Alarm as admin load cuts social workers’ effectiveness

GPs don't book their own appointments, so why are social workers doing tasks more suited to other staff? Natalie Valios asks what practitioners can do to cut the administrative burden

GPs don’t book their own appointments, so why are social workers doing tasks more suited to other staff? Natalie Valios asks what practitioners can do to cut the administrative burden

Booking taxis, taking minutes, entering the same piece of information 15 times on a computer… social workers would be forgiven for wondering why they, professionals with a protected title and at least three years of intensive training, are best-suited to carry out such tasks.

Yet reports from the frontline suggest that they are increasingly having to take them on, due to dwindling numbers of support staff. The situation is likely to get worse as cuts to local authority budgets – 28% in real terms from 2010-11 to 2014-15 – take hold. Indeed, ministers have wasted no time in urging council bosses to cut back-office functions, including administrative support, in their bid to reduce the national deficit.

Social workers are telling Unison that they are spending increasing amounts of their time filing, answering phones, booking meeting rooms, shredding paper and photocopying.

“Admin staff are being removed to save money, but there is a feeling that decisions are being made by people who don’t understand the impact this has on critical frontline services,” says Helga Pile, Unison’s national officer for social work. “Everyone agrees that social workers already spend too much of their time at their desks – it’s a false economy.”

The Association of Directors of Adult Social Services admits that employers are looking to make 20-30% reductions in support functions, as Jo Cleary, Adass spokesperson for workforce issues, confirms.

“Admin staff do release social work time but we are all struggling with making serious cuts and have to look at back-office functions,” she says.

Professor Eileen Munro’s report on child protection and social work practice, published last week, recommends ways of reducing the pressure on practitioners such as scrapping national guidelines requiring initial assessments to be completed within seven days.

Here we examine the most time-consuming tasks social workers are having to carry out, and ask what they can do to focus on the core aspects of the role.

Data entry

Ever since its inception, the Integrated Children’s System (ICS) has been labelled a burden by children’s social workers.

Mary*, a social worker and Unison officer in a London borough, says: “Social workers here complain that the ICS is laborious. If the person [involved in the case] before you hasn’t filled in all the relevant parts then you can’t process it any further. Some of this work could be done by admin staff.”

It’s not much better for social workers using the computer database for adult services: “For example, when the system was brought in there were about 15 places where you had to enter the date of an individual’s death,” Mary adds.

“You would think that as an electronic system you could enter the date once and it would be populated through the whole file, but it was left to social workers to do it.

“This has been simplified slightly, but these types of closures [to cases] could surely be done by admin staff. The problem is that computer systems are so integrated now that it’s difficult to know which bits you could allocate to admin staff.”

The amount of detail social workers feel forced to include in computer records has an impact on their time.

“When they input information from a meeting or conversation many go into a huge amount of detail because there is a general culture of anxiety around whether they have done enough to cover their backs,” says Mary. “That anxiety is a driver for much of the way we record things.

“The irony is that the more social workers are tied down to making sure everything is recorded, the more likely they are to miss something.”

Taking minutes

Matthew*, a social worker in adult community care in a Welsh local authority, recalls a recent continuing healthcare review for one of his clients. To his surprise, he was told by the health professional that it was the social worker’s job to take the minutes.

“I thought this should be done by someone in admin because, if you are taking minutes, you are not able to contribute as much to the meeting itself, which I found demoralising.

“The meeting went on for three hours so I had pages of notes to go through and had to set aside a couple of days to do that and type them up. You feel you are not doing social work, you feel de-skilled.”

Matthew qualified almost three years ago and is already feeling frustrated that so much time is spent behind his desk: “Admin tasks seem to be part of the job that we have to accept but it means job satisfaction is up and down.

“Every month or so an ‘admin day’ is put in the diary so that we can catch up on everything, but in reality we have several admin days a week.

“I worry that any future cuts to admin staff would make my job intolerable.”

Arranging transport

Organising taxis or other forms of transport to ferry looked-after children from one place to another seems to be creeping into many social workers’ day jobs.

Nushra Mansuri, professional officer England for BASW – the College of Social Work, says: “It is quite common for a child to need a taxi to take them from their foster placement to school if they live in a rural area and the foster carer doesn’t have a car.

“Local authorities often have contracts with a taxi firm and there used to be someone that the social worker could put a request to for a taxi, but they are telling us that they are having to arrange it and chase it up themselves, which is ridiculous. It’s not a social work task.

“This makes the work that social workers do more superficial because they won’t have time to do the in-depth work that they need to do,” argues Mansuri.

“We are making services much more ineffective and I don’t see how that is cost-effective.

“We are storing up problems because in the medium- to long-term it will come back to bite us.”

Tackling admin overload

Employers in England are being encouraged by the Social Work Reform Board to carry out “health checks” on social workers’ working conditions.

Mansuri says this would be one way of measuring the true impact of cuts to admin support – even though they are not mandatory, practitioners could start using this as the first step towards building a case for more help.

“Social workers need to use a tool like this even if their employers don’t adopt one and do an impact assessment on their workloads and take it to supervision. At least that way you are taking some responsibility.”

Pile recommends that social workers keep a diary of the time they spend on different types of admin jobs. They should then ask their union or professional body to support them in writing to their directors and lead members to raise the profile of the issue and its implications.

The main implications are that being overworked can lead to more stress and burnout, resulting in increased sickness leave and more agency staff. “So the savings they thought they were making on paper won’t translate into reality,” says Pile.

* Names have been changed to protect identities

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