If effective social work practice relies on teams working well together, agency workers must wonder why those in permanent posts seem so eager to hone an “us and them” culture.
The negativity endured by locums varies from perceptions that they are a waste of public funds to more personal accusations that they are out to make a quick buck – a brickbat that conveniently ignores the fact that they are plugging staff gaps. All this and a general feeling that, as temporary workers, they are second-class citizens.
Ben Arnold, director of national and international recruitment agency Amicus Recruit, says: “Some local authorities see agency social workers as an expensive option, and there may be a question mark over the individual worker’s commitment to their local authority.”
The last-minute and ad hoc nature of filling shifts can lead to agency staff feeling undervalued. Stella Wright, regional manager for nurse and social care at Reed Healthcare, says this can be the case for support workers when they are booked for emergency one-off placements. “Some support workers may not always feel as recognised as their permanent colleagues as they are unable to take on the same level of responsibility,” she says.
Jo Cleary, corporate director of housing and community living at Luton Council, says the authority’s primary concerns are “a quality workforce and value for money”.
Cleary, who is also co-chair of the Association of Directors of Social Services workforce development committee, says local authorities are learning to get the most out of agency social workers as they have contracts with managed service providers to meet their recruitment needs. Luton does this by agreeing specific requirements with its managed service provider about the type of temporary social workers it wants.
The Commission for Social Care Inspection is watching how local authorities use agency social workers and what impact this has on service continuity. This means personnel and social services departments in local authorities (and recruitment agencies) will have to place more emphasis on hiring skilled and qualified agency social workers and supervising them.
Local authorities, for their part, could make agency staff feel more included – for example, by giving them the same detailed induction as they would for a permanent member of staff.
Ian Johnston, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, says: “Some local authorities expect staff to hit the ground running as they are brought in to address a crisis and are being paid more. But they need a proper induction.”
Wright agrees, adding that supervision should also be provided for placements that last several months. Temporary staff should be involved in team meetings and team- or unit-specific training, she argues, to ensure all social workers have access to the same information.
For Arnold, employers must consider open communication and working practices with the recruitment agency. “Partnership working between local authorities and agencies breeds confidence,” he says. “Amicus has better placements and relationships when we speak to local authorities directly about candidates for temporary work.”
He adds that recruitment agencies can help ease the process by emphasising to its prospective temporary social workers the level of professionalism required of them. Ways of doing this include requesting that supervision be provided, using their practice creatively and thinking innovatively to address client needs.
“This reflects well on the recruitment agency and on the candidate as a professional practitioner,” Arnold says.
Despite the negative reactions towards agency staff, many social services departments would grind to a halt without them. By recruitment agencies, temporary social workers and employers working together more effectively, everyone will get a better deal – including service users.
Catherine Wallace, 29, qualified as a bachelor of social work in Australia seven years ago. She was born in Britain and lived here until moving to Australia at 18, and has experienced working as a social worker – both in permanent and temporary positions – in both countries.
Wallace returned to the UK in March 2004 and, for the past two years, has been working for Wandsworth Council’s social services. She is now a senior social worker in the adult physical disabilities team – and feels very much included.
Wallace has had two long-term temporary placements that have been positive. Her only gripe is the occasional comment made by permanent colleagues about her rate of pay – as a temporary social worker she can sometimes earn more money than her permanent counterparts, something which enables her to take frequent holidays. Wallace realises she is in a fortunate position, but points out that she always has to budget for taking time off work.
Not all her temporary colleagues have been so fortunate, and there have been times when they have not received the same training as the permanent social workers they work alongside.
She believes her experience of working here and in Australia has placed her in a good position. “As a locum social worker, you don’t get a weeklong induction and the opportunity to go out and visit the borough. You just come in and find out what they want you to start with.”
Wallace suggests that, when employers take on agency social workers, it would be helpful if they drew a flowchart to illustrate the work of the team and how they are supposed to fit into it. This way they could understand their line manager’s expectations.
For social workers considering joining recruitment agencies, she says they have to ensure they are organised, adaptable, able to cope with a demanding workload and have a good knowledge base.
“Experience and confidence in your own abilities matter,” she says.
DO THE RIGHT THING
IF YOU ARE AN AGENCY WORKER…
● Where possible, research the borough before you start working there.
● Be honest about how you feel when working with a new team. If you feel excluded, say so in a friendly way.
● Do not moan to your (probably equally stressed) colleagues about your workload. Look at your time management and talk to your line manager if necessary.
● Particularly for longer placements, request an individual supervision schedule from your line manager.
● Get a member of the permanent team to show you the ropes in the office – such as where the stationery and the tea bags live!
IF YOU ARE A PERMANENT MANAGER…
● Treat all staff equally, regardless of whether they are permanent or agency.
● Value the independent opinion agency social workers can offer.
● Ensure agency social workers complete an induction, understand your procedures and paperwork, and know what the team does. Importantly, offer them regular supervision.
● Remember what is good and bad practice and remind all your staff.
● Try to retain a sense of humour – this will help prevent staff burning out, especially if a team is a mixture of permanent and agency workers.
Contact the author
Anabel Unity Sale
This article appeared in the 23 March issue of the magazine under the headline “Here today, gone tomorrow?”
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