Support staff ‘used as budget social workers’

Support workers are being asked to handle tasks normally carried out by registered social workers but without support or supervision, a Unison survey reveals today. (Picture posed by model, Rex Features)

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Support workers are being asked to handle tasks normally carried out by registered social workers but without support or supervision, a Unison survey reveals today, writes Tristan Donovan.

The union’s survey of 354 support workers found that two-thirds regularly or sometimes felt they were performing tasks they lack the qualifications or experience to do.

Many added that they worked with little or no supervision and 68% said their workplace lacked clear boundaries between the responsibilities of support workers and social workers.

In Stepping into the Breach, a report based on the findings, Unison said the blurring of such boundaries meant that support staff, 42% of whom earn less than £21,000 a year, are being used as “social workers on the cheap”.

One of the support workers questioned told the union: “I hand back safeguarding issues but this is my own decision, not the organisation’s policy. I frequently feel out of my depth with drug and alcohol or mental health work.”

Others spoke of feeling overwhelmed and said they were concerned they and their clients were being put at risk due to their lack of training or experience.

Two in five support workers said they were involved in mental capacity assessments; 60% of those did so with little or no supervision.

Some 44% were involved in child or adult protection investigations, with 14% acting as the lead worker or without day-to-day supervision.

“Blurring the distinction between the roles of social workers and support staff is unfair to both groups and potentially threatens the safety and well-being of people receiving services,” said a spokesperson for the College of Social Work.

“If the quality of frontline services for thousands of vulnerable people is to be protected, it’s vital that staff carry out duties commensurate with their skills and knowledge.”

John Nawrockyi, secretary of the workforce development network at the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, said the findings were a concern: “If support workers are being deliberately asked to undertake tasks that require an additional level of skill and being exploited for the sake of convenience or to save money then that is not appropriate.”

Clear boundaries

Job descriptions, he said, should make the boundary between support workers and social workers clear and pay scales should reflect that, but any definition should not be too prescriptive.

“There are a wide range of functions that social work involves and not a single dividing line,” he said. “Defining a few core tasks that only registered social workers do, such as safeguarding, might help, but putting lots of tasks into that definition wouldn’t be helpful. For example, if a social work lead goes off sick, support workers could become more involved with clients during that time and there’s no reason to prevent that.”

Helga Pile, Unison’s national officer for social care (pictured), said: “We are concerned about support workers and assistants undertaking work for which they may not have the full education and training, while social workers are sometimes signing off work that they have not had any oversight of. If something were to go wrong on one of these cases, both workers would find themselves open to criticism and possible repercussions.

“Many support workers in our survey felt that the fact that they were not subject to professional registration weakened their position when seeking to challenge unsafe or inadequate care practices, and lessened their authority with service users.”

What ‘the forgotten people’ say about their role

● “We are under-valued as a workforce. We are cheap labour for social workers.”

● “I sometimes feel that social work assistants are used to do the same job as social workers, but that no opportunities to develop are offered. We are the forgotten people.”

● “Our hospital discharge team has become a ‘screening team’. There is myself and another social work assistant and it is our job to screen referrals to decide who needs social work input. I feel we are discharging people unsafely due to a lack of staff and resources and a lack of social work management support.”

● “I don’t think service users are getting best service due to the pressures we are under. I actually feel concerned about my caseload and sometimes feel ‘out of control’.”

● “I am confident in my ability, but feel that I am at risk, and my clients are, when I am placed in situations that I should not be in as I do not have enough experience or training.”

● “I sometimes feel daunted by the level of responsibility of being the lead investigator in a safeguarding vulnerable adults case or the ‘decision maker’ in a mental capacity assessment. I am now studying towards a social work degree which has given me more confidence in this area, but has also brought to light how large the gaps in my knowledge were and are.”

● “The line between qualified care manager and unqualified assistant care manager is very, very grey.”

● “I do not complain as I am confident and enjoy the experience and, frankly, there is no-one to complain to.”

Source: Stepping into the Breach, Unison 2011

Unison calls for a new deal for support workers

In its Stepping into the Breach report, Unison set out a nine-point plan to improve the lot of support workers.

1 Social care support workers should be recognised in the same way that health care and teaching assistants are.

2 The career and development needs of support staff must form part of national workforce strategies.

3 Support staff should have “right to request” secondments from local authority employers so they can gain social work qualifications.

4 The job titles and responsibilities of support workers across the UK should be mapped and rationalised.

5 There should be accredited qualifications with modular training programmes for support staff.

6 Guidelines defining the boundaries between social workers and support staff should be developed.

7 The employer standards for social work (England) to be extended to cover social work assistants.

8 Pay grades for support staff should be reviewed, as should the compensation they get for using their own cars for work.

9 Social care staffing levels, including support workers and social workers, need to be reviewed against demand for services.

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