Unmanageable caseloads make you feel like you’re failing everybody

A social worker explains how it feels to have unmanageable caseloads, and writes about the factors local authorities don't consider when allocating cases, and explains that one size does not fit all

Photo: Zerophoto/Fotolia

by Sophie Ayers

You may be a child protection social worker who feels valued, supported and safe within your local authority.

Or, you may be a social worker who feels like you’re trapped on a ‘hamster wheel’; furiously running, trying to reach your destination, but never quite managing. What you find is your personal working capacity does not equal the ever increasing demands upon your time and energy.

The role has evolved so much. Technological advances (which can actually increase work); expectations for prompt intervention; significant changes in case law/legislation and reduced timescales within court.

There has been a notable increase in referrals to social care and cases progressing to court. Yet, some employers continue to retain the same expectations regarding a social worker’s capacity to manage.

I believe that being prescriptive about the number of cases a social worker should carry is a ‘red herring’ that enables organisations to be complacent regarding work provided: One size, really does not fit all.

There are times when one family can be all consuming and take up much of your time due to individual events, complexity and immediacy of risk. When this occurs, supervisors must take supportive action to assist with the management of your other cases. A blanket expectation to cope with your caseload under any circumstances will ultimately lead to risky practice.

I have previously had a caseload of 29 children, with five families involved in care proceedings but told that I had capacity to take on one more case as it would only be a quick piece of work.

When I tried to explain that I did not have capacity by writing a ‘to do list’ to demonstrate my impending tasks I was met with blank eyes and rapid blinking. A dilemma enfolds: do you refuse but know that your less assertive colleague will be over-burdened, or roll over and squeeze the assessment visit into your over-spilling diary?

So many factors affect the work required for each child:

How long does it take to travel to see this child?

Children can be placed anywhere within the country. If a social worker has to travel hundreds of miles to complete a statutory visit, this visit will clearly take more time than a child who lives two miles from your office.

How frequently does the child need to be visited?

Some children can be seen every six weeks due to the level of risk, whereas other children may require a visit every day.

How many professionals/family members are involved in the care of this child?

For every child, a dedicated group of professionals and family members follow. I have previously worked with a child who had sixteen professionals and family members involved in their care.

When the group of professionals and family members is sizeable and events evolve on a daily basis, it can be an extraordinarily demanding to ensure that everyone is aware of the most recent events.

What assessments need to be completed to ensure that this child is safe?

Assessments required for each child can vary widely, some children may require a generic social care assessment. However, others will require endless pieces of work that can become a full-time caseload for any one worker.

It is easy to see how social workers can feel overwhelmed and over-burdened.

Is there a clear understanding regarding the amount of time required for each composite element in child protection? Sadly, I believe that the understanding of an individual’s capacity has become lost in the discourse relating to practice standards.

‘The Standards for employers of social workers in England’ published by the Local Government Association sets out ‘safe workloads and allocation’. It highlights a number of sensible recommendations in terms of caseloads including “ensure that a social worker’s professional judgement about workload capacity issues is respected in line with the requirements of their professional registration”.

The document in it’s entirety provides many well thought out recommendations. If universally applied, I believe modern social work could be transformed.

However, this document is not mandatory, nor legally enforceable. The reality is that high vacancy rates and increasing referrals would make it very difficult to be achievable in the current climate that we practice in.

Supervision should explore the impact of your caseload but this is not always effective. Phrases from management such as, “can we look at how to manage your diary” or, “I think you should attend a time management course” blames the individual and exonerates the wider structural failings of the current child protection system.

Business consultants

I am afraid of trusts taking over child protection social work as a whole. However, I have less trepidation about the prospect of business analysts assisting local authorities in rethinking the role of social workers.

Could business consultants help us to understand what workers are realistically able to complete within ethical working hours?

The government’s route is to believe that authorities with ‘good’ Ofsted ratings should be the oracle in modern social work practice. However, I am concerned that ‘top down’ reporting prevents a true understanding of the working practice in local authorities (even with a ‘good’ Ofsted rating).

Independent and confidential analysis is required to understand the modern world of child protection social work.

I have yet to see a realistic document that provides even a rough ‘guestimation’ of time required for each piece of work completed by social workers. How can we dictate what a safe caseload looks like, without fundamentally understanding the hours involved to complete each individual piece of work?

Working with an unmanageable caseload feels like you are are failing everybody. You want to record an answerphone message simply saying “I am sorry”. When work is tough, I am free falling from the edge of a cliff with no trampoline to cushion my fall. You can find yourself in a spiral of self-loathing and despair because you cannot work to your own practice expectations.

