The HCPC’s advice for social workers facing excessive caseloads

Michael Guthrie, director of policy and standards at the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC), outlines the regulatory status of social workers facing high caseloads


By Michael Guthrie

Community Care’s recent caseloads survey has highlighted the very real concerns about the increasing workloads of many social workers.

But what does this mean for the regulation of individuals who are concerned that their workload is putting vulnerable service users at risk or fear they could be hauled in front of the HCPC for making a mistake?

The first thing to recognise is that the vast majority of social workers in England are dedicated individuals often undertaking difficult jobs. They play an important role in society and the vast majority are practising within the HCPC’s standards.

As with all the professions on our register, the number of professionals subject to the fitness to practise process is small.

In 2013/14 just 1.22% of the profession was subject to concerns. The majority of these cases (76% in 2013/14) relate to conduct rather than competence, typically including boundary violations, dishonesty, theft, poor record keeping, poor communications or poor clinical skills.

The fitness to practise process is not designed to be punitive nor is it there to punish people for mistakes. It is about public protection and ensuring that individuals who pose a serious risk to themselves or the public are prevented from causing further harm.

We recognise that people sometimes make mistakes or have a one-off instance of unprofessional conduct or behaviour. This does not mean that we will pursue every isolated or minor mistake but if a professional is found to fall below our standards, we will take action.

In respect of caseloads, the process is also not about making individual registrants responsible for the policies, actions or omissions of their employers.

Best interests of service users

If you make informed, reasonable and professional judgements about your practice, with the best interests of your service users as your prime concern, and you can justify your decisions if you are asked to, it is very unlikely that you will not meet our standards.

As a registrant, you must act in the best interests of your service users so it is important that you know how to raise and escalate your concerns.

We are often contacted by registrants asking us for advice on raising concerns about a policy or someone’s behaviour in the workplace. While we cannot offer specific advice for every situation our standards are clear that you must act immediately if you become aware of a situation where a service user is placed in danger or take appropriate action to protect them.

You should raise concerns internally with your manager or employer first. This is because your concerns may be able to be addressed at a local level. If for any reason you cannot do that, or your concerns have not been addressed in a timely way, you should escalate to a higher management level.


Where possible, act in accordance with your employer’s whistleblowing policy. If you’re unsure about what to do there are other possible sources of help including colleagues, your manager, your employer, the human resources department for your organisation, your professional body or association or Public Concern at Work.

In the unlikely event you find yourself subject to a complaint our panels will consider a range of mitigating circumstances including employer environment.

Employers have a responsibility to support employees and ensure that they have adequate supervision and safe caseloads, something that is articulated in the standards for employers of social workers.

It is also important that employers and others understand the HCPC’s role and function, which is to ensure public trust and confidence in the professions we regulate. We provide a range of information for employers to ensure they understand the fitness to practise process and what the HCPC requires as a statutory regulator.

Michael Guthrie is the director of policy and standards at the HCPC

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10 Responses to The HCPC’s advice for social workers facing excessive caseloads

  1. Jacob Daly December 9, 2014 at 12:32 pm #

    I am not sure whether this actually does explain the HCPC’s position on case loads. My underatanding is that the HCPC does not have a position on case loads and sees this as being being something between employer and employee. Am I correct ion this?

  2. Narendra Rao December 10, 2014 at 1:41 pm #

    HCPC should not get involved in case load allocation. This must be decided by the supervises and line managers based on complexity of the work and subject to resources available.
    Ensuring manageable caseloads ought to be the overwhelming priority for employers and for the government because we know the terrible dangers and risks that come when social workers are stretched too thin. I hope the unions would address this!!!

  3. Ezzie December 11, 2014 at 9:45 am #

    I agree with both Jacob and Nerenda (above) and cannot understand at all what the HCPC position is. Whilst I do think that it is employer responsibility to allocate, there should be some failsafe way of not allocating a worker too many cases. It bothers me that Michael Guthrie states that the number of professionals subject to the fitness to practise process is small and that the majority of these cases relate to conduct rather than competence. However, I would NOT class, poor record keeping nor poor communications under misconduct, as is stated in this artical. These two issues are usually as a result of an overstretched social worker with far too many cases. It is ok saying that there is a whistleblowing policy but in practice, the social worker is usually advised that being able to formally discuss caseloads once a month and informally, as required is as much support as is needed and therefore has not a leg to stand on. The social worker will still have a high case load despite having tried to address the problem in supervision, being in tears within a supportive team where everyone is usually feeling the same and will likely have taken sickness leave. The conditions for social workers with high case loads and high expectations is chronic. I feel angry that this artical has even been allowed to be printed. Where is the HCPC stance on caseloads again, because I fail to grasp this??

