Social worker stress costing councils at least £45m in lost labour

Community Care's biggest ever stress survey finds 30% of social workers took time off with stress in the last year

stress absence
30% took time off with stress Photo: REX/VISUM

Social workers taking time off due to stress could be costing councils well over £45m in agency cover, projections from Community Care’s annual stress survey suggest.

In a survey of 2037 social workers, almost a third (30%) said they had taken time off due to stress in the last year. Over half (59%) of those had taken over a week off and a quarter had taken more than 30 days.

If this is representative of the general social worker population, this could equate to at least 204, 752 days in lost labour due to stress, based just on those absent for more than 30 days.

The biggest social work recruitment agencies were not able to provide Community Care with their average day rate, but we based this projection on a sample rate of £32 an hour for an agency social worker in London.  This is assuming agency cover is hired and the workload is not redistributed among remaining staff.

The figures come on top of Community Care’s vacancy survey which showed 1 in ten social work post are unfilled.

How did we work it out?

We took the 7.5% of social workers responding to our survey saying they had taken more than 30 days off as representative of the population
There are 91,001 social workers in England
If 7.5% of 91,001 social workers took at least 30 days off, that equals a minimum of 204,752 days of lost labour, if we only account for long terms absences of over 30 days
We took £32/hour as a guide hourly rate based on conversations with agency workers
If a council covered those 204,752 days of absences with temporary agency staff- not including any staff absences of under 30 days which may also have been covered- at a rate of £32/hour, 7 hours a day that equals a spend of £45,864,448 in one year

On top of almost a third who had already taken time off, another 23% of social workers surveyed described themselves a ‘very close’ to burning out or having to take time off work due to stress, and a further 60% said if things carried on as they were they felt they were in danger of burning out.

But even after taking time off, Sue Kent, British Association of Social Workers professional officer said those returning to work following a period of stress-related sick leave may well be facing further stress as little will have changed.

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Unison national officer Helga Pile said: “The human and financial costs of this level of stress are completely unacceptable.”

“Employers have a duty of care towards staff and clear obligations under health and safety legislation.”

Alan Wood, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services  believes national recruitment and retention initiatives should be introduced to ease the financial, as well as emotional burden.

“The level of vacancies and temporary staffing arrangements only adds to the pressures our social workers face,” he said.

“In a period of extreme resourcing pressures it is not a surprise to see the results of this survey pointing to raised levels of stress among social work staff.”

Despite almost all social workers responding to the survey saying they were experiencing some degree of stress,  the majority had not been given access to counselling or any formal support to deal with it.

Association of Directors of Adults’ Social Services’ Joan Beck, joint chair of the workforce network said: “Key to meeting this challenge is making sure managers have the ability to recognise work pressures and talk about them in supervision, ensure access to good occupational health programmes, and use annual leave and flexible working arrangements effectively.”

Stress, in your words
Bullying
  • “Threats about initiating competency procedures (also classified as bullying!) if workers raise concerns about workloads are not unusual. I suffer enormous via threats and bullying by very senior people in the organisation who would prefer silence and fear to reign – so the stress I am under means that I cannot continue in this role indefinitely.”
  • “Managers use bullying tactics to try and get work done. They accept no responsibility when things are not done even though they are aware well in advanced that it will not get completed in a timely manner.”
  • “I’ve been threatened with losing my job, and been publicly (in front of colleagues) questioned about late pieces of work.”
  • “Poor and weak management have a dramatic effect on morale in the team. Unmanageably high and complex caseloads add to the stress. This has been reported to management several times but no action was taken, and we were told if we do not take the cases we will place a burden on our team mates as they will have to take them.”
  • “IROs are encouraged to bully social workers, undermine them and escalate concerns, again making more work for everyone that is taking the focus away from the child.”
  • Lack of experienced workers
  • “Lack of experienced social workers and difficulty filling posts makes deadline for court hard to meet, and pushes stress up in ensuring all tasks get completed to a high standard.”
  • “I am on the ASYE programme, yet in the past six months, I have been to two mental health tribunals, am due to attend a children’s court case and had consistently at least 3 safeguarding cases on top of this. We are a team of nearly all newly qualified and most have little or no induction.”
  • ” The service has lost a lot of senior workers who have been replaced with newly qualified staff. Senior management refuse to accept this is why the remaining staff are struggling to cope with an ever increasing caseload now shared between less people and criticise or threaten with performance management at every opportunity.”
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