Help is at hand for time-strapped children’s services departments with two tools that aid workload planning
The Social Work Task Force report identified many factors that affected caseloads. But contained in Building a Safe, Confident Future were the damning statistics that nearly half of professionals worked more than their contracted hours and nearly one in 10 worked more than one extra working day per week.
“The skills and awareness of line managers in balancing all of these factors are pivotal to caseload management,” the report said.
According to Carolyn Cousins, a former social work team manager and now assistant director of education and training at the Tavistock Centre, the allocation of cases is seldom thought-through and is often unfair. In team meetings, the temptation is for managers to give new cases to those who are most willing or offer least resistance. “The ones who are already overworked end up taking them,” she says.
Over the past three years, in different team and service management roles in Britain and Australia, Cousins has set about developing and refining an alternative that frontline managers could use.
There were already workload planning tools available. But Cousins found they were too cumbersome, too generic and often flawed by an underlying desire to justify social workers taking on more cases. She wanted something simple, objective and adaptable to the different roles that social workers have, from child protection to fostering supervision.
The principle behind Cousins’ system is that it is not based on simply counting the number of cases that social workers manage but considers the relative complexity of each case and the time it takes.
She has developed two tools. One is a “weighted case limit”. This agrees a “ceiling” of cases, but reaches that ceiling by giving variable weights to different kinds of cases. For example, in a fostering service that used the tool, the case ceiling was set at 13. The management of “inactive carers” scored 0.5, while a normal active carer with three short-term placements counted 1.5.
The second tool – the individual capacity planner – is intended to assess spare capacity by discovering the time each case takes. Cousins says this method, which is suitable for safeguarding and family support, enables work to be re-allocated so that burdens are shared more equally. “If somebody works a 140-hour month but the monthly individual planner shows the cases they have come in at 160 hours, that’s not acceptable, so some need to be re-allocated,” she says.
The tool can also be used to make the case for more social workers. “It is a way of demonstrating to people that you are actually trying but there is no more space and no more capacity,” she says.
Introducing the tools requires acceptance from social workers and their fears about its uses to be allayed, says Cousins. “It’s getting social workers to realise that it’s not meant to make their life more difficult,” she says. “There’s a perception it’s about performance management. But in fact it’s a good way of helping them prove their cases are full and resisting additional work.”
The tools do not prevent negotiation about taking on new cases. But, says Cousins, it allows that negotiation to start from an objective basis. “I’ve never had any negative reactions,” she adds.
For further details on the tool, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Biri Yaya manages a team of six social workers and two psychologists who supervise fostering placements in Hammersmith & Fulham Council, London.
In 2008 service manager Carolyn Cousins introduced her to two workload allocation planning tools. Yaya says the weighted case limit tool in particular has made the way he distributes work to social workers more objective and “scientific”.
Before, the service operated with an agreed ceiling of 13 cases for each worker. But that simple head count, says Yaya, failed to take account of the complexity of each case. The tool has enabled a more sophisticated approach to allocation.
“Within the case limit, you look into the variables,” says Yaya. “How active is this foster household? How many children do they have? Do the children display very difficult behaviour?”
The tool also considers the circumstances of the social worker. Issues such as whether they have just returned from illness or how far they have to travel to meet foster carers also contribute to the overall “weight” of their workload.
“It has freed me up as a manager to have a proper discussion of particular cases in a one-to-one relationship with the social worker,” says Yaya. “The social workers see the advantages in it as much as the managers.”
Monthly capacity planning
1 Start from the basis of each worker having 140 hours available.
2 Over the month take into account the number of hours that will be spent in meetings, on training days and on annual leave or time in lieu and deduct it from the 140 hours.
3 List the number of cases the social worker has and the hours that should be allocated for each case, including visits, writing up and administration associated with visits, reports, travel time and assessments.
4 Add up the number of hours needed for other tasks, such as supervision, team meetings, student supervision and deduct again.
5 This is the number of spare hours and capacity this social worker has to take on any new cases.
Tasks and time spent on them
Cousins has estimated the typical amount of time that should be allocated to certain tasks. However, this can be negotiated between manager and social worker.
- Core assessment: 6 hours
- Initial assessment: 8 hours
- Write up after visit: 0.5 hours
- Court report: 4 hours
- Meeting family: 1.5hours
- Crisis allowance: 2 hours per month
This article is published in the 22 April 2010 edition of Community Care magazine under the headline Spreading the Caseload