There is a ‘cause and effect’ cycle which appears to be almost insurmountable. Many local authorities are not able to provide manageable caseloads and so workers leave: sometimes for a new post but sometimes from the profession altogether. This creates a cyclical problem whereby there is not enough staff and social workers become over-burdened and leave and so it continues.

There are not enough social workers willing to work in child protection at present to reduce caseloads adequately. However, it should not be for the individual workers to suffer the consequences and receive admonishment for doing the best that they possibly can.

Let us find creative solutions to reduce individual blame such as recruiting workers who do not have a social work qualification to assist. Cyclical I know, as ‘social work assistants’ were commonplace ten years ago.

Sophie Ayers is a child protection social worker

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21 Responses to Unmanageable caseloads make you feel like you’re failing everybody

  1. Carolyn Cousins September 21, 2016 at 1:01 pm #

    Totally agree with so much of this. A colleague and I devised a simple caseload tool that I use to this day (Option 2) that is the best way to manage a caseload that is ‘unmanageable’, as it builds up from the base of actual work. It was published in Community Care in 2010.


    We have a template – just cant work out how to upload it! But happy to email….

    • Shawn September 22, 2016 at 7:11 am #

      Tried to send an email to the one linked in the article about your case management tool but it bounced back.

  2. Josey September 21, 2016 at 1:20 pm #

    I fully agree with how you have described the difficulties that a Childten Social Worker experiences when they are faced with unmanagible caseloads and lack of support from management. The idea of employing more social work assistants is good.

    In my opinion another way to improve Local Authority practice of unmanagible caseload is to examine how teams are lead. Maybe line managers and team managers need to be held accountable for their actions towards Social Workers and contribute to the high turnover of Social Workers leaving the profession.

  3. Carol September 21, 2016 at 4:50 pm #

    Sophie has written an excellent description of the huge difficulties of being a child protection social worker. I am now an independent SW but overy my thirty year career I experienced three cycles of the similar circumstances of extremely high caseloads and unrealistic expectations by senior managenment. It seemed that there was a culture of “change for the sake of change”, in order to justify managers jobs and to try to make the same resources stretch more ways, which of course they did not. They did not let changes bed in before making more changes, all the while expecting workers to take on more cases and vastly increased amounts of written work. Social workers were bullied into believing that they were at fault, not that the workloads were unmanageable.

    The Government has drastically reduced the budgets for Local Authorities and at present the focus for spending seems to be on elderly care, particularly in assisting the NHS by alleviating bed-blocking by frail and disabled people. This leaves child protection the current loser, with family support and preventative work absolutely nowhere.

    It is a tragedy for children, for families and for social workers. I loved my job and would gladly return to a child protection team but I cannot return to the office politics, the bullying and the knowledge that even working seven days a week, twelve hours a day would not enable me to keep up with the amount of work imposed upon me. Believe me, I did those hours for a long time and I am very experienced and competent in the work but they defeated me in the end. The Minister responsible should spend time with Child Protection social workers in various locations and observe the reality of the job. Perhaps Sophie would like to be the host for a few weeks!

  4. Andrew Foster September 21, 2016 at 6:37 pm #

    I really object to the headline of this piece…’unmanageable’ is used rhetorically, ‘Make you feel’ is an absolute misnomer as nobody and certainly no thing has the capacity to ‘make you feel’ anything. Indeed, I think this was one of the issues that tutors banged on about when I trained 30 years ago. Similarly, the notion that anyone ‘can fail everybody’ is a hackneyed and nonsense claim because that too is rhetoric. At best, this is lazy language although, although I suspect that it more resembles lazy journalism which in turn simply feeds the beast. Shame really, as CC really could be our voice.

    • sophiea September 22, 2016 at 11:49 am #

      Hi Andrew, I am sorry that you feel that it is lazy journalism. I am not a journalist and only write from my perspective and do not claim to be the voice of all social workers.

      With regards to ‘feeding the beast’ I am unclear about which beast you are referring to. I suspect you mean social workers expressing concern about the current system.

      My only suggestion would be that it you are concerned about lazy journalism and language, perhaps you could write your own article to positively model how an article should be written with robust journalism.

      I would be interested to view your own personal account and see how you could represent the voice of social workers within an article.

      Perhaps you could address your concerns about some of the articles in community care by providing your own work.

