Birmingham burnout – personal stories from the coalface
In response to our story on Birmingham council recruiting children’s social workers from the US to meet staff shortages, former Birmingham employees contacted Community Care to tell us about their experiences of working at the council. They have all asked not to be identified and their experiences cover the period from 2004 to the present. The council’s director of children’s services gave us a response to which is printed in full below.
“A student social worker was left with child protection cases, with an expectation to perform tasks way and beyond their level of expertise when managers were away. Child protection cases were kicking off and the student had no-one to turn to.”
“The entire team was stressed and in team meetings would say ‘I have got enough on my plate’ but were still given more cases. People won’t speak up because they are afraid to lose their jobs. I do not feel comfortable in social work anymore.”
“My caseload was unmanageable. You just had to take what you were given. It was sink or swim.
“Older children were not helped because of budgetary restrictions. Once a child reached the age of 15 or 16 there was a cut-off point even though you could see they were at risk and should be removed. What was going on in some of these children’s homes needed drastic action.
“Some staff had up to 300 hours of time off in lieu because they worked such long hours – but they didn’t have time to take it and were tired all the time. Most of the team were relatively new and all seemed to be in the same position. The high staff turnover obviously affects the workload of everybody in the team.
“I left because of the lack of support, the long hours, the low pay and the low morale throughout the team. Due to the budget constraints I was unable to provide the services needed to children and their families.
“Cases were allocated in supervision but extra cases would find their way to you without discussion. There needs to be a recognised limit on caseloads, depending on experience.
“Staff could be given a directory of all the local services available as when you are new this would be invaluable but you are just expected to know.
“Birmingham children’s services need more investment and better management to solve the recruitment and retention problems.
“It may be useful to have a short course aimed at workers from abroad covering differences in law. Student and newly qualified social workers need more supervision and support. A buddy system or mentor would be useful.”
“I received no induction at all to the children’s service and I was given a caseload immediately as were all of my colleagues when they started. My first case involved severe neglect. I found this highly inappropriate for someone of my experience at the time and I made my concerns known to the manager.
“It was a completely unsupportive environment despite a small number of dedicated managers under pressure. A lot of staff were temporary – some people left after several days. There was a huge turnover. I burned out within 6 months.
“I was just handed cases and left to get on with it. Students on placement had no practice teachers available to them and nobody to supervise them. I had a caseload of 14 and did core assessments – all the things a student should not have to do.
“At the time there was such a culture of laissez faire – ‘you get on with it and hang yourself’- passing the buck. I was treated abysmally. If something went wrong I got into trouble.
“I was given several difficult and complex cases and my ‘mentor’ that had been assigned as an afterthought did little more than say, ‘well done’ from time to time when she was not off sick. There was little supervision in the team. The turnover of agency staff and permanent staff was phenomenal, no support was offered and staff were left to their own devices
“Birmingham needs to sort out the management structure and support for staff and look at their retention policy.”
Tony Howell, strategic director for Birmingham city council’s children, young people and families directorate
“Birmingham city council’s children, young people and families directorate is surprised by these comments as we have been very successful in implementing a graduate recruitment scheme. This is reducing our dependency on agency staff, and we are increasingly demanding very high standards from the agency staff that we do employ.
“We offer final year social work degree placements, and a significant number of our final year placement students within the last year have opted to accept jobs with the directorate and to remain in the areas of service where they did their placement, including those who were placed in our duty and assessment teams.
“We have lost only nine staff between January and August this year, and they are all from our care management service. Birmingham, as other cities, does have a turnover of staff, and many staff who leave our service move on to promotions in other local authorities, voluntary or independent agencies.
“We offer regular supervision throughout the structure and whilst inexperienced staff will be given the opportunity to develop skills and may undertake core assessments and other complex pieces of work, this will be with the guidance of more experienced qualified staff. Workers workloads are managed, but it is also expected that all staff have a throughput of work. We are committed to improving our service to children aged 16-plus and have a strategic action plan to achieve this which was agreed last year and is now being put into operation. This action plan involves our partner agencies as well as ourselves.
“In Birmingham our ‘Brighter Futures – Every Child Matters’ agenda does place the child or young person at the centre of all the work that we undertake and we are concentrating on ensuring that all staff have the children and young people we are working with as the focus of their work. In conjunction with this we have a tight performance framework and expect staff to meet the performance standards we need to deliver good outcomes for our children and young people. There have been a very few staff, who have been unable to do this, despite support and they have moved on. We are in the process of developing a retention strategy for social work staff and this should be completed by early next year.”