Social workers and overtime: what to do if you’re heading towards burnout

The average social worker puts in more than eight hours of overtime each week, according to a survey by Liquid Personnel. Managing director, Jonathan Coxon, gives his top tips on how to manage your working hours and what to do if you're starting to feel the strain.

Our 2012 Social Work Survey found overtime figures were highest among children’s social workers, who are working an average of nine and a half extra hours each week. More than 40% said they were working “much longer hours” than last year. The figures for adult services and mental health services were almost as high, showing that this working culture affects practitioners across the board.

It seems overtime has become endemic to social work, much as it has in many other professions across the UK. However, whereas some people put in overtime because their employers promise them the metaphorical “carrot” of bonuses and boosting their earnings, social workers are left with the “stick”; they stay late because otherwise the safety of service users might be at stake.

What are you entitled to?

So, what are your rights with regard to overtime? One key rule, as part of the EU Working Time Directive, is that no employee can be made to work more than 48 hours per week without prior written agreement. Several organisations, especially in the private sector, ask their staff to opt out of this directive, but if you have not given written confirmation that you are happy to do so, you are not obliged to work more than a 48-hour week.

Whatever your situation, you may be able to discuss with your employer the options for paid overtime, or time off in lieu (TOIL), although it is important to note that there is actually no legal right to be paid for extra hours worked. Organisations will have their own rules, which will either be set out in your contract of employment, in your employee handbook, or available from your HR department. Obtaining these guidelines will help you clarify your position and your rights.

If you do agree paid overtime or time off in lieu, it’s essential that you get confirmation of this offer in writing from your employer, and record your time properly.

What are the risks?

“Work is affecting my ability to sleep and impacting on my personal time”, said one social worker responding to our survey – and this is not uncommon. Excessive overtime can lead to a poor work-life balance, but it can also cause stress or burnout. This is especially true in a career such as social work, which can be emotionally draining at the best of times. 

Stress, if left unchecked, can escalate and pose a risk to your physical and mental health. This will affect your ability to practice effectively and the safety of children and vulnerable people may be placed at risk as a result.

What should you do if you’re heading towards burnout?

Many social workers are reluctant or scared to take action, because there can be a stigma attached to admitting your caseload is unmanageable, you’re suffering from stress and/or need to take some time off. One social worker told us: “The workload is horrendous and, when we struggle, we are put on special measures or capability proceedings by our manager.”

It’s important to understand that many managers are in an unenviable position, too; they are faced with tremendous pressure from above to achieve targets with decreasing resources at their disposal, with no option but to place more work on their staff. Yet they also have to keep those teams motivated and productive when faced with high workloads, stress and possibly the threat of redundancies.

You must take responsibility for your own wellbeing. You need to actively recognise if you are suffering from stress or burnout and do something to address the problem, such as discussing your feelings with your manager or seeking advice from your union representative. You could also ask your doctor or another health professional for advice, depending on the situation.

Taking action

Frontline social workers need to be protected from further cuts and given the extra resources necessary to do their job. The wellbeing of our social care workforce and the safety of service users are at stake. Join Liquid Personnel in writing to children’s minister Edward Timpson and care services minister Norman Lamb, to demand action.

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