      • Ellie September 22, 2016 at 3:31 pm #

        Confused as to your criticism! How is this lazy language, or lazy journalism? Please explain.

        “Unmanageable” is not used rhetorically; nor is “can fail everybody”. RHETORICAL, according to the dictionary definition (OED) means “concerned with effect or style rather than meaning; bombastic”, and “language designed to persuade or impress (often with implication of insincerity, exaggeration, etc.)”. The way these terms are used in the article in an expression of personal feeling, I would think – as is the response that you make, Andrew. We can all interpret things in different ways, dependent upon our own perspective and experience. It may be that Sophie’s experience was genuinely one of caseloads that became unmanageable. The fact is that in some Local Authorities – ones which may be short-staffed and under-funded – this is an unfortunate occurrence. A person writing that they “feel as though they are failing everybody” can again be the actual case. Our feelings are deeply personal, and subjective. People who are put under intense pressure can feel at risk of failure, and of failing everyone. This is perhaps more a reflection of the author’s desire to please people – employers, service-users – and to do right by them, than it is a bombastic, empty claim. When people are feeling extremely pressurized, there can be a risk that they also catastrophize, seeing the very worst case scenario – hence a belief that they may “fail everybody”. This isn’t necessarily rhetoric; rather it could be an expression of frustration, and heartfelt feeling.

        As to others and whether they can “make you feel” – this is a complex issue. Whilst our feelings may be our own, it is true to say that other people and their actions, or inactions, can induce feelings within us. For example, if somebody steals off you, you may feel angry. Might it be argued that the person’s act of stealing off you MADE YOU FEEL ANGER? Why not? After all, you would NOT have felt anger had the person not stolen off you. Ditto if a person slaps you and you then feel hurt. You would NOY have felt hurt had somebody else not sapped you. So, yes, in some way other people CAN “make you feel”. Therapists and Counsellors sometimes tell people who have been hurt, abused and damaged to try to associate more with people who are not negative or harmful – the argument is that being around more positive people can influence a person who is undergoing therapy to feel more positive, too. Does this not imply that other people CAN “make you feel” things? Clearly, there is a belief that being around happy, positive people makes us feel happier and more positive!

        Criticism ought only to be made once the critic has thought a situation through!

        • Andrew Foster September 22, 2016 at 8:06 pm #

          Ellie, you appear to have missed my point….perhaps some ‘lazy reading’? If you go back to my post, you will surely concur that I restricted my comments to ‘the headline’. You appear to have made some assumptions about the nature of my ‘headline’ critique, as if to imply that I hold certain other opinions. The forensic study of language is key, as it is precisely that in which we trade. I am very proud of my English ‘O’ Level, grade 6, attained in 1972. I simply believe that nothing and nobody is so powerful that it can ‘make me feel’ any emotion whatsoever. This notion is concerned with taking responsibility for ones own actions, something that is aligned to ’emotional intelligence’ and self-management. Do let me know what the OED says about that one.



    • Fi September 22, 2016 at 10:44 pm #

      Sophie’s article is plane speaking and to the point. Easy to understand and I suspect just how she works with families.
      This response is full of jargon and sentences that make no real sense. I hope this language is reserved for outside of work.
      Social workers should be offering each other ideas and ways forward not criticism for the sake of it.

    • Helen September 22, 2016 at 10:50 pm #

      Andrew, why does something being rhetorical make it nonsense? I do not see the logic. Rhetorical techniques are essentially persuasive use of language. It would be very unusual to write an article which made no use of rhetoric. If it did, would it be a better article, from a journalistic point of view? I doubt it. Does rhetoric constitute “lazy journalism”? Of course it doesn’t. What an unhelpful and nonsensical comment.

  5. Yvonne Bonifas September 21, 2016 at 6:37 pm #

    I wouldn’t be too keen on management consultant types if I were you. They are rarely objective but hired on the basis of having promised they can get more for less.

  6. Sharon Sidders September 21, 2016 at 7:08 pm #

    Josey, I think the responsibility needs to go much higher. The TM’s are in the same type of predicament with having to enforce senior managements rigid expectations without any leeway.
    Sophie, love the phrase ‘ethical working hours’. You spare no bones. Absolutely love your articles! Keep up the great writing. Thank you!

