Social workers are taking paperwork home, working late and forgoing a lunch break in order to fit in face-to-face time with service users, our survey of more than 1,000 professionals reveals.
Initial findings from our Social Work Watch survey with Unison, in which we asked social workers across the UK to tell us about their day on 29 April, highlight the lengths many professionals go to in order to ensure the most vulnerable people in our society are protected.
Many respondents spoke of the rewards of the job and the positive difference they felt they had made during the day, but this often came at a cost to their personal lives. “I had an anniversary meal out booked, which I missed due to having to work late and not getting home till 11pm,” said one respondent.
The findings come as the Local Government Association this week relaunched the standards for social work employers in England, which reiterate the need to provide social workers with a supportive working environment, including a full team.
Responding to the survey results, Andrew Webb, immediate past president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), said: “Social work decisions are at the heart of processes that support families, protect vulnerable people and enable choice (and account for over half the revenue spending of most local authorities).
“That is why it is vitally important that local authorities continue to invest in strengthening the social work profession, building on the progress already made by existing reform programmes.”
Paperwork and overtime
Our survey found the average full-time social work professional worked for nine hours on 29 April. The highest number of hours worked by an individual, excluding those on call throughout, was 16 hours.
When asked what they would have done differently if they could go back and start the day again, almost a quarter of social workers mentioned “time” or “hours”.
People wished there were more hours in the day, that they had worked fewer hours and that there was more time to see service users, prepare for important meetings, do admin and reflect on practice.
Many said they wanted a lunch break – or indeed any kind of break. Only 16% of respondents had a proper lunch break on 29 April; 54% had no break and 30% had a short break.
On a more positive note, a high number of social workers fitted in time with clients during the day. Half went out on home visits, nearly 40% visited service users in other settings and 14% were with people in formal proceedings – and many more were in contact with people by telephone, email and text.
But many social workers said they only managed this by taking paperwork home or working late to do it.
“The results of the survey certainly reflect what BASW members are telling us; that they are working over and above their core hours, working during the weekends and that the day job does have an impact on their personal lives,” said Maris Stratulis, England manager at the British Association of Social Workers (BASW).
“Time and time again we are hearing that paperwork, ICT systems and bureaucratic processes have still not been streamlined or minimised. This must be a priority focus for employers across the sector, in addition to the promotion and implementation of the employer standards and wellbeing of staff. “
At the end of the day
When asked to reflect on the day, nearly 80 respondents said there was absolutely nothing they would do differently.
But many more wished they could have handled situations differently; been firmer on the phone with time-consuming clients or other agencies, but also been kinder to or less stressed with service users, colleagues and partner agencies.
Almost half (42%) of respondents said they had serious concerns at the end of the day about cases they were working on. Of those, 70% said this was because they had been unable to complete the necessary paperwork.
Many people talked about the day-to-day challenges of the job, such as placements breaking down, time constraints, aggression and abuse from others, staff-related problems (including managing people who are buckling under the strain of work) and the difficulties that come with dealing with harrowing cases.
Just over three-quarters (77%) said their working day had had a direct impact on their personal lives, including their social lives, family relationships and health.
However, more than 800 social work professionals gave us examples of how their work had made a difference to service users.
Making a difference
Around 250 respondents mentioned making a difference to children, babies or young people on 29 April.
Many were proud to have achieved some kind of closure or stability in a child or young person’s life, by, for example, enabling them to stay with their family, putting them onto/taking them off child protection plans, implementing family support and finding placements.
“I have secured a warm, safe and loving environment for a baby to grow and develop,” said one social worker of her day.
Many referenced intervening in abuse (of children and/or adults), ranging from directly preventing further physical, sexual or financial abuse through to attending a training day on not blaming or shaming domestic abuse sufferers.
Others had successfully sorted out respite care for service users, giving their carers a much-needed break.
Annie Hudson, chief executive of The College of Social Work (TCSW), said: “This demonstrates not only the commitment but also the expertise that social workers across the country bring every day to their work with children, adults and families, demonstrating commitment and high calibre practice in what is self-evidently a very emotionally and intellectually demanding profession.”
Stratulis said: “It is a real credit to the dedication, hard work and professionalism of the respondents that so many felt they had made a positive difference to the lives of the children, families and adults that they work with. That is what good social work is all about.”
Webb added: “What the results of this survey show are that despite the pressures, social workers remain committed to making sure they are spending quality time visiting children, young people and their families.”
The full results
Unison will publish the full results from the Social Work Watch survey along with a series of recommendations for improving the day-to-day realities of social work ahead of its local government conference in Brighton on 15-16 June. This will include further findings on: caseloads and workload management systems, violence in the workplace and a detailed analysis of the challenges and rewards of the job.
Helga Pile, Unison’s national officer for social care, said: “We’re hugely grateful to everyone who took the time to complete the Social Work Watch survey. They did this at the end of a day which for so many was exhausting, challenging and stressful, and during which they shouldered huge responsibilities and touched the lives of so many different people.
“Analysing the results will give us a wealth of insights into the dilemmas, pressures and barriers faced by social work staff every day – and how they make a difference to so many despite all this. Too often this work is hidden from public view while social work staff grapple with problems that no-one else wants to know about.
“The full findings will be launched soon and working with Community Care we hope to bring them to a wide audience to increase understanding and support for social work.”
The Social Work Watch survey was filled out by 1,143 social work professionals on or shortly after 29 April. The respondents were evenly split between children’s and adult services, mostly based in local authorities.