence on vulnerable service users that they don’t consider taking leave is worth the resulting anxiety.

From what social workers have told Community Care, it seems clear that planning to take leave in a responsible way exacerbates the pressures individuals typically operate under. Celine has been known to cancel holidays simply to avoid the stress of the build-up to leaving the office.

In the worst case scenario if an emergency kicks off at 3pm on your last afternoon at work, having no cover for your absence means there is no one to whom you can hand over full responsibility for the urgent work that has suddenly landed on your desk. Whether you’ve a flight to catch or not is immaterial to the child who’s suddenly the subject of a court order and needs your presence now.

Mobile phones

Anecdotally, we’ve heard from other social workers who will regularly take their mobile phones on holiday to field calls so that service users don’t end up in crisis.

Helga Pile, national officer for social care at Unison, says that she has heard of social workers writing last-minute court reports while on leave because there was no other option, and they wanted to do the right thing by their clients.

Her concern is for social workers’ overall well-being. “Employers need to remember that it’s about the long-term health and safety of their workers,” she says.

“If this is the way the service is being run, clearly employees’ health will suffer and it will lead to unplanned absence. If people feel they can’t have a proper break it’s very worrying – it will add to their stress levels.”

But what are the solutions? There will never be enough funding in the system to allocate two social workers to each case, thus allowing continuity of knowledge and relationship when one of them goes on leave. Buying in regular cover, even if there was the will and the money to do so, does not solve the problem of a vulnerable person in crisis needing to be able to call on someone they know and trust.

It is difficult, acknowledges Pile, but more use of team work in the review of caseloads would help to ensure better cover while someone is on leave. Without enormous effort being made to ensure a team knows each others’ cases, that enormous pressure is loaded onto team managers who are often the only people to have an overview – which makes it even more difficult for them to take holidays themselves

At BASW, Dawson is clear that nothing can be solved until there is genuine understanding that the service is experiencing a deep crisis both in its staffing and in terms of investment in its basic running.

“There are some truly heroic managers out there, but above that level there are people who don’t want to hear,” he says. “Senior councillors now need to hear the message that people are working in what they consider to be dangerous conditions. Once there’s that acceptance, we know the way forward – local authorities need to be growing their own social workers; we need to get clerical support in so social workers can do their job; we need basic investment in the workplace so they don’t have to waste time on broken equipment; there needs to be a local plan for investment in child protection that sets out a clear way forward; and people need to feel confident that there are systems in place that mean they can take time off to recuperate from some of the very serious human stresses this kind of work causes.”

* Not her real name


What contributors to our CareSpace discussion forum have to say about holiday workloads

● CB: I’ve been known to cancel holidays just to avoid the stress of the build up to taking them.. emergencies are picked up (sometimes begrudgingly!). Anything else stacks up.

● kymb21: I ask myself why I do it every year. I do tend to take my work mobile with me on my hols – which is very sad I know! There are people I know who take very little of their annual leave because of this.

● fairygodmother: Before holiday, I give my manager a list of anything which might require attention when I am away. When I am on holiday I do not think about work. I enjoy life.

● Julie: I am on holiday from tomorrow – got two conference reports to write and have a half day of duty that may go to a full day.

Join the debate on CareSpace

This article is published in the 13 August issue of Community Care magazine under the heading “Oh no, I am going on holiday!”

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