Many complaints against social workers made to the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) arguably should not have been referred to the regulator, research has found.
The research, commissioned by the HCPC, said that if there had been appropriate local support and intervention, many social workers “would, and arguably should, never have been referred to the regulator in the first place”.
It said local agencies had a responsibility for a more “proportionate” response to concerns about practitioners.
The report, by researchers at the University of Surrey, investigated fitness to practise complaints against social workers and paramedics, as the HCPC receives a disproportionately high number of complaints about the two professions.
Social workers make up 27% of the HCPC’s regulated professionals, but account for more than half of all referrals.
A case analysis found a disproportionate number of complaints against social workers did not meet the threshold for investigation, and 56% were referrals made by members of the public.
It said this could be down to the nature of the role and working with families who may be unhappy with the outcome of a case pursuing grievances through every available avenue.
It added there could be a tendency towards a “blame culture and defensive practice” in social work, which results in employers regularly referring concerns to the regulator “as a way of maintaining public credibility, and protecting themselves from blame by ensuring ‘misconduct’ or ‘incompetence’ is seen to be dealt with at an individual level”.
Poor working conditions and high levels of stress could contribute to actions that lead to a referral, the research said.
“Inadequate supportive supervision (as opposed to performance management), it is claimed, contributes to an environment where errors, omissions and misconduct are not picked up,” the research said.
“However, the extent to which improvements in supervision, training, support and workplace culture can either be achieved or make a difference in the current climate of economic austerity is open for debate,” it added.
It said the impact of austerity could be linked to growing service user dissatisfaction, which leads to more referrals.
It added that the “contradictory purposes and values” of the social work role, of both care and control, combined with societal ambivalence towards the work could contribute to “mistrust and negative attitudes”, leading to more referrals.
The report recommended a “greater emphasis on local interventions” to reduce the number of “inappropriate” referrals to the regulator.
In focus groups consisting of service users, social workers and academics, the researchers identified four themes for the disproportionate number of concerns: public perceptions and expectations; challenging practice; pressurised environment; and the evolving profession.
Themes for preventative strategies identified by practitioners were:
- Employers: ‘provide better support and supervision’
- Regulator: ‘widen regulatory options’
- Professional body: ‘exert stronger influence’
- Educators: ‘broaden professional education’
- Registrants: ‘foster self-care and reflection on practice’
- Joint responsibilities: ‘improve inter-agency working’
The report recommended that the public be better engaged to raise awareness of appropriate places for complaints, that the fitness to practise process is enhanced to perhaps proactively encourage more professional body and employer support, and pilot intervening at the local level.
It said the HCPC could use regional officers to intervene earlier and provide education for employers on dispute resolution.