A Freedom of Information request based on returns from more than two-thirds of councils showed the average number of sick days taken by social workers was 11.8, but in Haringey it was only 3.4 despite the pressures triggered by the baby Peter case.
The average for social workers was higher than the public sector average for 2008 of 9.7 days, as calcluated by a separate survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.
High absence rates
Particularly high absence rates were reported in Somerset (27.8), Coventry (19.2), Wolverhampton (18.9), Cornwall (17.7) and Sefton (17.5). The highest recorded rate was at Hounslow Council (28), but it has said this was an error; the correct figure was 7.2 days.
A spokesperson for Coventry Council said: “We fully recognise how difficult and stressful a job social work can be and we are trying to ensure we improve the working conditions of our social workers.
“We have a proposed investment of £1m in our children’s services, a large amount of which would go towards trying to recruit more social workers.”
The FoI request also revealed that one in 10 social workers took more than 20 sick days in the past year.
At the top end of the scale, 89 social workers in Norfolk Council and Leeds Council, and 87 in Nottinghamshire Council, had taken more than 20 days off.
Stress is the number one cause of long-term absences from work, according to the CIPD, and earlier this year a Community Care survey found the average social worker worked 41 hours a week, against a contracted 35 hours.
Sickness absence levels ‘no surprise’
Helga Pile, Unison’s head of social services, said the high number of absences came as no surprise considering the intense pressure on social workers.
“Heavy caseloads, an unwieldy computer system, and an average 25% jump in referrals following the tragic case of Baby P, is making social workers’ workloads intolerable,” she said.
She added: “Councils across the country need to get started on filling vacant posts, cutting paperwork and increasing support for social workers, as many are facing burnout.”
The average number of sick days taken by staff in the health service in 2008 was 11, as calculated by the CIPD, one less than in social work.
The government appointed occupational health expert Dr Steve Boorman to lead an independent review into the health and well-being of NHS staff. An interim report, published last month, raised concerns that management practice and attitudes may be contributing to high levels of mental health problems among NHS staff.
However, Pile had reservations about a similar review of social work. “We would want to ensure the unions were involved,” she said. “And it’s important to look at stress as a priority, before doing a more systematic review.”
Achieving a healthy workplace in social care