Line manager turnover adds to social workers’ stress

High turnover of line managers is plaguing social work, leading to increased stress levels and problems with supervision, Community Care can reveal from our survey

High turnover of line managers is plaguing social work, leading to increased stress levels and problems with supervision, Community Care can reveal.

Our exclusive survey of frontline social workers found two-thirds have had two or more line managers since April 2010. The high turnover rate was more apparent in children’s services (69%) than in adults’ services (59%).

Around 16% of practitioners said they have had at least four managers in that time.

When asked why their manager or managers had left, two themes emerged. Many social workers said it was because their department had undergone a restructure, often due to recent budget cuts. Others said it was because their employer could not recruit permanent managers, so they relied instead on agency staff.

Asked what the impact had been on their practice, social workers reported problems with supervision, a lack of continuity making casework more difficult, and the pressure of varying expectations.

However, 62% of respondents said their relationship with their current manager was good or excellent.

Responding to the results, Maurice Bates, interim co-chair of the College of Social Work, said local authorities had a responsibility to create conditions in which highly competent social workers could flourish.

“This can only happen if they are well managed, something that will inevitably be compromised by a constant turnover of line managers,” he said.

The College is particularly concerned about the impact of high manager turnover on supervision, Bates said, adding: “The best line managers are knowledgeable, know their staff, are clear about what they want and offer helpful feedback.

“This is next to impossible if managers constantly change with the result that stress levels will rise, reflective practice will suffer and standards will fall.”

Blair McPherson, a management development expert and former senior manager at Lancashire Council, pointed out that many local authorities had axed management jobs in a bid to deal with front-loaded budget cuts.

“Now we’re seeing the consequences of those decisions,” he said.

McPherson also pointed out that many authorities were merging teams and putting added pressure on managers.

Ruth Cartwright, England manager of BASW – the College of Social Work agreed that cuts had exacerbated an existing problem, whereby line managers did not receive enough support and frequently moved between jobs.

“We need to ask why that line management role is unpopular,” said Cartwright.

“From my experience, as a line manager you get hassle from the top and, by nature of the job, staff come to you with any issues. It comes at you from both sides.”

This was echoed by Unison’s national officer for social work, Helga Pile, who said: “The perennial problem of recruiting and retaining staff won’t go away until we address the underlying issues that make the profession so unattractive.”

Unison has called for managers to have set limits for the number of social workers they have to supervise, as well as more investment in social work departments to tackle issues such as high caseloads.

McPherson added that employers should make better use of cost-effective training for line managers, such as peer support groups.

But John Nawrockyi, secretary of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services’ workforce network, argued that turnover of frontline managers could be a positive thing.

“People move on,” he said. “We shouldn’t be defensive about it; we should see it as an opportunity to bring someone else in.”

The Social Work Reform Board’s final report, Building a Safe, Confident Future, found “skilled and confident frontline managers are essential to good frontline social work”.

But the board noted concerns about the overall quality and consistency of frontline management. It devised a “health check” tool, which employers can use to monitor staff turnover, including that of line managers.

Of the 124 qualified social workers who took part in our online survey, the majority (87%) worked in a local authority setting.

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