Hiring PAs for social workers cuts stress and saves money, finds study

Research into innovation-backed project shows successes of hiring administrative support for social workers

Photo: EdNal/Fotolia

Hiring personal assistants for social workers cuts their stress levels, gives them more time for direct work with families and saves services money, an evaluation of a pilot scheme has found.

Hampshire and Isle of Wight children’s services trialled hiring one “highly skilled administrator”, or PA, for every three social workers working on child in need or child protection cases.

The PAs scheduled the social workers’ visits and meetings, carried out admin tasks, responded to emails and telephone calls, wrote up aspects of assessments and helped request information from other agencies.

An evaluation of the project by researchers at Oxford Brookes University found hiring the PAs cut the proportion of a social worker’s day spent on admin from 36% to 14%. The time social workers spent with families increased from 34% to 58%.

‘Significant’ reduction in sickness

Eighty per cent of social workers with PAs said they had “quite a lot or very much time” to spend with families, compared to just 10% of those without PAs. Teams with personal assistants also reported a “significant” short-term reduction in staff sickness rates and improvements in social worker stress levels, researchers found.

Employing PAs cost an average of £4,408 per social worker, but saved around £9,000 per social worker by reducing the time practitioners spent on non-direct work.

“These savings are likely to be further enhanced over time through ongoing low rates of staff sickness rates and improved social worker retention,” the evaluation said.

“In the particular context of teams finding it difficult to recruit experienced social workers, the PA model appears to offer a highly cost-effective approach,” it added.

The PA trial was part of a suite of social care reforms in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight to be funded by the Department for Education’s Innovation Programme.

How the other Hampshire and Isle of Wight pilots fared

Family intervention teams:

What is it? Small teams of three workers experienced in either domestic abuse, adult mental health or substance misuse worked closely with some child in need teams to benefit families showing at least one of the toxic trio issues.

What did the evaluation find? There were “significant difficulties” recruiting and retaining the staff to fill a family intervention team. This made the introduction – and evaluation – of the model extremely difficult to achieve. However, in areas where the teams were set up and working with families, it showed improved levels of initial engagement of families showing toxic trio issues. It increased from 29% to 70% in Hampshire and 87% in Isle of Wight during the evaluation period.

A network of volunteers:

What is it? A bid to establish volunteers able to work effectively with families in need to help them change and improve outcomes, as well as support children excluded from school, going missing and mentor young people on the edge of care.

What did the evaluation find? In cases where volunteers engaged positively with an Isle of Wight family, 50% had benefited and made clear progress “attributed by the social worker to the volunteer’s involvement”.

Edge of care pilot:

What is it? It would provide bespoke support packages to young people aged 14-18 on the edge of care to help them remain safely living at home.

What did the evaluation find? 65% of young people offered an edge of care plan engaged well with it. 11% of the cohort who started the edge of care programme during the evaluation period entered care. Across Hampshire, there was a 50% rise in this age group entering care. This was lower than the overall increase during the same period (80%), but the evaluation said the increase in unaccompanied minors was a large factor in this increase.

Child sexual exploitation pilot

What is it? A Hampshire-wide team of different professionals worked to help identify and improve support for young people at risk of sexual exploitation.

What did the evaluation find? Social workers across the county appreciated the team’s responsiveness and specialist advice they could offer. Families and young people also appreciated the “warm, non-judgemental approach” of the workers.

Social worker surgery pilot

What is it? An attempt to reduce inappropriate referrals into children’s social care by delivering training for schools on relevant referral processes and thresholds.

What did the evaluation find? No discernible reduction in referrals as the pilot was too small scale and early in implementation to likely have an impact on overall referrals received by social care.

24 Responses to Hiring PAs for social workers cuts stress and saves money, finds study

  1. Paul March 22, 2017 at 2:36 pm #

    In the old days they were called administrators and they played a crucial role in supporting social workers. Then lots of local authorities decided they could save money by getting rid of them. Now there is an ‘innovation’ that reverses one of the cuts from recent years, and surprisingly we find that reintroducing an administrator reduces the amount of time social workers spend on administration!