  4. Charlotte Peters Rock December 11, 2014 at 3:47 pm #

    Re: “In 2013/14 just 1.22% of the profession was subject to concerns.” If I may say so, there are a very large number of social workers. If 1.22% of the total number is subject to public or professional concern, that is a very large amount of potential human misery, deliberately caused by public servants. We are regularly made aware. of social workers removing babies – some directly from the womb – and forcing them through adoptions: removing disabled children into care, having refused all help to their increasingly desperate parents (and leaving disabled children to be drugged in their distress); removing old people in a confused state and keeping them trapped away from caring friends and relatives.

    Re cases : “relate to conduct rather than competence, typically including boundary violations, dishonesty, theft, poor record keeping, poor communications or poor clinical skills.”

    Dishonesty, theft, poor record keeping and poor clinical skills, do an immense amount of damage to vulnerable clients. They are all questions of ‘professional competence’.

    Another question of professional competence, is that of ‘not taking on too large a case load’. For goodness sake, Social Workers are supposed to be ‘professionals’. A professional takes responsibility for his/her own actions. Social Workers should be fully competent.. or out. Certainly ‘we all make mistakes’, but social workers must always strive to set right any wrongs caused by their own actions, learn from their mistakes, and act better in future..

    Also, if a social worker is a drunk – for instance – that will affect that person’s competency. If someone working in the public arena, paid from the public purse, the least that can be expected is adequate training, adequate support and full competency.

  5. Louise December 11, 2014 at 7:25 pm #

    I agree the issue of case loads has not been addressed by the HCPC. Unhealthy case loads is likely to lead to incompetency and dangerous practice …its not rocket science! Balancing equally pressing priorities gets far more complicated to manage the more cases you hold… with, unfortunately paperwork and processes being compromised. Social workers should not be penalised for not approaching higher management if concerns are not taken seriously at PM/TM level instead the HCPC should take a systemic approach and not one that falsely blames the individual social worker for not being super woman/man.

  6. Stuart December 11, 2014 at 9:50 pm #

    All this article does for me is confirm that the HCPC resides in cloud cuckoo land. It doesn’t show any understanding of real life situations many social workers face and seeks to deflect criticism of itself with further justification for them to say it’s the social workers fault. He’s saying find the solution yourself and he’s denying what we who read Community Care accounts of HCPC judgements know well, which is that they DO make negative judgements against social workers for sometimes very marginal reasons without fair regard for the circumstances within which they are actuall delivering as good a service as most others could do.
    Who actually thinks the HCPC are providing a good service to those of us who pay it to exist??

  7. Moment December 11, 2014 at 10:24 pm #

    Thank you HCPC for bringing the topic of excessive caseloads on the limelight. While the topic tries to portray on the tips to social workers to deal with excessive case load allocations and improve outcomes, as one reads on, the content in the above article appears to have lost its plot. I do agree with the respondents that the issue has not been resolved, while we were made to believe that the HCPC has the workers’ plights at heart, the article clearly depict how the Policy Director lacks the propensity to represent the concerns faced by social workers. While we applaud HCPC stance on regulating the registration processes and fitness to practice on the part of the worker, HCPC appears to fail to come up with realistic solutions to improve the practice as far as ethical issues are concerned. It feels like the regulating authority is overloaded with professions to regulate, hence missing out on how best to provide social workers with meaningful support to improve work allocation which in-turn determines outcomes. Other professions under HCPC regulation have well defined roles, which is uncommon with social work practice, yet we are left to do the dirty and difficult work, on top of it rewarded over allocations. In this day and time, most social work interventions are managerial and target oriented, which when truly speaking, has been the result of the austerity measures, the demand for services is outweighing the supply. Would the regulating authority please, come up with a realistic pieces of advice for both the social workers and their managers, and also comment on how the organisation intends to deal with the obvious problem.

  8. Stuart December 17, 2014 at 1:15 am #

    In response to Moment…

    I agree with your comrent that the hcpc have lost the plot, if they ever had it, but alternatively to your final suggestion, how about they abdicate and we can all let the profession regulate itself through a professional body of professional social workers who have some connection with reality like maybe existing bodies like BASW or TCSW

  9. Jane Rose December 17, 2014 at 3:26 pm #

    I agree with Stuart.
    In addition as LA transform allegedly following on from Munroe more is expected from less

  10. G Hall December 18, 2014 at 11:12 am #

    I am aware that the initial response to case loads of 60-80 in some child care teams in my area has been to incite managers to go down the capability route if people are not coping. As HCPC seem to accept that employers can refer to them if they are dissatisfied with the work of an employee without having to give clear indications how the employees actions have impacted on service users; the above screed from HCPC doesn’t even engage with the issues. Actions of the employers do directly effect service users and those organisations are managed by registered SW’s to some extent at least. Why are HCPC not encouraging people to report authorities and registered SW’s etc. who are allocating excessive case loads?