By Graham Luetchford, social worker/AMHP, Wiltshire
I have been a social worker for so long that I am lucky enough to remember when case allocation was a process of negotiation, either in team meetings or in individual supervision with a manager. Either way, allocation would rarely, if ever, happen without a thorough discussion of the case beforehand, identifying the tasks involved and whether the worker felt they had the necessary tools and support to carry them out.
This particularly applied to recently qualified staff. As a young social worker, I was fortunate to be in a team where, despite immense pressure, it was clear that caseloads must remain manageable and all unallocated cases remained with the team manager – her and the organisation’s responsibility, not mine.
Reckless and cavalier practice
My current team practices this form of discussion and allocation and it works very well but I am frequently appalled (and that is not too strong a word) to hear about the reckless and cavalier attitude of some managers and employers to the welfare of their staff, and by extension to the wellbeing of their clients.
To give just one example; a friend of mine with many years experience in children’s social work and management recently joined a local authority children’s department as a locum. He was given a list of cases, some of them complex and high risk, with little or no prior discussion or consultation and expected to “get on with it”.
Being an experienced professional he did this, but his manager continued to allocate case after case, again with no discussion. My friend decided that this was neither professional nor safe practice and suggested to his manager that they negotiate an appropriate caseload. This was refused and he was told everyone in the team was allocated work this way.
‘I don’t need to put up with this’
The team was haemorrhaging social workers at the time and it is easy to see why. My friend was established enough in his career to think “I don’t need to put up with this” and promptly gave notice.
I suspect that for young, inexperienced social workers with less confidence and perhaps more financial commitments, it is very difficult to put your mental wellbeing before your job and jump into the unknown. However I can see why more and more of us are attracted to agency work – we can make our choice from a range of locum and short term posts and find alternatives if one doesn’t work out.
Responsibility and accountability
Reports of unreasonable employer expectations leading to unsafe caseloads are no longer news. Responsibility for this ongoing situation surely rests firstly with politicians (new legislation and policy aspirations rarely match the resources allocated); secondly with directors and senior managers who implement these policies from the top down, whose remoteness from frontline staff means they often understand little of the problems created; and thirdly the middle and front line managers who do not, or cannot, resist the pressure to allocate cases to already overworked staff.
Finally the responsibility is on social workers ourselves – we all too often accept these poor working conditions, are under-represented and under-unionised.
In the wake of recent financial scandals, there have been moves to introduce criminal responsibility into the banking system so those who take unacceptable risks with other people’s money can be prosecuted. Maybe it’s time to consider something similar for social work employers who consistently fail to consider the welfare of their staff and recklessly allocate cases, placing service users at unacceptable risk.
As part of our commitment to supporting social workers in their roles, we are providing selected Community Care Inform guides for free for a limited time during the campaign. Click here for your copy of our Guide to effective caseload allocation.
Time to put caseload management theory into practice
Balanced caseload management has been around as theory for as long as I can remember. But I don’t think I have ever worked, as a social worker or manager, in an environment where it has been systematically practiced.Good managers can and do operate informal systems based on their experience and knowledge of their staff. However, the introduction of a properly weighted caseload management system in teams under intense pressure (and the inevitable staff shortages), seems essential to me for healthy and productive working.If I could change policy, I would make this a priority for Ofsted, the CQC and advisory bodies and suggest that an annual league table of employers is produced, detailing their agreed and contractually enforceable caseload/workload targets, so that social workers can decide for themselves who is and who is not worth working for.
We work in a profession that espouses, promotes and trumpets anti-oppressive practice. I can see absolutely no excuse for any employer that oppresses its own workforce.
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