    • Anonymous March 26, 2017 at 10:35 pm #

      Bring back the much needed admin so we can do the job we were trained to do

  2. Joy March 22, 2017 at 2:49 pm #

    This is not innovation. So let know one take credit for it. It is what social workers used to have and have always needed. When will social workers and their profession be respected for the difficult job they have to do? Much money and many social workers have been lost because this support was thoughtlessly taken away.

  3. sue bradford March 22, 2017 at 3:29 pm #

    Well I have to. laugh. Agree with above comment. The past admin team support was wonderful. You could have a good working relationship with them. It completely freed you up to get out and also when newer technology came in, they had all the training and skills and would keep things running smoothly when you were out.

  4. Christopher Auker-Howlet March 22, 2017 at 4:07 pm #

    This is a welcome study
    lol shame us Social Workers, have been saying this ever since Admin Staff and Social Worker Assistants Staff hours were cut.
    Give things enough time, what goes around, comes around (just rebranded with a new funky title).
    Soap Box Free!

  5. Charlie March 22, 2017 at 4:15 pm #

    I started practicing in 2004. In our team of around 10 social workers, we had 6 admin support angels! They were brilliant. But the time I left the team in 2013, we had two…… admin are a crucial part of social work, I am not admin, I didn’t come into this job to input data, but that’s how it feels some days and I’m not liking how my role has evolved……. still love my job though and in will working towards achieving the best outcomes for the children and families I work with…..

  6. sat March 22, 2017 at 4:48 pm #

    How will this happen — why not appreciate social workers and pay them for the job they do. They are not paid for overtime that they have to do to complete their never ending forms for each client. I had to complete 8 different documents just to request placement for an old lady.

  7. Stuart March 22, 2017 at 5:39 pm #

    I suppose we have to congratulate and thank all the people involved in this ‘study’ and bringing into being the ‘innovations’ in question but as someone else who knew what it was like to be a social worker before admin and ‘assistant’ posts were decimated I have to say, ‘it hurts to do so, it really really hurts’.

  8. Vivien Freeman March 22, 2017 at 6:38 pm #

    Between 1967 and 1971 as a basic grade children’s SW I shared a secretary/typist. The 1and a half hours I had with her was as sacrosanct as my supervision. I handled a very large caseload but spent considerably more time in Direct Practice than in later years when I had to do all my own admin/typing. I was trained as a SW not as an administrator/typist

  9. gw March 22, 2017 at 7:02 pm #

    I have been in practice since the early 80’s and remember well the days of quality admin staff and the invaluable support they provided to the Social Work Staff. I also remember that as the admin staff were not replaced, we were told some guff, about how if the SW staff completed the various forms on the electronic record, it provided “professional accountability”, how was never adequately explained. The economics of paying Social Work qualified staff to undertake clerical work has never made any sense to me, or my colleagues.

  10. Alison March 22, 2017 at 9:03 pm #

    I moved to another LA (CWAC) in January 2017 and yeah we have admin support.. they are just fantastic (just like when I first qualified 2004) and it makes such a massive difference. ..I am able to spend longer on a visit and gather/assess children/families so much better. Thank you and well done to CWAC for still having admin support. ..clearly a forward thinking authority.

  11. Sandy Palmer March 22, 2017 at 9:42 pm #

    I moved from probation in the 70’s (one secretary to 2 officers) to NHS, (two admin officers per team) to non-stat public health (no admin support) back to NHS with team of 4 experienced secretaries and admin, amazing the difference this makes to how much client time becomes available. Didn’t need a pilot so called ‘innovation’, sound common sense, more support = less stress and improved quality of care and outcomes.

  12. Blair McPherson March 23, 2017 at 1:51 am #

    Full circle!!

  13. Steve Irwin-Banks March 23, 2017 at 9:08 am #

    As a manager of older people’s teams I argued repeatedly with senior managers that we needed to keep the levels of admin support for social workers as these were depleted.
    The introduction of computer based assessments and recording further reduced the need for admin support in the eyes of the senior managers and a ratonal for further reducting in admin levels. My social workers spent 70% of their time on the computer with increased levels of stress due to the high levels of case loads they struggled to get through.
    Let’s hope other authorities heed this pilot.

