By Matt Bee
Well this is embarrassing…It turns out the feature I was about to write, examining the deluge of social workers fleeing local authorities for the welcoming arms of recruitment agencies, has already been written. Social Work Outlaw beat me to it last June, right here in Community Care. It’s the writing equivalent of turning up to a cocktail party to find someone else wearing the same dress.
It’s a good feature by Social Work Outlaw as well. Heartfelt, frank, sincere. He or she asks why so many long-serving practitioners are deserting their employers, putting this down, at least in part, to the ‘shabby and abhorrent’ way employers treat them. I couldn’t agree more.
But I want to write this piece anyway because, you see, I am one of those practitioners. I’ve just left a local authority and hope to work for an agency. I concur completely with what Social Work Outlaw writes.
What’s surprising is that local authorities themselves haven’t cottoned onto this yet. As they watch the workforce diminish, they’re scrabbling around for ever more desperate measures to win them back. The London Borough of Barking and Dagenham will offer you housing. Somerset will do the same. The Thurrock Gazette reported recently that its local children’s department is giving would-be social workers an open top bus tour in the hope it might convince them to sign on the dotted line.
That’s all very good and well but I don’t suppose many practitioners are throwing in the towel and causing these recruitment headaches in the first place because they haven’t been given a tour of the city recently.
Bullying, aggressive, neglectful
The reality is much simpler than that and, at the same time, much harder for local authorities to stomach. The fact is – and brace yourselves if you work in HR at one of these venerable institutions – we don’t like working for you. Not even a little bit. You’ve become bullying, aggressive, neglectful, overbearing, pernickety, insensitive and overly sensitive as employers and, if we’re honest, we’d much rather leave you behind in our wake.
I realise at this point I can’t speak for all social workers. I can point you to a survey published last October which found that 6 in 10 social workers wouldn’t recommend their employer to a fellow practitioner. I can cite another survey, this time from 2009 and published in the Guardian, which found that although the vast majority of social workers were happy in their profession, over a third still planned to leave their employer within the forthcoming year.
That only demonstrates a general dissatisfaction with our workplaces, though, it doesn’t say what that dissatisfaction is about.
On the other hand, I have just spent five years working for a local authority, and worked for three others before that as well as for several agencies in between. So I can speak for myself here and maybe this will chime with your own experience, maybe not. In any event, I’ve no desire to work for a local authority again.
‘I didn’t feel valued’
And the reason is very simple. I didn’t feel valued.
At this point people usually start bringing money into it, but I was happy with my wage. No problems there. And even though there’s a big financial incentive to join an agency, this isn’t what pulled me across. The fact is I wasn’t pulled across at all. I was pushed.
My last employer and I had a very imbalanced working relationship. When it came to wielding control they held all the cards and behaved exactly like they knew it, drenching my workplace in rules, regulations, policies and procedures, and sharply questioning anyone who strayed from or dared query them. A practitioner’s own professional judgement was out; managerial directives in.
I know this is a trend seen throughout the profession – just read Social Work Outlaw’s account to see what I mean. But it felt like my employment contract was nothing more than a big stick with which to spur me on – my salary, holiday leave, sick pay, and pension were all in their hands. All I had was my notice, and they soon got that as well when their high-handed ways became too much to bear.
Escaping compliance and control
It bought me my freedom, a chance to escape that world of compliance and control. Signing with an agency will plunge me right back into it again, of course. But it’s different when you aren’t on the council’s own books. You feel more like an outsider, a spectator. When other team members wonder aloud why they work there and say they feel trapped, the truth is you don’t. You can always go elsewhere – thanks to the agency.
The mistake councils make is to think this is all about money. It’s not. It’s actually about control, and taking some of it back.
Matt Bee is a social worker based in the North East of England