Why I had to leave local authority child protection work

Sophie Ayers talks about why she had to take a three-month break from child protection social work and move into a different field

Photo: Mirko Macari/Fotolia

by Sophie Ayers

I survived nine years in child protection social work. It sounds like it should be a slogan on the front of a t-shirt or mug. I think the average time a worker lasts in this field is eight years, so at least I can say I did my time.

When I think back over the past nine years, it seems like an absolute whirlwind. Where did the fresh-faced, naive, ponytail swishing social worker disappear to?

I often think about the conversations I would like to have with my younger self as a student or newly qualified social worker. The most important conversation would be telling the younger me facing a computer screen, typing endless case notes and reports late into the night, “turn your computer off and rest!”

Three months ago, I took a self-imposed break from work. My friends and colleagues are aware at just how bad I am at taking annual leave. It always felt pointless to take significant chunks away from the office as the deluge of work when you returned nullified any benefit from your holiday. My recent break made me realise how wrong I was about this.

Hamster wheel

If you don’t take time to nurture yourself and invest in significant rest periods, you never catch up from the relentless ‘hamster wheel’ of social work.

While resting I have opened up a dialogue with myself (yes, really) about investing in my own life and ensuring that my health and happiness is a priority. It is amazing how quickly health habits can be a problem in this area of work.

Throughout my career I have struggled with smoking. I managed a two-year period of absolutely no cigarettes but started again. I oscillate from being super fit and going to the gym every day to becoming a sloth whose only exercise is to move my arm up and down to put another cake in my mouth.

I am not blaming the work on the poor choices I make about my own lifestyle, but what I have found is that if I have the time and space to be organised in my own life, I certainly make better choices about exercise and diet.

The smoking I am working on – and the rather unattractive wheezing noise I make in my daily spinning class is certainly a motivator to kick the habit finally.

Tired

I don’t think I realised how tired I was from the long hours I worked and distressing situations I witnessed.

I do not want to appear to be presenting social work as a ‘martyr-type’ profession or request any sympathy for this, I am just stating a simple fact: social work is a profession that requires long and unpredictable working hours.

This reality is often unavoidable no matter how many boundaries you have with yourself and your employer.

I have wrestled with the idea of leaving local authority social work for some time. However, I have at times struggled to choose between peanut butter or marmite on my toast let alone how I should move my career forward. I was always clear that I never wanted to become a manager as my passion lay with direct contact with service users and assessments.

I think that as a manager, you are stuck between a rock and a hard place managing the unrealistic expectations of senior managers; working with restrictive staffing levels; dwindling budgets and managing over-stretched workers.

I am sure there are many managers who would argue against this description but this is my perception and why I strongly avoided this path.

Independent social work

Last year I attended a networking event and met a range of independent social workers. It was the first time my eyes opened to doing social work outside of a local authority.

Each person advocated strongly for their autonomy and the fact that they had a much better work-life balance. This prompted me to think about changing my situation.

I have spoken passionately about the retention crisis in social work and my ideas about how some of the issues could be resolved. I was concerned that if I decided to leave local authority social work, would I also be contributing to this problem?

Lonely and isolated?

I was also concerned that not being part of a team may be really challenging. I think almost all social workers would say that one of the most positive aspects of our work is the fantastic relationships and support that you develop with your team members.

I was concerned that independent social work would represent a fairly lonely and isolated existence. I have found it strange not to be around the constant banter of social workers, although I have also found this to be quite refreshing. I always found the ‘agile working’, open-plan offices impossibly noisy and frenetic.

I prefer the peace and quiet of my own home, but I do make sure I regularly keep in contact with social work friends to ensure that I receive the necessary level of sarcasm and self-deprecation to ensure my chakras remains intact.

The difference is that I now get to choose who I chat to and receive support from.

This is the pivotal point about the decision of becoming an independent social worker: autonomy. I now have choice about how much work I take on, who I talk to and how I manage my time.

Independent social work is not without risks. The lack of certainty about consistent work and delays in payments are two of the most important factors to consider.

But I am willing to give it a try. I am not sure if my days as a local authority social worker have fully ended. However, I am excited about the future and the new challenges independent social work may bring.

Sophie Ayers is an independent social worker who works in children’s services. She tweets @sophieayers1982 and vlogs at weneedtotalkaboutsocialwork.

20 Responses to Why I had to leave local authority child protection work

  1. Maxine Smith May 24, 2017 at 1:51 pm #

    Very well written and agree with all contents. I’ve had very similar experiences. I now work as a locum social worker within Adult Safeguarding and yes there are issues around finding consistent work but great to go out and about working in different areas and meeting new people.
    This may not suit me in the long term but a chanfe is as good as a rest for now.

