Community Care’s biggest ever stress survey has prompted mixed responses from the sector, from social workers who agree with the 80% who feel stress is affecting their ability to do their job, to sector leaders claiming it doesn’t provide a national picture.
Whichever side you take, key themes that came up time and again in the survey responses bear some examination.
Above my pay grade
One common theme that emerged was a number of newly qualified or relatively inexperienced social workers saying they were being given responsibilities above their level of experience. This is a concern also borne out in research published last week by Glasgow Caledonian University, based on a sample of 36% of the total population of newly qualified social workers.
One respondent to Community Care’s survey said: “I am a newly qualified social worker enrolled on my local authority’s Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (ASYE) programme, but the programme is non-existent.
“I have 30-35 cases at any one time, including multiple child protection case and care proceedings. With less than one year’s experience, I am expected to manage complex child protection case and court work which I do not have adequate knowledge and skills to deal with.
“When I raise concerns with managers, they make comments like ‘you’re doing well’ or ‘you’re a very good social worker’, as if to reassure themselves that my practice is safe, without any real understanding of what is happening in the cases. Supervision is often cancelled or postponed.”
Another said: “I am the most experienced person on my team. I have been qualified for just over one year.”
One NQSW said caseload pressures across the team meant they were making decisions and undertaking assessments beyond their experience and training.
President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, Alan Wood has claimed this is not a fault with local authority’s and the allocation of work, but instead it is the education of social workers who are coming out of courses unprepared for the realities of social work.
“If social workers are not being prepared for what is likely to be in front of them, that raises quite an important question around what the quality and content of these courses is.
“We need to do more to get people coming into social work much better prepared and with a clearer understanding of what’s being expected of them.”
But British Association of Social Workers professional officer, Nushra Mansuri has countered this saying NQSWs are being put under “unbearable” pressure and are burning out at high rates.
Focus on staff care
“There’s a focus on saying, the stakes are getting higher so social work has got to be better, but it doesn’t seem like there’s a focus on staff care,” she said.
“Newly qualified people are particularly vulnerable because they don’t even know what the baseline should be.”
She added the new model unveiled by chief social worker for children, Isabelle Trowler, in her knowledge and skills statement put a further burden on social workers entering the profession.
“Why are we expecting so much so early in the profession?” she asked.
Chief executive of The College of Social Work, Annie Hudson conceded there is a mixed picture in terms of social work support, but said she thought the ASYE had made a real difference in terms of protecting NQSWs’ workloads.
ASYE making a difference
“There is a very steep rise in expectations and, particularly in places that have got a high reliance of temporary staff, the more recently qualified are getting disproportionate amounts of the more difficult work.
“But I don’t think that’s the pattern everywhere. Most employers are really heeding the ASYE because it’s not in their interests to have NQSWs getting very burned out,” she said.
“Increasingly employers are recognising that their biggest issue is retention, not recruitment.”
Professor Ray Jones, social work lecturer at Kingston University, agreed that most authorities were very committed to the ASYE programme.
What do you think? Are you being asked to do work above your capabilities? Or are you a newly qualified social worker who is being well-supported by your authority? Does being given a lot of responsibility push your stress levels into the danger zone, or do you think it’s just part of the job?
Let us know in the comments, or email firstname.lastname@example.org