  14. Paul Brown March 23, 2017 at 9:38 am #

    Not Rocket Science is it! Qualified in the mid 90’s didn’t expect to be typing endless amounts of documents taking endless amounts of time. Didn’t realise I was going to need 1st class honours in typing to do the job either because you didn’t then! Total waste of time when I could be out carrying out more assessments.

  15. Paul Owen March 23, 2017 at 10:05 am #

    Lovely idea, let’s go back to having good admin who are efficient and know what to do and when.

    I currently do all of my own admin other than scanning (’cause I don’t know how to do it), If I sent a letter to be sent out I have to write it out in full, send it to our ‘admin’ (Capita) who then write it again, send it back to me to be checked and signed, if it’s to the right people at the right address, I put it in the out tray. Same goes for all the reviews etc that need to go. In my 60s, nearly 20 years in Social Care and I’m a pen pusher. 70% of my time in front of a computer filling in repetitive pointless forms

    Please, don’t use Capita, if I get another bit of paper sent back because it’s the wrong colour or size I’ll spit.

  16. Miss Taylor March 23, 2017 at 10:57 am #

    Ha ha ha ! I suppose the researchers and no brainer innovators are patting themselves on the back for re-inventing the wheel !!

  17. Ruth Cartwright March 23, 2017 at 12:40 pm #

    Being a bit picky but not sure the illustration for this article gives the right impression. I don’t think social workers who are freed up by having good sensible admin support will be sitting with their feet up on their desk but will be getting on with client contact and the other tasks they are eminently qualified for and came into social work to do.

  18. Graham March 23, 2017 at 5:02 pm #

    Like all the other old timers above I remember when we called this admin. Admin was headed up by the Team Clerk, who held everything together and was the hub of the team around whom everything revolved – a good working relationship essential. The profession has gone downhill since computers arrived and managers realised that social workers could do their own admin – it obviously didn’t occur to them that it would aggregate out at a much higher hourly rate of pay and destroy job satisfaction! My wife is part of a Health Service team who have up to now retained good admin support so she has been able to spend most of her time doing what she is good at and is well paid for – psychotherapy. However now the dreaded computerised case management/database has arrived with it’s inflexible demands and the amount of time she is able to spend with patients has been slashed. This is not progress.

  19. Graham March 23, 2017 at 5:05 pm #

    I forgot to add that a customer coordinator (read unqualified SW) colleague has offered to be my PA as she says that admin is just about the bulk of her job anyway so she may as well specialise!

  20. Satvinder Chatha March 23, 2017 at 8:48 pm #

    About time the social workers were given the admin support they so desperately need so that they can do social work which they are qualified to do rather than sit typing at lap tops hour after hour. Social workers are not trained typists and its such a waste of valuable social work time. The social workers should be able to dictate all the stuff they are typing at the moment such as case recordings etc and the admin staff could type it in fraction of the time it takes the social worker.
    There is nothing innovative about the findings of this study, its common knowlegde amongst social work staff and one does not have to have a masters in mathematics to calculate the benefits!

  21. Sally Attwood March 24, 2017 at 2:07 pm #

    Delighted by this pilot’s results but want to say, welcome to 1979. I started my social work career in a London borough, in what were then generic teams based in the community. We had an able and committed team administrator who did many of the tasks that social workers had to increasingly take on for themselves from 2000. I am still not a touch typist and will never reach the levels of speed and accuracy of that administrator (and others in different jobs since then). So why pay social worker rates for administrative tasks? Why not free the social workers’ time to make visits, be involved in planned interventions, analyse cases, prepare reports for Courts and Panels etc, knowing that telephone calls, emails, enquiries for information are being competently and timely handled by the team’s administrator? Fingers crossed that the pendulum is finally going to swing back…

  22. Lesley W March 27, 2017 at 1:47 pm #

    Let’s reinvent more wheels, particularly those which made SW’s more efficient and saved money!

  23. Lorraine March 30, 2017 at 11:25 pm #

    During my first career I was a PA to a PSW and CSWA and seen the benefit secretary’s were to the social workers. Having retrained to be a social worker in CP, there is one admin for the TL and nothing for SWs. The amount of secretarial work I complete is immense and only for having completed a professional personal assistants qualification at the beginning of my work life I am of the opinion that I would not be able to cope otherwise. I use my PA training as very much part of my job I am a CPSW / Personal Assistant.