  7. Sam September 21, 2016 at 10:42 pm #

    You talk about the increases in stresses and workloads such as technological advances. I assume you mean smart phones, home working and computerised recording. But you fail to acknowledge their importance in evidence gathering and information sharing. You also neglect to look at the increased roles early help and safeguarding in schools have in supporting what was historically a social workers job.
    To say interagency working is contributing to this is unfair. Midwives, teachers and youth offending often lessen my workload rather than increase it.
    If you need to visit a child daily to safeguard, then you should be seeking alternatives through the legal system.
    No one is going to dramatically reduce our workload. I am proud to be a professional in such an important role and in a country steps ahead of others in child protection.
    It’s not perfect and we should individually and collectively challenge for better results for all the children we work for. But wallowing in such a mire of discontent serves neither social workers or the families we choose to help.

  8. Ellie September 22, 2016 at 3:04 pm #

    Insightful article – and we should remember that it’s not just Children & Families Social Workers who experience this. The issue is across the board.

    Sophie correctly identifies factors that can affect the number of cases a Social Worker is able to manage, and rightly points out that they are seldom taken into consideration. Both complexity of cases, and travelling time, are hugely significant issues that ought not to be overlooked. It is true that some cases do require much more intervention and work, and thus demand more time than others. This is just as much the case in Hospital teams, Mental Health Services, Adult Services or earning Disability, as it is in a Children’s team. The fact is that some cases can prove to be incredibly complex, and take time to unravel. They may involve factors ranging from mental illness, substance misuse, offending, abuse, risk of homelessness, hoarding… I have personally worked on cases that involved clusters of seriously problematic factors. I remember one where I worked with a gentleman who was facing eviction. He was a hoarder, had mental health issues, refused medical treatment, was not even registered with a GP, could barely manage his finances, was housebound, and had no understanding of how to use the central heating or refrigerator in his home! The case was brought to my attention by the Housing Association that owned his flat, because they had served him an eviction notice! When I first visited him, I could NOT believe that the Housing Association had known about his living circumstances for such a long time, and had permitted them to deteriorate to the point where he faced eviction BEFORE referring him to Social Care. The poor man was emaciated, barely moved from the sofa, and had a hacking cough. I had to get an emergency visit from a GP (after spending ages trying to get a GP surgery to take him as a patient). The hoarding needed attention. The man required full assistance with care, and instant help making meals because he barely ate. I also had to work on stopping the eviction! Does ANYONE think that cases such as this can be solved quickly? Or that they can be solved in only a small number of visits? No! Cases like this are demanding of time and energy, and NO worker should be made to hold several of them on a caseload.

    Some cases involve considerable travel, and again, these are not ones that can be given in multiples to individual staff. The further a worker must travel in order to undertake home visits to a service-user or their family, then it is obvious the longer this will take to complete. Travelling time eats into time that can be used to undertake other important activities, such as making case notes, completing referrals, paperwork, and so forth.

    I do note Sam’s response (above) that says such things as technological advances are important in evidence gathering and information sharing. I agree with this – we should be permitted to embrace advances that may make a job easier or quicker to do. We should also embrace advances that permit greater flexibility in working – such as working from home. However, what Sam fails to note is that some employers are better at making use and gaining the advantage of such technologies, compared to others. Some employers are happy to embrace home working, smart phones, and to provide staff with laptops and other devices that mean they do not always have to work directly from the office. Sadly, other employers are pretty “backwards” and do not keep up with technology – they may have outdated computer systems, fail to invest in technology that improves working conditions, or they may be suspicious about staff requests to work from home (viewing such requests as an excuse for “laziness”. People who work for the latter, “backwards”, type of employer are more likely to be discontented, and are probably also more likely to suffer with problems in respect of workload. Why? Because employer attitude is preventing use and adoption of any strategies, or technology, that would make working life easier, and workload easier to manage.

    I do also agree with Sam’s belief that multi-agency working can help lessen a workload. Still, Sophie’s initial comment that the number of people involved in a case can increase workload is equally valid. Where cases involve numerous individuals and outside organizations, meeting with them all and keeping them in the loop CAN be time-consuming.

    I feel that Sophie is correct to suggest that caseload management needs to involve consideration of a multitude of factors. It should include assessment of just how much work an individual case is likely to involve. It is perhaps a good idea to ask that somebody – an outside agency – evaluate the length of time it takes for Social Workers to complete different tasks. We DO need to understand the time involved in completing individual pieces of work. How long does it take to make a referral? To draft a care plan? To draw up a risk assessment? To write a Mental Health Review Tribunal Report? To arrange a CPA Meeting? And so on… Still, even this does NOT give us a FULL indication of what is going on, because different workers work at different speeds. One member of staff could work twice as quickly as another.

