How social workers can say no to higher caseloads

Taking on excessive work can lead to burnout and poor service. Kirsty McGgregor looks at how social workers can learn to say no

Taking on excessive work can lead to burnout and poor service. Kirsty McGregor looks at how social workers can keep a lid on caseloads by learning to say ‘no’

“I left my post because of the demands and caseloads; I felt I could not give a good service to any one individual or family because I never had the time.”

This comment, from a social worker who took part in Community Care‘s recent caseloads survey, sums up the frustrations felt by the hundreds of practitioners who took part.

Our findings showed one in six social workers had more than 40 cases, while 90% said high caseloads were affecting their ability to practise good social work.

So as more and more cases pile up on your desk, how should you respond? By allowing the stress to overwhelm you, and either taking sick leave or quitting your post? Or by working with your manager to come up with a working solution and learning to “say no”?

There is an historic reluctance to turn down new cases across the profession, according to experts.

“Most social workers come into social work because they want to help and it feels like a personal failure if they say ‘I can’t take that case’,” says Helen Donnellan, project manager and researcher at the University of Plymouth.

“They are their own worst enemies.”

Good management and supervision are central to managing caseloads. But it is also important that individual social workers learn how to handle requests to take on more cases.

The General Social Care Council code of practice for social care workers states that practitioners have a statutory duty to tell their employer if “operational difficulties” are affecting their ability to safely deliver services.

If they don’t, and something goes wrong, they could find themselves in front of a conduct committee for breaching the code.

“Social workers are often taken to task in conduct hearings for accepting an excessive caseload and failing to raise their concerns,” says Allan Norman, a solicitor who represents social workers in conduct proceedings.

Norman says social workers should report any problems to their manager, in writing, even if they are worried about consequences such as how it might affect their chances of promotion.

And it can be done. One social worker in an adult addictions case management team wrote on our forum: “The team was asked to work initially with 25 cases,” she said. “We refused, stating 15 intensive cases was the maximum possible without compromising quality. We later reduced this to 12 as we found 15 unmanageable.

“Management wasn’t happy initially but they accepted our position. Eight years later we have a well-founded reputation for quality, rigour and consistency.”

However, there is no point encouraging social workers to say no to high caseloads if it falls on deaf ears.

The GSCC code of practice for employers, while not legally binding, requires organisations to have systems in place to enable social workers to report excessive caseloads.

Employers in England are also being encouraged to undertake a workload “health check” using a framework developed by the Social Work Task Force.

Yet our caseloads survey suggested a widespread lack of support at the managerial level.

“At times, managers fail to take into account staff caseloads, even when you clearly explain that you are struggling,” said one respondent.

“Managers do not listen when social workers complain,” said another.

The reality is, when faced with escalating referrals, managers have to balance the needs of their team with a downward pressure from within the organisation to allocate as many cases as possible, as quickly as possible. Donnellan describes them as the “jam in a sandwich that’s being squashed the whole time”.

“High caseloads are a shared problem for managers and social workers, because it shows they are both responding inappropriately to corporate pressure,” she adds.

A team manager’s perspective

“The difficulty is you’re balancing the needs of the team with the needs of the client, and the clock’s ticking. You need to make sure the person is assessed as safely as possible in a relatively short timeframe. Then there are practical issues about equity across the team: who’s taking what case, who’s on leave, what are the work-life balance arrangements that are affecting who can take what and is that fair?

Next you have to consider complexity. Do you always give your most competent team players the most complex cases? Or do you make sure other people are learning and have an opportunity to grow as well? There’s a real temptation [to give the complex cases to the most competent workers] when you’re up against the wall. I think that’s what most managers do as a short term measure, but it’s not effective in the longer term.

Social workers aren’t good at saying no – and as a manager I don’t want them to say no. But as a social worker I would want to be able to say no: so there’s a tension and it can become a highly stressful situation for some people. Supervision is key, but it’s not just about structured supervision; it’s about informal supervision and having a presence.

Helping people prioritise and re-prioritise is also important. When people say they can’t cope it’s often a case of sitting them down and giving them permission to give themselves a couple of weeks to write a report. “

Tracy Brown, adult social care team manager, Camden Council, London

How to turn down unreasonable work requests

●Know when you have reached your limit

Are you finding that you leave tasks undone? Are you having less and less free time and even the little you have is spoiled by thinking of your workload? Are you getting irritable and upset more easily than you used to do? Are you thinking of going off sick or quitting your job? These are signs that you have reached your limit and you should call a halt to additional workload.

●Manage your own feelings

Often we do not want to say “no” out of a feeling of guilt – of letting ourselves or others down. But what’s to feel guilty about stating our capacity for work is not unlimited? Imagine the guilt of knowing you cannot take on another case, then something goes badly wrong and you’re left thinking, “if only I’d spoken up and said no.” Saying “no” is not easy for many of us but again, as qualified professionals, not only is it our right to say “no”, it is our duty.

● Be assertive

Asserting your rights and duty to safeguard quality and standards at work need not be a conflict situation. Being truly assertive requires that not only do you state your position calmly and rationally but also that you are willing to listen to others state their position. Work with your manager to reach a consensus: a position to which both of you can at least partially agree.

● Prepare in advance

Before approaching your boss take time to gather your thoughts and some facts that will support your argument for no more work. Think through the various responses you could get from your manager and work out a response to each. Be able to show where your time is going, the cases you have, and the work that needs doing. Explain that if you must take on this extra task or case then something else will have to give. Ask him or her to discuss with you what can be dropped – and be prepared to hold your ground. Avoid being drawn into an argument; emphasise that your motivation is for the good of the team, the department and eventually good case resolution or management.

David Kelly is director of Be More Coaching and Development, which provides coaching and development services to public and private sector organisations across the UK. E-mail  and 

Campaign for manageable caseloads

Community Care has launched a campaign in partnership with Unison to improve working conditions for social workers, including excessive caseloads and too much bureaucracy.

As part of this, we have created a new “social work contract”, which calls for the right to a manageable workload with a reasonable number and mix of cases.

In high risk areas like child protection, mental health and older people’s teams we believe the government needs to publish a recognised benchmark that practitioners can use to raise the alarm when caseloads are becoming too high.

Join the fight for fair working conditions for social workers

One if five social workers have more than 40 cases

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This article is published in the 30 September issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Just say no!

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