Violence against social workers is still being regarded as “just part of the job” and not being treated seriously, a survey by Community Care has revealed.
In Community Care’s online survey of 446 social workers, 85% said they had been physically assaulted, verbally abused or harassed in the past year. In most cases the abuse was carried out by a service user or service user’s relative.
Social workers reported being threatened with weapons, verbally abused, stabbed, held hostage, harassed in the street and having hot drinks thrown on them. Some had to move house or leave their jobs due to persistent abuse.
A social worker responding to the survey said: “On one occasion, a service user’s son threatened to hunt me down and talked about weapons he could use, all because I was supporting his father in his wish to access respite care.”
One reported four arson attacks to her car after a service user found out where she lived: “I had to give up my home and move,” she told us, while another reported being stabbed on two separate occasions, threatened with a firearm, spat at and punched in his 14 years in the profession.
The survey found that nine out of 10 social workers feel at personal risk at least some of the time, with one in five saying they feel unsafe “often” or “almost all the time” while at work.
But one social worker, who received death threats over the phone from a service user, said: “It’s not taken seriously as it is seen as part of the job.”
This sense that being at risk of violence is part of the job frequently holds social workers back from taking further action. Two thirds of those who did not report incidents to either their employer or the police said it was because they considered abuse as to be expected in their role.
This reluctance to report is made worse by the inadequate response social workers are often met with when they do report incidents of violence.
This summer, a Dundee teenager was let off with a warning for firing an empty BB gun in a social worker’s face and verbally abusing the team manager.
Whilst the majority of social workers who responded to the survey said their employer has a formal policy around violence to their staff, over 70% said they nevertheless took no steps to investigate the incident further when reported.
Annie Hudson, chief executive of The College of Social Work, said that the figures, while concerning, reflect the “risky” nature of social work: “Year-on-year reporting of high levels of violence and abuse may suggest the issue has not been tackled effectively as it needs to be.
“Key to encouraging change is diligent reporting and monitoring of incidents when they occur at a local level, so that patterns of behaviour can be identified and learning and awareness can be improved.”
The lack of appropriate response from employers is of particular concern given over half of social workers surveyed who were victims of violence required time off work, counselling or both. Around a third required medical treatment.
Part of the problem may be that half of social workers surveyed said they had never received any training on how to cope with violent individuals, despite most being required to enter high risk situations, often alone and without adequate support.
Alan Wood, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), said: “Social workers do a difficult job, often in extremely challenging circumstances and they have a vital role in protecting children and young people from harm.
“If they are to fulfil their critically important, statutory, role then need they assurance that they will be protected from assault and abuse and in cases where they experience this unacceptable behaviour appropriate action will be taken by their employer and the police. We cannot protect our children effectively if we do not protect the staff we charge to work with them.”
The British Association of Social Workers, in response to these findings, called for a greater push towards a national framework in which incidents of violence are consistently recorded and dealt with, putting the well-being of the worker as a priority.
Helga Pile, Unison’s national officer for social care said: “These findings show that social workers continue to be exposed to a wholly unacceptable toll of violence and hostility. It is shocking and unacceptable that 1 in 3 social workers have been physically assaulted in the last 12 months. But you also can’t underestimate the effect on morale, well-being and staff retention of the near universal exposure to verbal assaults on a daily basis.
“The findings show a failure on the part of many employers to take prevention seriously, or to respond properly when incidents do happen. This can and does have tragic consequences. A legal case supported by Unison recently showed a complete failure to warn the social worker about a known threat, with horrendous consequences. If nothing else, employers should look urgently at what leaving this issue unchecked is costing them through absences, loss of skilled experienced staff and recruitment costs.”
In the legal case Pile mentioned it was ruled that Durham County Council had failed in its duty of care to protect a social worker from harm. It was known by others in the council that a mentally ill service user delusions had made threats to harm the social worker, but she was not informed of this threat to her safety. The social worker was subsequently attacked with a knife and seriously injured.
Pile said there is a bigger picture that still needs to be looked at in order to improve safety for social workers: “We still do not have mandatory reporting systems, consistent standards or inspection of the fundamentals like risk assessment, information sharing and monitoring.
“The high degree of risk that exists in social care requires a high priority pro-active response from employers, not a shrug of the shoulders that danger is part of the job.”
A Department of Health spokesperson said: “Violence against front line staff is completely unacceptable and against the law. Employers must make sure staff are protected and know what to do if they experience violent behaviour and can be prosecuted if they fail to do this.
“We have provided guidance that makes it clear what we expect of employers and what staff should do in these situations.”