Are inexperienced social workers being given too much responsibility?

Community Care’s survey of over 2,000 social workers found a number of issues that may be contributing to high stress levels

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Are social workers being asked to run before they can walk? Photo: Fairpex/ flickr

Community Care’s biggest ever stress survey has prompted mixed responses from the sector, from social workers who agree with the 80% who feel stress is affecting their ability to do their job, to sector leaders claiming it doesn’t provide a national picture.

Whichever side you take, key themes that came up time and again in the survey responses bear some examination.

Above my pay grade

One common theme that emerged was a number of newly qualified or relatively inexperienced social workers saying they were being given responsibilities above their level of experience. This is a concern also borne out in research published last week by Glasgow Caledonian University, based on a sample of 36% of the total population of newly qualified social workers.


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One respondent to Community Care’s survey said: “I am a newly qualified social worker enrolled on my local authority’s Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (ASYE) programme, but the programme is non-existent.

“I have 30-35 cases at any one time, including multiple child protection case and care proceedings. With less than one year’s experience, I am expected to manage complex child protection case and court work which I do not have adequate knowledge and skills to deal with.

Cancelled supervisions

“When I raise concerns with managers, they make comments like ‘you’re doing well’ or ‘you’re a very good social worker’, as if to reassure themselves that my practice is safe, without any real understanding of what is happening in the cases. Supervision is often cancelled or postponed.”

Another said: “I am the most experienced person on my team. I have been qualified for just over one year.”

One NQSW said caseload pressures across the team meant they were making decisions and undertaking assessments beyond their experience and training.

President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, Alan Wood has claimed this is not a fault with local authority’s and the allocation of work, but instead it is the education of social workers who are coming out of courses unprepared for the realities of social work.

Quality education?

“If social workers are not being prepared for what is likely to be in front of them, that raises quite an important question around what the quality and content of these courses is.

“We need to do more to get people coming into social work much better prepared and with a clearer understanding of what’s being expected of them.”

But British Association of Social Workers professional officer, Nushra Mansuri has countered this saying NQSWs are being put under “unbearable” pressure and are burning out at high rates.

Focus on staff care

“There’s a focus on saying, the stakes are getting higher so social work has got to be better, but it doesn’t seem like there’s a focus on staff care,” she said.

“Newly qualified people are particularly vulnerable because they don’t even know what the baseline should be.”

She added the new model unveiled by chief social worker for children, Isabelle Trowler, in her knowledge and skills statement put a further burden on social workers entering the profession.

“Why are we expecting so much so early in the profession?” she asked.

Chief executive of The College of Social Work, Annie Hudson conceded there is a mixed picture in terms of social work support, but said she thought the ASYE had made a real difference in terms of protecting NQSWs’ workloads.

ASYE making a difference

“There is a very steep rise in expectations and, particularly in places that have got a high reliance of temporary staff, the more recently qualified are getting disproportionate amounts of the more difficult work.

“But I don’t think that’s the pattern everywhere. Most employers are really heeding the ASYE because it’s not in their interests to have NQSWs getting very burned out,” she said.

“Increasingly employers are recognising that their biggest issue is retention, not recruitment.”

Professor Ray Jones, social work lecturer at Kingston University, agreed that most authorities were very committed to the ASYE programme.

What do you think? Are you being asked to do work above your capabilities? Or are you a newly qualified social worker who is being well-supported by your authority? Does being given a lot of responsibility push your stress levels into the danger zone, or do you think it’s just part of the job?

Let us know in the comments, or email

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9 Responses to Are inexperienced social workers being given too much responsibility?

  1. Rachael Ray January 13, 2015 at 3:43 pm #

    I note with dismay the blame attempting to be placed on social work education by Alan Woods. Whilst I do not argue that the Master’s I completed in Social Work could have been drastically improved and so better prepared me and my cohort for the realities of work, no amount of education can make up for NQSW’s having the opportunity to develop skills in the workplace through appropriate caseload allocation.
    It is not OK to give NQSW’s complex Child protection or court cases, children deserve better and this practice is surely contributing to high staff turnover.

  2. Brigid Featherstone January 13, 2015 at 7:01 pm #

    Not a nationally coherent picture – I know LAs with caseloads of 12 and others where the caseload is 30 plus – no matter how great social work education is and much of it is, it cannot prepare people for 30 plus caseloads immediately especially as given current thresholds, they are all likely to be very high risk.

    I also know a team where every single member is newly qualified – in some LAs there has been a real exodus of experienced workers

  3. Anonymous NQSW January 13, 2015 at 11:45 pm #

    I was given 14 cases on my first day which steadily rose. Unfortunately I was working at an inadequate LA. In my six months in post I had 2 supervisions. My TM was fired on the spot just before I left which left me with no confidence in the senior management team. I left my post quickly, empowering my service users to take control and have ownership of their plans we had made as I questioned the practice of workers who were taking over my cases. I saw practice of very poor quality from experienced staff.

    I really think there’s an unreasonable expectation upon social workers – but also upon the senior workers, managers up to the directors. Unfortunately, as a group of professionals our voice isn’t strong enough to be heard when we say – this is too much or there is no more money in the pot and we need more to deliver effective services – we just get along with it. If this was a different profession we’d be on strike immediately. Imagine now being a NQSW in “that” team – no-one listens, or they agree but are so used to management opression and getting along with it change is all but distant memory.

