Social workers say ‘we are underpaid and over-worked’

Social workers in the UK are over-worked, under-supported but mostly satisfied with their jobs, according to exclusive research carried out by Community Care in association with Unison.

The average social worker among the near-1,400 respondents to our survey worked 41 hours a week, against a contracted 35 hours, while less than half thought their quality of supervision and decision support was good.

Only a quarter said their caseloads were good or excellent, while 37% said their promotion prospects were poor, but 16% were very satisfied in their job and 55% were fairly satisfied.

‘Excessive volume of work’

Helga Pile, Unison’s national officer for social care, said the average 41-hour week reflected the “excessive volume of work caused by staffing shortages and onerous paperwork requirements”.

“There needs to be caseload limits and workload management, coupled with action on staffing: firstly, to fill vacancies, and secondly to assess the volume of work and expand the number of posts as necessary. This must include support and administrative posts,” she added.

But Jon Sutcliffe, principal strategic adviser at Local Government Employers, argued against imposing strict national caseload limits, saying this was better dealt with at a local level in a way that suited each authority’s own “social challenges”.

Regular weekend working

Hilton Dawson, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, said he was “hearing from people working weekends or regularly until 8pm”, and called for “radical” reforms to the bureaucratic requirements on social workers.

Dawson said people should be entitled to “ordinary social work services at least 12 hours a day, 7 days a week”, but there needed to be a new career structure to enable social workers to properly fulfil their duties.

Pile attributed the dissatisfaction over promotion prospects to the fact that staff who want to stay in practice roles face poorer prospects than those planning to move into management.

“Unison members report that cost-cutting is leading to the deletion of senior posts,” she said. “Those who work in multi-agency teams have told us they feel particularly cut off from promotion opportunities.”

Managers ‘stretched to the limit’

Pile also said social workers needed better access to high quality supervision and support, while employers should look at the workloads, training and development and support needs of team managers, who were “often stretched to the limit”.

Eleni Ioannides, vice chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services’ workforce development policy committee, said many local authorities had put in place initiatives including flexitime schemes, career breaks and training time.

But she added: “It is no surprise that the system is under pressure. The work is difficult, there is intense public scrutiny and vilification, status is not high and expectations keep rising.”

‘Most workers do overtime’

Sutcliffe said that most of the working population worked more than its contracted hours “a lot of the time”. However, he acknowledged there were “capacity and resource problems” in tackling overtime.

“Social work is one of those areas where demand is going up, which means people are going to have to work ever harder in ensuring caseloads are managed and responsibilities shared,” he said.

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