  2. Sandra May 24, 2017 at 2:24 pm #

    I completely agree with what you say about the pressures of Child Protection social work but I would go further and say they are totally unrealistic and border on plain abuse. Seeing Sara Rowbotham on First Dates last night was such a reminder of all that! You mention the impact on your health and I would like to have a dialogue about that as I would really like to help my former colleagues put their health and wellbeing first….Well done on writing so honestly about this and I wish you well in your new role.

    • Sophie May 25, 2017 at 12:24 pm #

      Hi Sandra, would be great to have a dialogue with you. All about opening up discussions. My email address is weneedtotalksboutsocialwork@gmail.com

      • Sandra May 26, 2017 at 2:12 pm #

        That’s great, Sophie, I will be in touch!

      • Mary Harris June 15, 2017 at 2:55 pm #

        Hi Sophie, I have tried to email you on the above address you provided to another user but states undelivered. Please would have time to have a discussion with me about independent social work. I am in adult services thou

  3. Alexa May 24, 2017 at 5:00 pm #

    What a lovely adage Sophie, can resonate with what you have written entirely and enjoyed the humour too!

  4. Saddened May 24, 2017 at 8:16 pm #

    How sad about Sophie. The best thing about her writing was the fact that she did this job. Now she has given up and become just another ex Social Worker who will now lecture the rest of us on how to do our jobs. Independent Social Workers cherry pick court ordered and sanitised assessments. They have no link to real Social Work.

    Shame that we’ve lost one of the few genuine voices of Social Workers.

    • Sophie A May 25, 2017 at 10:44 am #

      Hi Saddened,

      Thank you for your comments about my writing.

      I am sorry you feel this way. I agree the life of an independent social worker is much less stressful than LA work and you are absolutely right that completing assessments for court is more sanitised than LA work.

      I am definitely not an ex-social worker. I a very much a current and practising social worker, with the same passions and values as I had when I worked for LAs.

      I hope you will give my future writing a chance. I have no intention of shying away from the very real issues facing social workers. I do not want to become an ‘ivory tower’ professional and will continue to write and reflect on current issues that affect social work practice.

      I am also really keen and passionate for others to join this discussion and want to promote a profession where it is ok to express your views without comebacks from your employer.

      I will need feedback and discussions with frontline social workers more than ever now to ensure that I keep in touch with the true reality and I never lose my understanding of the factors that affect practice on a daily basis.

  5. Marie May 25, 2017 at 1:04 am #

    Hi Sophie it’s was good to know how you have reached the decision of your future pathway. I have after 22 years decided to call it a day. Full stop. No more. As a front line SW and team manager permanent and locum I can no longer justify being a SW. The blame culture, the back stabbing, number crunching, rubber stamping and process lead profession of SW has finally brought me to my knees emotionally and physically. The long hours, constant public criticism and more importantly the children and young people NOT at the focus of the role has left me hollow and completely spent.
    My peers tell me it will be a loss to the profession, but the system is broken with a capital B. Good luck Sophie take care. X

  6. Frankie May 25, 2017 at 8:58 am #

    I could have written this myself – I started a “self-imposed” career break four months ago, now I’m wondering if I’ll ever go back. Scary the number of comments from ex colleagues, family and friends saying “you look so well” as if social work was an illness…..I absolutely loved my job, but have come to realise that it’s not worth sacrificing your health and relationships for 🙁

  7. Cristina May 25, 2017 at 2:57 pm #

    Dear Saddned

    I am now doing the same thing as Sophie. It does not make me less social worker and I still do the social work job with passion. I have worked in the field for many years and I have experienced lots of grief. The same quality of work being seen as great by one manager and bad by another. I always worked hard and not held back of the quality of my service with others. Yes I improved my work and learned a lot to allow me now to be independant. It would have been this or giving up social work all together. I still think I have a lot to give and is nothing wrong in doing this in your terms. You become more balanced and get to have a life which can only help.

  8. Chris May 25, 2017 at 3:49 pm #

    As someone who’s taken the same path as Sophie into Independent Social Work, and who feels far more fulfilled as a result, I understand exactly what Saddened means. Yes, ISWs do get to pick and choose what to do. We also get to say ‘no’ like we never did in Local Authority teams. And it must seem rich when (as many of us do) we give lectures and seminars on how to be a social worker when we have far more autonomy than the people we teach.