    I always remember a day at work when a colleague and I did a joint assessment. We then returned to the office with a list of tasks that we needed to complete following the assessment. These involved contacting certain organizations, and documenting the assessment. My colleague, on returning to the office, instantly disappeared off without telling me. She returned half an hour later with a sandwich, and chocolates that she then proceeded to eat at her desk. Meanwhile, I asked if we could get on with the task list we had drawn up. She kept delaying, and showed more interest in her meal (which was disgraceful, as it was NOT break time) than in getting on with any work. Finally, I agreed to telephone the contacts required, and to write up the notes. I had completed this in the time it took her to eat her sandwich and chocolates, and gossip with some colleagues. She did not once attempt to apply herself to the task in hand! Afterwards, her one comment was “goodness, don’t you manage to work quickly!”. I could have replied “I do, because I am not lazy, and stuffing my mouth with food as opposed to working”, but I did not. I just got on with my job.

    Alas, we DO have to accept that in the case of some staff (though not all) the blame IS with them, because they mess about at work rather than applying themselves. Staff who spend time at work gossiping and chatting to colleagues; who eat at their desks, or endlessly spend time at the water cooler or making drinks; staff who take innumerable smoking breaks; staff who sneakily extend their lunch-break to do a bit of shopping; staff who browse the Internet for holidays… people like these are wasting time at work, and will NEVER be as productive as individuals who consistently apply themselves to actually doing their job. There ought to be mechanisms in place at work to prevent staff from taking liberties in this fashion.

    However, for those who are not taking liberties, we do also require mechanisms that ensure acceptable workloads. It is necessary to look at staffing levels, at levels of experience and expertise, at how long it takes to complete tasks, at complexity of cases. Social Workers of all disciplines have every right, and are correct, to express concerns about the current system. If it leads to better and more effective ways of working, plus a more contented workforce, then all the better.

  9. Me September 22, 2016 at 7:50 pm #

    Shame this article does not expand to Adult Care that has in recent years developed into constant complex cases.

  10. Alison September 23, 2016 at 9:07 pm #

    I used to work part time but always had an almost full time caseload. I never will forget being told to block out a day to write up assessments. When I presented my diary I was told – oh look, Thursday is the only day you have free, yes, that was one of the days I didn’t work. I was then sent on a time management course. And of course there is the classic – we’re just allocating you a new family as you have some to close soon.

  11. Dave September 24, 2016 at 2:14 am #

    I recall being asked to work for a rated Good authority in the assessmebt team. They were still doing 10 day assessments. My case holding got upto 38 cases and the managers just laughed and said I better just crack on avd move things through. There was a culture of it’s your issue and as an agency social worker you swam it sank but they Wernt bothered.

    Despite Loads if people leaving, agency and perm managers still glades over their good ofstead while placing the very services who had maintained this good at risk of redundancy. They’d clearly done there job if convincing ofsted what was needed, got the badge of honour and now began to squeeze the life out if already stretched teams

    I hear people say social work us a calling but have to ask, 3 years at university, having drilled into students, values and ethics, anti oppressive practice but yet so many social workers are bullied and treat like second class citizens WHY???

  12. Maria September 24, 2016 at 8:29 pm #

    Interesting arguments. I think alot of the reason s/w’s are treated so badly is because it is a mainly female workforce. Historicly this has had an impact and affects attitudes today not only from the public but from ‘management’ and gov.also. It is a complex issue which should be seriously approached.

  13. Helen September 27, 2016 at 8:21 am #

    I agree with the points in this article, which are well made. Having joined the profession later in my working life, I am horrified at the way workforces are run and the way they are often put under ridiculous pressure. This is dangerous for children and families and for the workers. I have also often been in fear that my professional status is at risk when it is completely impossible to achieve all that is being requested.

    I have, in the past, asked my managers to give me an estimate of the number of hours they believe I need to work in order to achieve what they are asking (eg timescales for completing paperwork). No one has even attempted to answer this question. If more thought was given to what the job actually entails, the decision makers would surely see that they are often demanding the impossible.

    This debate has been revisited many times and I find it hard to accept that there is so little attempt to address the problem. I feel it is essential that Community Care and all organisations who have influence demand that organisations answer and address this situation.

  14. Sally Attwood October 10, 2016 at 5:55 pm #

    Not surprised by the volume of response to Sophie’s excellent article on 21st Sept on the question of how can the volume of work in a ‘caseload’ be evaluated. Thank you Sophie. They are key questions.