Employers to carry out workplace health checks in 2010-11

Employers will be urged to carry out “health checks” on social workers’ working conditions over the next 12 months.

A new standard covering workload management and supervision should then be rolled out from 2011 alongside the development of an improved career structure for social work.

As recommended by the Social Work Task Force, the health checks will cover workload management, whether social workers have the right tools for the job and whether workplaces are “healthy”. Following the first check, during 2010-11, employers will be expected to plan improvements and repeat the checks on a regular cycle.

The standard for employers will be rolled out on a phased basis from April 2011, following a consultation by the Social Work Reform Board. It will set guidance on:

* managing workloads and predicting demand for social work.

* workflow management.

* providing practical tools and access to research to practitioners.

* Ensuring practice awareness among service leaders and managers.

The government said there would also be a “mechanism for assuring” employers’ performance against the standard, though there are no details on what this will consist of.

The standard will also set clear national requirements for supervision, with employers expected to provide a clear supervision policy, effective training and performance management and strong leadership from senior managers, monitor the frequency and quality of supervision and comply with guidance on good supervision.

The government has advised that employers adopt the taskforce’s recommendations on frequency of supervision: once a week for the first six weeks of employment, fortnightly for the rest of the first six months and monthly after that.

Guidance on the quality and content of supervision, published in 2007, will also be refreshed by Skills for Care and the Children’s Workforce Development Council. They will identify any additional support required to improve supervision.

Helga Pile, national officer for social workers at Unison, which represents 40,000 practitioners in the UK, welcomed the commitment to pursue health checks for social work departments. However, she called for more action to tackle the heavy load of paperwork, that can see social workers spending up to 80% of their time stuck behind their desks. Pile said: “Health checks are vital to bridge the gap in understanding between managers and staff working on the front line. Unless they can get together with staff and unions to examine the full extent of the problems they face, they have no hope of finding a solution.”

The government has also backed a single, nationally-recognised career structure for social work.

This will include a more nationally-based pay structure as well as a continuing professional development framework with at its core a new Masters in Social Work Practice, to be piloted from September 2011.

This will be practice-based and practice-driven and allow social workers to develop specialist skills.

The framework will be phased in over a number of years so it can be aligned with developments in other areas of the reform programme. Existing education, training and development programmes will continue to be supported by the government.

The career structure will also contain ‘exit points’ for people to remain in other parts of the workforce but are not suited to a frontline role.

The career group of the Social Work Reform Board is currently building on existing models and standards, including the Advanced Social Work Professional – set to be piloted in children’s services this summer – the Approved Mental Health Practitioner role and consultant social worker roles.

Later this month the Joint National Council, which sets pay and conditions of local government employees will makes its first recommendations for a more nationally-based pay structure for social workers.

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