Half of social workers have seen colleague quit over caseloads

Social work caseloads are increasing in number and complexity and many practitioners are buckling under the strain, according to research carried out by Community Care to mark the launch of our free caseload benchmarking tool.

Half of all social workers have seen at least one colleague leave their team over the past year due to high caseloads, exclusive research by Community Care has revealed.

The shocking results from our latest caseload survey show more and more complex cases are being piled on social workers despite attempts at a national level to relieve some of the pressure on the profession.

Caseloads have increased for the majority (58%) of social workers over the past 12 months, while 22% said they have stayed the same and 12% said they have decreased.

Is your caseload higher than the UK average? Register or login to your Community Care account to use our free benchmarking tool

The average number of cases held across the UK is 25, ranging from an average of 11 for students to 25 for qualified social workers who do not have any management responsibilities and 30 for those who do. Newly qualified social workers hold 21 cases on average, 16% less than more experienced social workers.

However, there were wild variations in the number of cases held by individuals. One newly qualified children’s social worker who reported holding 41 cases because of sickness absence in the team said: “I worry that I will miss something or not record something important because there is never enough time.”

“These findings are cause for concern and show that demand for social work is increasing and the number of social workers is not keeping pace,” said Ruth Cartwright, England manager of the British Association of Social Workers. “Morale in the profession is generally at a low ebb and that can be seen in sickness absence rates.”

Many respondents to the survey pointed out that the number of cases was only one consideration; complexity and the social worker’s experience and personal capabilities were also important. Around a third of social workers (35%) told us their caseload had increased in complexity over the past year.

“Organisations now have a tendency to say, ‘Oh, the complex stuff can now be dealt with by social workers’, therefore we get more complex, statutory work,” said one respondent. “Yet, worryingly, social workers still get all the ends to sweep up from unqualified staff, such as finance, admin and home care.”

Cartwright pointed out that there have been numerous attempts to introduce caseload management systems, with weighting to reflect difficult cases. “However, caseload management systems and numbers can only ever be a guide and the best way of managing caseloads is for there to be a good working relationship between a team manager and staff, based on trust and honesty.”

This needs to be underpinned by adequate staffing and a culture of co-operative team work, she added. 

Typing pool

When asked for the reasons behind the increasing caseloads and complexity, many social workers reported shrinking teams, high sickness absence rates and rising referral rates. However, some also simply stated that they qualified last year and were now facing a heavier caseload as a result.

Others said paperwork and IT systems were still taking up too much time, despite Eileen Munro’s recommendations to urgently tackle bureaucracy in social work.

The average amount of time spent on non case-related work, such as keeping up with the organisation’s changing processes, attending team meetings and compulsory training, was higher for social workers with management responsibilities at 45% compared to 27% overall.

As one social worker put it: “In my team we call ourselves the ‘typing pool’ – 80% of our time is spent in front of the PC.”

Community Care carried out the online survey of 925 students and social workers in June 2012. The data has been used as the basis for our new benchmarking tool, which allows you to compare your own caseload to the UK average.

The majority of respondents (70%) said they usually defined a case as one individual, rather than grouping families or siblings together.

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