    But I get to spend more face to face time now than I did in a LA. I get about 5x as many offers of work as I can possibly take on, so saying ‘no’ is inevitable.
    And the ability to ‘cherry pick’ has its own advantage: if a LA acts unlawfully or dishonestly, I get to say so, without fearing for my job. Sadly, employed social workers often feel deep dilemmas when they encounter the same things, through no fault of their own.
    Also, while I’m always self-conscious of my seminars being patronising, since I’m painfully aware that I’m not as restricted as local authority social workers in how I practice, this also carries an opportunity – I get to talk about social work as a profession, not as a narrowly-defined role within statutory (often safeguarding) work. That ability to ‘take a step back’ might be a luxury, but it’s also essential for the health of the profession.

    So in summary, yes, us ISWs are lucky. We benefit from the increased autonomy, flexibility and respect that make the biggest difference in job satisfaction. We also have to be careful to remember what local authority work is like and remember how hard we found it.
    However, rather than deride independent work, we should value it for the role that a few fortunate professionals get to play within the social work profession as a whole – free agents who get to work to their conscience, think in different ways, and make professional judgements freed from the constraints of a local authority.

  9. Brendan May 25, 2017 at 10:37 pm #

    I fear the author is being disingenuous here. Is it just a coincidence that she happened to choose independent social work at the same time as the IR35 tax changes- I think not! If this author pertains to be a shining light for all social workers then the very least they can do is be honest about the financial motivations behind leaving local authority social work!!

    Next time this author should do an article about how much money they are charging councils for their services and the staff who have had to be laid off to fund their writing or reports from cosy home offices!!

    • HelenSparkles May 28, 2017 at 9:31 pm #

      Not quite sure what you mean by your comment Brendan. There is a difference between agency SW and independent SW. Agency SW are affected by IR35 and are employed by LAs, as well as other agencies. Independent SW are independent of the LA, they would be commissioned to write an independent parenting assessment for example, for a case in care proceedings, because they are independent of the LA.

    • sara May 30, 2017 at 2:25 pm #

      I have been a social worker for 31 years and for the past 12 years, I have been an independent practice teacher (or practice educator) and we have not had a pay rise for about 4 years and two years ago our daily placement fee was cut by 33%. What price social work education eh?

      However, the job satisfaction is immense and and yes Brendan I am “a shining light for social workers” so my students tell me.

  10. Eunice May 26, 2017 at 7:21 am #

    I can relate to Sophie’s experience as a LA permanent social worker myself. This article is really timely for me because i am at the verge of making the same decision as Sophie. This article has given me more courage to believe that launching out as an Independent SW is not a bad idea.

    At the end of the day, we all have to make decisions that we deem fit to our livestyles because if you lose the essence of who you are as a person because of work commitments, in my view this is a loss not only to your families but to the profession itself.

  11. Maria May 27, 2017 at 9:37 pm #

    I have been a permanent SW for 10 years in a LA. I cut my hours down to 3 days pw as I had children & wanted a good work/life/family balance. For the last few mths I am having to work nearly 7 days a week & I am constantly on my laptop which is putting a strain on my relationship with my partner & I am also neglecting my own children & I am severely depressed, stressed & anxious! You have to ask yourself, is it really worth it! If I could get another job away from statutory I would snap their hand off! How can anyone judge anyone for jumping ship in this job!!!

  12. HelenSparkles May 28, 2017 at 9:47 pm #

    There is just too much writing… all at the same time, with ridiculous deadlines, meanwhile senior managers are auditing files with expectations beyond that which could ever be met if SWs are also to visit the families they are writing about.

    This is the direct outcome of political rhetoric, the idea that something must be done, every time something bad happens. It results in measuring outcomes so that there can be no more failings, failings which are ascribed to the individual SW, but which are systemic.

    The result is that social workers have to be improved, by replacing the current underperforming cohort with fast track graduates – I have no problem with there being multiple access points to SW or to Frontline, just the narrative which implies it is the optimum way to produce SW.

    To acknowledge the systemic issues, including those compounded by cuts and austerity, would be for politicians to also have to face the fact that they created those issues. Easier to blame the public servant, when the very nature of public service has been translated into fat cat pension hungry slothful workers, rather than those who are happy to be of services to the public.

  13. Debbie May 29, 2017 at 7:35 pm #

    Brenda, I think this is the worst possible time to become an independent Social Worker. IR35 makes being an independent Social Worker much more difficult which is why a lot of them are thinking about going back into permanent jobs.

  14. Mark May 30, 2017 at 1:33 pm #

    Timely article; I’m slowly building myself an alternative career; child protection social work has already made me very unwell. Self preservation.