How can caseloads be contained?

The Social Work Task Force steered clear of calling for a cap on caseloads, claiming good supervision was the best way to limit them. But are managers willing and able to properly support staff, asks Molly Garboden

“Caseloads have been an ­issue for my entire team for the past few months. At the moment we each have between 23 and 27 cases on at a time, which is pretty ridiculous when you consider that Lord Laming’s recommendation was for an average of 12,” says Sonia Isaza, social worker on the duty and assessment team for safeguarding and social care at Camden North in London.

Isaza has been on the team for three-and-a-half years and says caseloads have never before been as heavy. Before the recent increase in referrals, team members had an average of 15 cases, she says.

Unlike Laming, the Social Work Task Force rejected a cap on caseload numbers. Its final report in December last year argued that the best way to handle caseloads was through good supervision and management.

“The taskforce said that, regardless of the kind of team or service user group you’re working with, the most important thing is to have a system that is attuned to that particular setting to make sure social workers can deliver everything they need to,” says Kim Bromley-Derry, taskforce member and president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services.

Developing management solutions

He points out that most authorities do set a maximum number of caseloads social workers should manage at any time, but the it is not applied. In place of a magic number, the taskforce argues that management solutions should be developed to account for unexpected variables, such as sick leave and spikes in referrals.

Nushra Mansuri, British Association of Social Workers professional officer for children’s services issues, agrees that just simply focusing on the number of cases can be simplistic. “If we’re trying to put practice up to the level where it should be, we need to look at all the challenges, not just one in isolation,” she says.

One tool that may help both social workers and their managers is the “health check” in Annex A of the taskforce report (see below).

This check will form the basis of the standard the taskforce said should be developed for employers on the support they should provide to social workers – something on which the taskforce reform board will consult this year.

But Mansuri fears that not all local authorities will be keen to use the check. “Some people say local authorities don’t want to be that open and transparent – they’re worried about getting something wrong and coming up against it,” she says. “But I think the health check is important. It’s taking a realistic look at a local authority and judging fitness for purpose. It’s not about blaming anybody – it would determine whether a local authority has enough people to meet the demands required of it.”

Refusal to ring-fence extra funding

The taskforce called for every local authority to aim to have a caseload framework in place by February. But there is no statutory requirement on local authorities to carry out this kind of check. Although the government has accepted the taskforce recommendations in principle, it has yet to reveal its detailed implementation plan, which is due in “early 2010”.

Moreover, the government has refused to ring-fence any extra public funding to implement the recommendations, though it says details on how the reform will be resourced will emerge with the implementation plan.

“The taskforce has always been upfront about the fact that this can’t be done without resources,” says Bromley-Derry. “The first thing you need when applying a system is the capacity and training to deliver it. That’s why the workload issue links closely to supervision. Without adequate supervision any caseload management system isn’t going to work.

“The challenge is if that then has resource implications. Having the policy in place should be relatively easy, but obviously following from that will be potential resource difficulties.”

While policymakers and politicians ­continue to battle over resources, Isaza says her team has managed their heavy workload only by working many extra unpaid hours.

Time off in lieu not taken

“Management is pretty supportive when we have to work extra unpaid hours, saying we should take time off in lieu when we do this, but in all honesty that’s completely unrealistic when we have so much on,” she says. “We’ve raised the issue in team meetings, but there just isn’t a straightforward way to fix this.”

Social workers may be daunted by telling managers their caseload is too much, a point Mansuri admits can present difficulties.

“The GSCC code of practice addresses this issue and that should, in theory, empower social workers to say something is unreasonable as a request, but of course the reality isn’t necessarily that way,” she says.

Mansuri recommends that if a ­professional feels they are working beyond capacity, they should in the first instance seek a discussion with their line manager.

If this does not work, consider consulting the next manager up. Recourse to a third party, such as BASW or a trade union, would be necessary if the problem remains unresolved.

“Social workers can’t afford to be isolated in cases like this and need representation outside their employers,” Mansuri says. “They shouldn’t feel pressured to do something that’s bad practice, like taking on more work than they can handle.

Strike a balance

“Just saying you plan to go to an outside body can often be enough to make the employer realise they’re not going to get away with this. It’s so important that social workers don’t leave themselves open to this kind of abuse.”

Both Bromley-Derry and Mansuri say it is up to managers to avoid reliance on this kind of set-up. They agree with the taskforce, saying management needs to strike the right balance.

“You need a good workload management system, you need to know what volume of work each case is going to produce and, most importantly, you need a manager who can appraise that properly,” says Mansuri. “Unexpected issues such as illness are particularly difficult at the moment because so many areas are understaffed.”



National standard of support needed

A clear national standard for employers should be developed on the support social workers should expect from their employers in order to do their jobs effectively.

The new standard for employers should be supported by clear national requirements for the supervision of social workers.

There should be a new system for forecasting levels of supply and demand for social workers.

➔ More on the Social Work Task Force proposals



The Social Work Task Force developed a health check to help organisations undertake a self-assessment against five key areas affecting workload. It can be used at team, service and organisation levels.

The areas are:

● Effective workload management.

● Proactive workflow management.

● Having the right tools to do the job.

● A healthy workplace.

● Effective service delivery.

This article is published in the 21 January 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline “Containing caseloads”

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