Debate on the issue of social workers covering unsocial hours

We asked whether social workers should work shifts and
unsocial hours.

To read a recent Community Care article on this

click here

These are the responses we received:


Liz Snodgrass

It’s a complicated area. What I will say
however is this. It doesn’t help simply breaking things up in to
9-5 and anti social hours. Its more complicated than that.
Most of peoples lives take place in what we call anti social hours.
Banks post offices, shops, housing offices, liesure centres etc all
now open a wider set of hours to reflect the needs of their
clients. We need to do the same.
Here in Cardiff our social services to rough sleepers and
vulnerable people in the city centre begin at dawn and go on into
the evening. That’s because those times are the time when we are
needed and our social workers’ routines reflect that. However, they
are not needed overnight. It’s a question of having services for
people available at the right time rather than all the time. As a
carer of a disabled person myself I would find it useful to be able
to visit my community team in the evening or perhaps on a Saturday
morning. I don’t need them 24 hours, rather I need them at
convenient times.
Lets not get carried away.  its not about either 9-5 or 24 hours
its about what’s needed.”
Steve Hyde
The City Centre Team Manager

As a mental health social worker I already
feel that we are going down the road towards “out-of-hours”
services, and that this is being driven by the reality that NHS
managers, often from nursing backgrounds, who are the ones who take
the decisions, and not social services staff.

My own experiences may be of use. For a period of nearly nine
months I worked as a locum mental health social worker in a Crisis
response and resolution team. Now the work itself was very
satisfying and I would say, some of the most fulfilling social work
I have ever done, giving intense emotional and practical support to
service users and endeavouring to keep them in their own homes.

Service users had 24/7 access to the service via a call centre
which paged the duty worker. However, the workers’ hours did not
reflect this level of service. Our hours were either 8.30 – 4.30,
or 2.00-10, over a seven day period. If one worked the late shift
you were likely to be the duty “on call” worker. If one was the on
call worker you went home with a pager, mobile phone, and the
service car.

Being paged didn’t automatically result in one going out,
although if an A&E department had made the call then we did
have to attend, but the service protocols did expect a response of
some sort. So one might find one’s self involved in long sessions
of telephone counselling over a mobile phone to a client at 1 in
the morning. Whichever, the outcome for the on-call worker was
likely to be a broken night of not much sleep (and also for
whomsoever shares your bed of course). The on-call worker was
rostered to work the 8.30am-4.30pm shift next day regardless of
whether one had had a night’s sleep or not.

I know that at times my professional response was affected by
having to work such hours, especially after one had had a busy
night with many home visits, then followed by one or more paging
incidents. Workers were required to carry out mental state
examinations and risk assessments, sometimes in very stressful
environments, and make often quite difficult and complex

As the social worker in the team, it often fell to us to attend
child protection planning meetings or conferences. I am sure that
one can imagine how one’s decision at such a meeting might be
affected by having worked until 10pm the previous night, having had
maybe 2/3 hours sleep, then an intense morning of being involved in
a duty ASW case, then, at 2pm, going on to a complex and
complicating meeting (which you probably had to fight through
traffic to get to and manage to do so by the skin of one’s teeth if
not actually late for).

I know that, usually, after about midday the day (shift) after
the night (shift) before I would fade away, become less attentive,
more short-tempered. And I won’t even mention the near miss road
accidents I nearly had, due solely to the chronic lack of sleep.
Eventually, after several months of this type of working pattern
one feels almost permanently tired and jaded. I was glad in the end
that someone was found for the permanent post and that I was let
go. I needed the rest!

In my opinion the lack of a “waking night hours” service
reflected the local NHS agenda which seemed to be shaped by the
need to be seen to provide an innovative, 24/7, quick response
service in line with the NSF objectives, but without the
willingness and resources to pay for it.

For being “on-call” I was paid the princely sum of £11.50 a
shift. For responding to the pager and taking action of some sort,
an hourly rate at time and a half. In order not to “rock the boat”
with the local NHS trust, social services had agreed during the 
negotiations to set up the service that their staff would not get
paid more than the nationally agreed NHS nursing grade rates for
the job. This all reflected the NHS/nurses on top,

Clive Baulch
mental health social worker (locum)

I wonder what can be achieved by this? What would
this achieve that OUT OF HOURS doesn’t already achieve? As a care
manager in “hospital” settings I know that care agencies are unable
to cope now with the workload, yet alone if I was to phone them on
a Sunday evening for care to start there and then. Also school
holidays are a terrible time to get carers….. Anyway this is what
community enabling services are for and also rapid response teams.
I do not see social workers having to be available 24/7.

Michelle Coleborn. B.A.(Hons); R.G.N. R.M.N.
Qualified Care Manager
Elderly Mental Health team
Social Services
Gosport War Memorial Hospital

I feel that social work offices should remain
open a usual 8.30-5.
I have worked in the care profession for over 13 years and
qualified as a social worker in 2000. I quickly found a local job
in a busy older person’s team in south Wales. As soon as the 2-week
induction period had finished, a trap door above my head opened and
an onslaught of complex cases landed on my desk. Within 4 months I
had 60 active cases! Talk about sink or swim! If it was not for the
dedicated support of my team then I would not be swimming today. I
loved the work, but got very stressed over the volume of it. After
a year we piloted flexi hours, which made a huge difference. We
could arrive at 8am to write up case files from the day before and
plan the day before the switchboard opened at 8.30am, when the
calls came flooding in. It helped us to actively plan a lunch break
which is critical for a productive day. Then we could work to 6pm
and not worry about trying to fit in lieu time to get the hours
If the office was open longer hours I strongly feel that it would
cause dependency in a service, which is already fully stretched.
Service users can be resourceful and will generally only ring an
out-of-hours number if it is an emergency. They would be less
independent as they would not try to manage any situation before
ringing for help. Many older people I have worked with feel secure
in a routine and would not want to bother care managers
out-of-office hours. They would be confused about when the best
time to ring would be.
My team was very flexible, but opening the office for a longer
service will be detrimental to the well-being of the already
stretched staff. Within only 18 months I had had enough, and now
work as a home safety officer, where I can at last be
We need more workers, not more time when the phone will
Chris Tolliday

Project Officer

Accident Prevention for Older People

Of course not. People should not get sucked
into the misleading idea that this is just about improving and
increasing services outside the 9-5 norm. In reality the aims and
the history behind these ideas are about making substantial savings
by reducing services elsewhere, and drawing in a much larger pool
of care workers into unsocial hours patterns of work undermining
the family friendly employment policies. Should be resisted at all
costs in my view.”
Simon Cardy

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