How can caseloads be managed?

Social workers want caseloads to be capped but what is the best way of doing this?

Social workers want caseloads to be capped but what is the best way of doing this? Kirsty McGregor, Vern Pitt and Judy Cooper report

Nine out of 10 social workers who took part in Community Care’s caseloads survey called for a cap on case numbers.

With 45% of adult social workers and 21% of children’s practitioners coping with more than 30 cases at any one time this is hardly surprising.

Yet capping caseloads was rejected by the Social Work Task Force, on the basis it would be too simplistic and not succeed in managing workloads. Instead, it called for a national standard for employers, setting out what social workers should expect from them on workload management.

The Social Work Reform Board, which is implementing the taskforce’s recommendations, will publish methods to calculate whether workloads are safe, says Roger Kline, one of its members.

Kline, from the union Aspect, says: “More than one method will be available to choose and all will be based on schemes approved by Unison, the British Association of Social Workers or a couple of good employers.”

However, he adds that unless the employer standard becomes mandatory it is unlikely to have much teeth at a time of swingeing cuts in local government funding and rising demand.

“If [government] fails to make clear that the standards must be followed then too many councils will evade them at a time of imploding budget,” he warns.

Unison social work officer and taskforce member Helga Pile agrees it is impossible to set a simple cap on caseloads because of variations in case complexity. She is also critical of some of the weighted caseload management systems in use because, she says, they “can get so complicated that people spend ages trying to work out what their score is”.

Unison is in favour of a traffic light system, under which caseload numbers are graded as green, amber or red. This would allow social workers to more confidently raise concern with management if they have a red caseload, Pile claims, particularly if such a system was nationally validated. In terms of enforcement, she suggests caseload management could become part of inspection criteria.

Weighted system

Ruth Cartwright, the British Association of Social Worker’s joint manager for England, says she backs a weighted system such as the one devised by social worker Carolyn Cousins, assistant director of education and training at the Tavistock Centre (see below), but concedes all such systems can be time-consuming.

“If a social worker comes and says they have too many cases – that’s the best indicator,” she adds.

Yet even if a social worker raises this, it is no guarantee of change. “We complete a caseload weighting every month in supervision and all the team are above the recommended limit,” one children’s social worker who replied to Community Care‘s survey says.

To address this, social workers need to defend their professional standards, says one user of Community Care‘s CareSpace forum. “My team was asked to work initially with 25 cases – we refused, stating 15 intensive cases was the max possible without compromising quality. We later reduced this to 12 as we found 15 unmanageable. Management weren’t happy initially but accepted the position. Eight years later we have a reputation for quality, rigour and consistency.

“Councils employ us as professionals and insist on our being registered. They should allow us to make professional decisions and work to professional standards. We, however difficult, must decide if we are professionals or just council workers.”

Caseload management tools that aim to reduce workloads

Carolyn Cousins’ workload allocation tool

This identifies social workers’ capacity to take on cases. Professionals are allocated 140 hours of work each month. Hours are deducted for meetings, training, annual leave, time off in lieu and existing cases, based on what is required, including travel time and administration. For example, initial assessments might take eight hours, core assessments six hours and court reports four hours. Further time is deducted if the social worker also needs to supervise students. What is left is the time they have available to take new cases.  Read more about Cousins’ workload tool

Northern Ireland model

ln Northern Ireland, workloads are limited through a points-based system in which cases are weighted by type. For example, looked-after children team cases are awarded two points per child per month. Social work managers have the discretion to award fewer or more points depending on complexity and travel. A maximum of nine points is allocated per month, per social worker for training, team meetings, project work, supervision and other duties. As a guide, experienced social workers should have no more than 50-60 points and newly qualified staff between 40 and 50.

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