Research findings into social workers’ use of time

Anna Gupta examines the findings of the most comprehensive survey of social workers' use of time ever conducted in the UK

Anna Gupta examines the findings of the most comprehensive survey of social workers’ use of time ever conducted in the UK

The research

Title: Social Workers’ Workload Survey: Messages from the Frontline – 2010

Authors: Mary Baginsky, Jo Moriarty, Jill Manthorpe, Martin Stevens, Tom MacInnes and Tay Nagendran

Institutions: Mary Baginsky works for the Children’s Workforce Development Council. Jo Moriarty, Jill Manthorpe, Martin Stevens and Tay Nagendran are at Kings College, University of London. Tom MacInnes is at the New Policy Institute.

Available: The study is available from the Social Work Task Force


Following the publicity surrounding the tragic death of Peter Connelly, the Social Work Task Force was set up to undertake a root and branch review of the profession. The aims of the taskforce were to improve both the profession’s quality and status, and the ability to recruit and retain social workers.

In order to help inform the work of the taskforce this comprehensive research was commissioned to examine workloads, supervision and other factors impacting on frontline social worker practitioners and social work provision in local authority adult and children services, as well as private, voluntary and independent agencies.


This study involved a survey of 1,150 social workers from across England. The majority were from children’s services directorates (63%), followed by adult services (25%) the private, voluntary and independent sectors (PVI, 10%), and council directorates that have merged both children’s and adult services (2%).

Respondents described themselves as social workers (71%), senior social workers (13%) and managers (12%). Nearly half (42%) had more than 11 years’ experience; 19% had between one and three years, and 2% had under one year’s experience.

Each of the respondents was asked to complete a questionnaire and a time diary for a week. The authors of this study acknowledge some of the limitations of the use of diaries but also recognise the opportunity to collect detailed information from a large number of participants on the day-to-day work of practitioners.

In addition to the diary exercise and questionnaires, interviews with senior managers in the agencies where the survey was conducted were also undertaken. The areas covered in these interviews included staffing issues, recruitment and retention, caseloads, supervision and training. This is the most comprehensive diary exercise of its kind conducted in the UK.

Findings and conclusions

The workload survey found that almost half of the respondents worked more than their contracted hours, with 9% working over nine additional hours per week. Overall direct contact with service users accounted for about one quarter (26%) of working time; case-related recording accounted for 22%; case related work in the social workers’ agencies and with other professionals took up a further 25% of time. This meant that 73% of the working time of social workers was spent on client-related work.

These figures were consistent across the statutory sector but the total contact time was slightly less in the PVI sector, as a result of less time being spent on recording. This time was spent by PVI workers on other activities such as training and service development.

Respondents in children’s and adult services recognised the importance of good recording but with a few exceptions thought the present systems provided by their employers had not been adequately developed and were not fit for purpose. Complaints centred on technical problems, lack of accessibility of reports for service users, repetition, and limited scope for flexibility and analysis.

Particularly strong complaints came from those working in children’s services in relation to the integrated children’s system. The authors of the research suggest administrative and support staff might be employed to free up time for social workers to undertake more direct work with clients. This could include administrators taking over responsibility for some of the electronic recording. In all settings more time was spent on recording where there was an electronic system.

The workload pressures on frontline social workers can inhibit professional development in other ways, including future social workers. For example, the senior managers reported complaints about the quality of newly qualified social workers (NQSWs) and their lack of experience in statutory settings, but also acknowledged difficulties in providing placements in times of high workload pressures.

The survey showed huge differences among workers in relation to the number of cases held. Most respondents had fewer than 20 active cases, 26% had fewer than 10, but 7% had more than 30 cases. Of the 36 respondents in children’s services carrying over 40 cases, 22 were managers, many of whom said they were holding cases that were unable to be allocated.

There were discrepancies in how cases were defined, for example, by child or by family. Also, the authors acknowledge that simply citing numbers of cases does not accurately reflect workload as some cases are far more complex, high risk and time consuming than others. Half those in adult services and 42% of those in children’s services said that a workload allocation system was in place.

On further analysis it became clear there were various interpretations of workload management systems – often managers would make judgements about workload, experience and complexity issues in discussion with social workers prior to allocation. However, examples were cited of dangerous practice where cases were allocated in name only.

Staff vacancies, sickness, maternity leave and lack of backfill for those on training courses were factors that contributed to higher caseloads and more stressful working conditions. Some NQSWs reported not being able to have the protected caseload they had expected. The overwhelming majority of senior managers did not believe that there was a case weighting system for allocation that would work, as the judgement of first line managers was important in relation to the requirements of the case and capabilities of the worker.

Interviews with directors and senior managers confirmed that supervision policies existed and the frequency of supervision usually set at every four weeks and more frequently for newly qualified staff. However, in practice one in four frontline social workers in children’s services and over a third in adult services were not receiving supervision every four weeks. In addition, one in four managers were not receiving supervision at least every four weeks. The reasons for this included other workload pressures, especially when there were vacancies or sickness in the management team.

Respondents described supervision being driven by the performance management, target-driven culture of organisations, with limited opportunities for critical reflection on the complex and often ambiguous nature of the work. Social workers who had in the past received a more therapeutic style of supervision said that it had contributed to their own well-being and ability to cope with stress.

The more bureaucratic and “tick-box” model of supervision also was felt to be counter-productive to development. Workload pressures led to some workers not being able to take up other professional development and post-qualifying training opportunities.

Despite the challenging working conditions, the majority of respondents were positive about becoming and remaining social workers. Some reasons for this were a belief that they were making a difference to people’s lives, supportive colleagues, and for some, autonomy and working in an environment which they felt was aligned to their core beliefs and values, even if they felt they were facing increasingly difficult challenges.

In children’s services the one thing that was most consistently cited as making a positive difference was the abandonment of the integrated children’s system. Other factors that were identified across children’s and adult services were lower caseloads, improved post-qualifying training, fewer targets, the abandonment of hot-desking policies and more administrative support.

This study explored many other issues that cannot be covered within the scope of this article, including thresholds, preventative work, the future roles of social workers, initial and post-qualifying training, and the use of agency and overseas trained workers.

The findings from this comprehensive study influenced the final report of the taskforce. It is hoped the messages from this study will continue to be considered in the implementation of the taskforce recommendations and wider debates about contemporary social work.

It makes an important contribution, particularly as it highlights the experiences and perspectives of frontline workers, and the need to value, adequately resource and support the complex and challenging work they undertake.

Practice implications

SUPERVISION: Good supervision needs to incorporate opportunities to critically reflect and analyse cases, as well as the emotional impact of the work and professional development of the practitioner.

GROUP AND PEER SUPERVISION: Group, peer supervision and action learning sets can also promote good practice and increasing opportunities for these forums needs to be considered for all social workers.

CASELOAD ALLOCATION: Workload, experience and complexity issues should be taken into account in discussion with social workers prior to allocation of cases.

➔ See the Interim and Final Reports of the Task Force

Anna Gupta is a senior lecturer in social work at Royal Holloway, University of London

This article is published in the 22 April 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline “Root and branch review of sector”

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.