How ‘health checks’ for council social workers are progressing

Checks on social worker stress and caseloads are only being carried out by some councils, reports Mark Hunter, but those who have taken part are positive about the benefits

Checks on social worker stress and caseloads are only being carried out by some councils, reports Mark Hunter, but those who have taken part are positive about the benefits

Designed to pave the way for a national standard for employers on how much support they should provide to social workers, the health check first appeared in the Social Work Task Force’s (SWTF) final report in late 2009.

In 39 steps, the check provided a framework for social work employers to assess how well their organisations were set up to manage workloads. It was endorsed by employers’ organisations and the unions.However, the SWTF set no timeframe for completing the health check process and, crucially, it was not mandatory.

Early indications suggest this might be a problem. Last November a snapshot survey of 30 councils by BASW-The College of Social Work – found that 60% had not completed the check. Feedback from local Unison branches suggests the checks are still being carried out sporadically at best.

“There’s no quantitative data, but on an anecdotal level it appears that some authorities have taken the health check seriously and are consulting our members as well as collecting data on things like sickness levels and caseloads,” says Unison’s national officer for social care, Helga Pile.

“Other employers are dragging their feet or simply collecting the data but not talking to social workers. And then there are some employers where the response has been a flat, ‘No. We don’t have to do it, so we won’t.'”


According to Camden Council chief executive Moira Gibb, who chaired the SWTF and now heads the Social Work Reform Board, between two-thirds and three-quarters of employers have now carried out workload assessments using the health check “or a similar tool”.

“A lot of people feel it’s a problem that we can’t mandate the use of the check, but that’s just the reality of the situation,” she says. “Obviously I’d have preferred it if everybody had done it, but I would have preferred if they had done it of their own accord.”

Nevertheless, Gibb is adamant that those employers who have taken the health check on board have benefitted from the process.

“The feedback we’ve had is that most employers who’ve carried out the check have found it helpful,” she says. “It has prompted many employers to sit down with social workers for the first time in a long while. This is important because we were getting a strong sense that social workers felt they weren’t being listened to. I also think that social work has been poor in the past in gathering statistics to demonstrate the kind of pressure that people are under.”

Gibb believes that those employers who have completed the health check will be best placed to meet the proposed employers’ standard. However, she acknowledges that employers’ ability to act on the findings has been limited by budget cuts.

Workload questions

“They are finding it challenging, particularly on the workload questions,” she says. “But my view is that it is important just to have the conversation. We had been seeing employers burying their heads in the sand and passing on the workload to frontline practitioners. Acknowledging that there is a problem opens the way to try to relieve the problem.”

Lambeth Council carried out a health check on its adult social care and mental health services in September last year. Director of adults’ and community services Jo Cleary describes the process as very useful and well received by the staff.

“In fact, we probably hadn’t anticipated how enthusiastic they would be and how much they wanted to play their part in learning the lessons and making changes,” she says.

The council designed its own questionnaire based on the SWTF’s 39 steps and held a series of focus groups with social workers. The health check identified several areas where the authority was performing well: flexible working opportunities, support from line managers on workload, access to training, managing risks, regular supervision and review, and information sharing and recording systems.

The check found room for improvement in workload management, time with clients and support to newly qualified social workers. It also identified a need for supervision to become less task-driven.

Cleary says that work is already underway to address these issues and a health check reference group, which will include social workers and managers, is being set up.

In the North East an innovative approach to the health check took place when 12 authorities pooled their results so that they could be compared across the region. North East Social Work Consortium manager Geoff Owens says the collaboration has yielded some important results.

“It’s been a stimulating and challenging process but each of the authorities would say that it has been worthwhile. There were two clear messages: on supervision the frequency was good throughout the 12 authorities, but the quality of supervision was not always good enough.

“The second message was that workloads were too high – no surprises there – but there were huge variations, not just between authorities but also between different teams within the same authorities.”

It is notable that none of the findings from Lambeth, the consortium or Camden is particularly surprising. Nevertheless, each employer points out that it is important to have a benchmark on which to judge progress.

“A health check gives you a snapshot of a static point in time, but you need to keep doing it to see whether you are progressing or going backwards,” says Owens.


The Social Work Task Force highlighted five key areas on which health checks should focus:

● Workload management: vacancy rates; caseloads; supervision.

● Case allocation: unallocated cases; peaks and troughs in workflow; delays in transfers of cases.

● Having the right tools: IT equipment; information resources; appropriate office space.

● A healthy workplace: monitoring of stress and sickness levels; frequency of team meetings; risk assessments.

● Effective service delivery: staff survey results; findings from compliments, comments and complaints; feedback from service users.


Camden’s check was carried out last year across children’s, adult and mental health services. Four focus groups were organised and a confidential online survey was distributed to 450 social workers. The response rate was over 69%.

“We had a prize draw to encourage people to participate,” says councillor Pat Callaghan, lead on adult social care. “But I think there was a genuine feeling among staff that it was their duty to do as much as they could to ensure that standards are high.”

Key strengths identified included:

● Good IT support

● Good support by line managers

● Quality of supervision in high-risk cases

● Quality of training

Areas that needed development included:

● Too much administration

● A need for more time with clients

● Better overall supervision

“The findings mirrored the national picture as shown by the Task Force and by the Munro report,” says Callaghan.

An action plan has now been put in place covering five areas for development – time management, reducing stress levels, improving supervision, reducing admin, and training.

“It’s important that even those areas where the health check showed we are doing well are included in the action plan,” says Callaghan. “We don’t want to rest on our laurels and there is always room for improvement.”

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