Over a third of social workers feel their caseload has become unsafe, according to a Community Care online survey of 420 social workers.
The average caseload held is now 33.5, compared with an average of 25 reported to Community Care a year ago.
Most social workers (66%) said their caseload had gone up this year with 30% saying it had increased a lot, and 36% reporting a small increase. Just 15% of social workers reported a decrease in their caseload from last year, with the rest saying it had stayed the same.
A huge majority (80%) of those who reported an increase in their caseload said staff absences and vacancies were a factor.
In addition to rising numbers of cases, the cases themselves are growing in complexity. Following a trend that has been identified for a number of years, the majority of social workers (75%) said their caseload had become more complex since this time last year.
But 40% said employers did not take complexity of cases into account when allocating cases. Just under half said their employer did not take into account the number of cases they were already holding when allocating new cases.
Professional officer for the British Association of Social Workers Nushra Mansuri said the results of the survey were “truly shocking” particularly given the work of the Social Work Task Force and the Social Work Reform Board in the last six years.
Mechanisms to address the issue including Employer Standards, refreshed earlier this year, were put in place but Mansuri said the focus on keeping caseloads manageable has been “obliterated in some places as a result of austerity measures.”
“This is completely unacceptable to the children, adults and families that need support from social work services and makes the current difficulties of retaining and recruiting social workers an ongoing self-fulfilling prophecy.
“It is time for politicians to stop paying lip service in relation to the need for ‘effective services’ but commit to proper resourcing in order that they can be delivered,” she said.
While the vast majority of social workers (73%) said they would go to their manager if they had concerns about their caseload, most said raising concerns with their manager did not help.
One social worker said: “they listened but there’s nothing they can do.”
Others added that management have “their own difficulties,” that their “hands are tied,” and that “everyone’s caseload is high- there is nowhere else for cases to go.”
Several social workers commented that management, whilst sympathetic, would respond to concerns by telling them “we are all in the same boat”:
“I was asked, what can we do to help you? The following day I was allocated two complex cases due to colleague sickness,” said one social worker responding to the survey.
Those who said they would not raise concerns with their manager said this was because they felt nothing would be done about those concerns:
“All the members of the team feel the same- if one person says they are stressed, some of their cases get re-allocated amongst the other team members which just pushes the problem around,” one social worker said.
Another stated: “I don’t believe I will be listened to and, having asked in the past and been told ‘no’, I anticipate the same outcome.”
What to do?
When asked what single thing their employer could do to help them manage their caseload better, most social workers said they wanted their organisation to hire more staff. Other responses included having better supervision and a better system of allocating cases which takes into account the complexity.