How UNISON has helped councils improve work conditions

The final report of the Social Work Taskforce, published in December 2009, included a recommendation that all local authorities carry out a "health check" of the working conditions and caseloads of their social workers. Gordon Carson monitors progress

Health check: how UNISON has worked with councils to improve social work

The final report of the Social Work Taskforce, published in December 2009, included a recommendation that all local authorities carry out a “health check” of the working conditions and caseloads of their social workers.

Although the implementation of this proposal has not been uniform across the country – half of social workers surveyed by recruitment agency Liquid Personnel said their employer had failed to complete a workload health check, according to a report published in June – some authorities have made huge progress, helped by UNISON. Here, we focus on two of them – Surrey and Sefton, which Helga Pile, UNISON national officer for social work and social care, describes as a “model of what the social work taskforce wanted”.


Serious problems in Surrey Council’s children’s services were exposed in a damning joint area review in 2008, and the authority was subsequently issued with a government improvement notice. Relations between management and staff were fraught, and allegations of bullying were widespread.

However, the health check has ushered in a new era of co-operation between the council and staff. UNISON branch secretary Paul Couchman led the process alongside a senior human resources officer, and it was based on UNISON’s guidance on the 39 steps of the health check.

Surrey’s health check comprised three main strands:

• data collection on topics such as caseloads and sickness absence, carried out centrally by HR

• a printed questionnaire

• 49 forums, facilitated jointly by HR officers and UNISON reps, open to all staff in children’s social work teams, and a separate one for senior managers. These took place from February to April 2011 and were attended by more than 300 staff, or around 30% of the workforce.

Couchman admits it was difficult to persuade some social workers of the benefits of the process, though UNISON’s involvement partially countered some concerns that there was a hidden agenda.

“Most people found it cathartic and supportive,” he adds.

The number one concern identified by the health check was around desk space, relocations and car parking, following a series of major office moves. Caseloads and workloads ranked third (the council had introduced new eligibility criteria that cut caseload numbers), with bureaucracy sixth and bullying 11th.

UNISON and Surrey Council are both clear that they have to act on feedback from staff for the health check to gain greater legitimacy, and last month they signed the ‘Runnymede Charter’, which sets out 10 key points for workforce development.

“The follow-up is more important then the process itself,” says Couchman.

“We need to respect the issues that were raised and put together action plans to deal with them,” adds Ian Vinall, area head of children’s services at the council.

“We can’t solve some of them immediately, but if staff can see there’s an impact and some outcomes they will be more engaged next time.”

Staff well-being will be one area for priority action, says Vinall.

To gauge progress, Surrey will carry out a small-scale “dip survey” next year, followed by a repeat of the health check in two years. UNISON also wants the council to consider introducing the process in adults’ services.


Sefton Council’s health check gave children’s social workers a platform to provide feedback on working conditions – but also highlighted where their gut feelings were wrong, says UNISON branch secretary Glen Williams.

The process was based around team sessions where staff used an anonymous, real-time voting technology, called TurningPoint, to answer a series of questions on issues including caseloads, working hours, supervision, workplace and stress.

But they reached incorrect conclusions in some cases, particularly on vacancies and the number of agency workers employed.

“That has helped to dispel some myths,” says Williams.

He praises the council for “wholeheartedly embracing” the health check, which was very much a “joint enterprise” with UNISON. Sefton’s assistant director for children’s social care, Margaret Loughlin, led the process alongside senior managers and Williams.

The council and UNISON sent a joint letter encouraging staff to take part in the process. In addition, the voting sessions were tagged on to existing team meetings so they didn’t take up another block of time.

About half of Sefton’s 100 or so children’s social workers participated in the voting sessions in early 2011. Notetakers were also present to record qualitative feedback from staff.

Although the process highlighted some misconceptions, it also prompted some immediate change where failings were identified, says Williams.

For example, extra mobile phones were provided after social workers highlighted a lack in some teams.

Loughlin says: “We had been working closely with staff on a major improvement plan so there were no real surprises from the feedback we received. However, it was very useful to be able to confirm what we already thought. In addition, there were a number of smaller local issues that we were able to address very quickly.

“The outcome of the health check is being used to inform future developments in the workforce. We have used the first health check as a benchmark and our intention is to run this on an annual basis with the ongoing support of UNISON and our staff.”


The final report of the Social Work Taskforce outlined an initial framework for employers and staff to assess the health of their organisation on a range of issues affecting workload. It said organisations should undertake a self-assessment, to identify current strengths and plan improvements.

There were 39 steps identified under five key headings, which were:

• effective workload management

• proactive workflow management

• having the right tools to do the job

• a healthy workplace

• effective service delivery

Find out more: The big issues facing the UNISON socical care workforce: information and advice to help you do your job on the UNISON Workplace Zone.

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