    The AYSE programme looks great on paper – but in the LA I was in all it meant was additional paperwork to complete – for me and my manager – and it felt like I was a student again. Apart from the so called “protected” case load, I really don’t see why the programme exists.

    I’m really saddened that I’ve left frontline child protection so early in my career – but being overloaded and burnt out was tough and being surrounded by social workers and managers who felt worse really was the final straw. Sorry to be negative! Luckily I’ve found a fantastic position at an independent social care company. Onwards and upwards.

  4. Claire January 14, 2015 at 12:42 am #

    When will our regulating bodies and local authorities recognise the skill and complexity of child protection work and create a qualification equivalent to the AMHP? By doing this only workers who have completed the specialist Child Protection post grad should work on Child Protection. I think Child Protection workers need the same level of additional training that AMHPs get, afterall the seriousness and long term implications for all concerned are as great if not greater than people subject to the mental health act.
    By proxy, this would protect newly qualified or inexperienced workers from being forced to deal with child protection they are illequiped to do, and provide a better service to the children and families we are working with.

  5. Anonymous NQSW January 14, 2015 at 8:00 pm #

    I’m a NQSW in a local authority which has taken the ASYE and protected caseloads very seriously. I’m in a long-term child protection team and have been there for about 5 months now. We’ve had bucketloads of training and highly protected caseloads– I’m now at 10 kids which should increase to about 15 over the next few months. We have supervision every week for the first six weeks, then fortnightly for 6 months and then monthly thereafter. I’ve never had supervision cancelled or postponed except for one day when my manager was off sick and it happened the next day she was back. Cases have never been allocated to me without a prior discussion and agreement and they’re co-worked if we agree that they’re too complex or high risk for me at the moment. More senior practitioners have been extremely generous with their time, letting me shadow them, answering my endless questions in the first month and sitting down to help me if I’m using a tool or technique with which they have lots of experience. So, there is hope and some pockets of good practice out there!

  6. Anonymous NQSW January 15, 2015 at 2:02 pm #

    i have been qualified less than 4 months and work in a front line team. My caseload is generally in the low to mid 20s and is a mix of CP and high end CIN. But my caseload only reflects family units and a number of families have 5+ children so in reality is much higher than figures first suggest. Supervision is once every 6 weeks and I’ve not had any of the appraisals I was promised. I worry constantly about my practice and this is affecting my health. I love the work I do but struggle this early in my career managing assessments that are new to me and having enough hours in the day to complete paperwork.

  7. Newly qualified January 15, 2015 at 9:05 pm #

    I have been a NQSW for 4 months now and have a wonderful team who are practically and emotionally supportive of me. However my building alone is 6 workers down from children and families and I have found a lot of practice that is less than ideal. Cases drift without workers even CP cases. There is hardly ever any handover with cases even complex ones. Hand overs consist of…can you do that report for the panel it’s due in two weeks? Supervision I have had three times but critique or feedback on my practice is non-existent. It has been a wake up call going from being a student and feeling supported. I too struggle to complete these new and often complex assessments in the restricted timescales given especially when I am just meeting the family for the first time and have been given little or no handover on the case. I really like my job but I worry that I may not be able to manage the pressure large case loads with little support. Case load of 20 odd so far but it will likely double soon. All I can say at present is I am grateful for my colleagues.

  8. Annon nqsw January 16, 2015 at 7:07 pm #

    I am a nqsw is a child in need team. The authority I work in is good, my manager protective and my team supportive.

    Caseloads across social work are too high to be able to offer the service many practitioners are capable. Social work education talks about reflective and planned practice. This is nearly impossible with current caseloads and demands placed upon any social worker let alone nqsw. Social work education is poor and so far removed from the realities of practice.

    The current way social education is delivered means nqsw leave with an overview of adult and children’s services and offers little in depth training into either. Luckily I had good placements as the university learning was in my opinion insufficient.

    I love my job…. Most days, but something needs to change, and in my view it’s simple…..more social workers and smaller caseloads will undoubtedly translate to better staff retention, better practice and better results

  9. Annon SW January 18, 2015 at 5:02 pm #

    I’m a NQSW and have been in a child protection assessment and intervention team for three months. I started in October along with 4 other NQSW’s in the same team with 2 other Sw’s and only 1 experienced agency worker. The LA had a mass exodus of SW’s leaving in mid 2014. – Most of these were NQSW’s after completing their first year moving on to less stressful positions. I recall one SW with less than one years experience had around 45 cases prior to leaving.

    When I started, it seemed promising, I was only given a handful of CIN cases and managerial support seemed to be quite good. However, I did notice that the few agency workers were overloaded and the remaining CP cases were left unallocated as there wasn’t any experienced workers available to allocate them to. It was clear that it was only a matter of time before I’d end up with these high end CP cases.

    I’m now three months in. Supervision is roughly once a month, maybe twice a month. We have group supervision with a service manager, whom quite frankly is useless. This server manager tends to allocate without talking to you or even sending an email – (despite being sat in the office next door) And yes I’ve complained in supervision about this, however, it didn’t change.

    We’ve had SW’s leave and new ones start, last week we had two put their notice in. This makes me worry that their cases (which are mainly high end) will be reallocated to me. I Have a few high end CIN cases and a number of high end CP cases – which will be progressing into court proceedings / adoption. I hoped to get to at least 6 months in before getting CP cases, however, this isn’t the case. The nature of the job is extremely stressful with massive amounts of paper work and report writing.

    At the moment, I’m looking at my options to leave frontline SW.