HCPC fitness to practise investigations place social workers under “considerable” stress, with some having considered taking their own lives during the process, research has found.
Five of eight social workers interviewed for the study, which is published in the British Journal of Social Work, disclosed they had either attempted suicide or considered it while under investigation by the regulator.
The paper found the “emotional toll” of the fitness to practise process was one of three key themes of concern. The length of proceedings “exacerbated” the impact on social workers’ health, with some interviewees waiting two years for cases to conclude.
The other themes identified by researchers concerned the impact of organisational issues – including high caseloads and problems with managers – on practice errors that had led to HCPC referrals, and the cost to social workers’ of contesting allegations.
The research gives an insight into the experience of a small proportion of social workers who have faced fitness to practise allegations. Last year, 1,174 social workers were referred to the HCPC – around 1.2% of the workforce.
The HCPC said the study’s “very small sample” made it hard to draw conclusions from. However, the regulator acknowledged the fitness to practise process could be stressful for registrants and said it had “support mechanisms” in place.
What social workers told researchers
“I knew it would be a public hearing and I had got into my head that all of my colleagues would be there and I didn’t want, I got frightened, don’t know why, that as paranoia because all that time I was so stressed. This is the bit that gets hard. I was suicidal. I was suicidal.” (Florence)
“I became depressed very, very quickly and…I just didn’t what to do. I was, I was just bereft really…This is my, this is my professional livelihood, it’s my life and at that point I was, I mean I’d, I’d actually attempted suicide.” (Megan).
“It’s had an impact, especially with my lupus it’s, because stress triggers and yeah, quite ill, quite, it’s had a really big impact emotionally, mentally, health wise and obviously financially as well.” (Amal)
*The study used pseudonyms for the social workers to protect their confidentiality
About the research
Academics at the University of Central Lancashire, Manchester Metropolitan University and Sheffield University carried out the study after finding prior research on fitness to practise gave “little consideration” to social workers’ experiences.
The paper is part of a wider project on social work regulation, with the full findings to be released at an event next week.
Of the eight social workers interviewed, three were found to have no case to answer, three received a caution or conditions of practice order and two were struck off. Although some returned to work, the “fear of making another ‘mistake’” was a common theme and led to them practising defensively or changing role completely.
On the issue of organisational factors, some of the social workers felt they would be accused of being “in denial” if they raised organisational issues in their defence. However, two said they’d used the HCPC process to positively help tackle issues with their organisation.
On the issue of costs, the high legal fees social workers’ faced to secure representation, and the HCPC’s policy of only covering expenses of its own witnesses but not those called by registrants, were felt to mitigate against a “fair” hearing. Some interviewees said they had stopped engaging with the HCPC process “simply because they could not afford to”.
‘Shame and stigma’
Jadwiga Leigh, one of the study authors, acknowledged the research only covered a small sample but she said the interviews highlighted an important and often hidden side of the fitness to practise process.
“That emotional dimension of how the process affects people is often missing, as is an understanding of how those social workers can become isolated. There isn’t the support in place, they are not connected to other people going through the same process,” she said.
“One of the social workers said they couldn’t even tell their best friend, who was also a social worker, about being referred to the HCPC. There can be a lot of shame and stigma, and that isn’t recognised.”
Leigh said she hoped the findings would be considered by policymakers developing Social Work England – a new organisation the government plans to set up to take on social work regulation from 2018.
‘Proportionality and fairness’
A spokesman for the HCPC acknowledged the experiences of the social workers interviewed but said it was difficult to draw conclusions from the “very small sample”.
He said the fitness to practise process was designed to protect the public, not punish professionals for past mistakes. The “vast majority” of social workers met the HCPC’s standards and the regulator’s own research on practitioners’ experience was “broadly positive” about the process, he added.
“All the individuals in the research have recounted the emotional toll the process has taken on them. We recognise it can be a very difficult and stressful experience for those involved which is why we have support mechanisms in place and try to make our processes as open and clear as possible,” he continued.
These included a named case manager to answer social workers’ queries on cases, and guidance for employers designed to avoid placing “unnecessary stress” on social workers by making sure only fitness to practise matters are referred.
The HCPC encouraged social workers to engage in the process and speak to their union or professional body to secure representation. The regulator also said it had worked with the Samaritans to develop guidance for its staff on recognising when registrants may be vulnerable and to provide “signposting” to organisations that could help.
“Every case is different, but is managed, investigated and assessed on its own merits ensuring proportionality and fairness to all those involved,” the spokesman said.
- The Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 and firstname.lastname@example.org