Social workers face more emotional distress and verbal abuse each day

Community Care and UNISON’s joint research into a typical social worker’s day reveals the increasing cost of staff shortages and budget cuts

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Social workers are suffering more emotional distress and verbal abuse in their day-to-day work as staff shortages and budget cuts take a heavy toll on the profession.

Joint research from Community Care and UNISON captured a typical day in the life of 2,032 social workers who responded to the ‘Social Work Watch’ survey on 21 September, 2016.

It found the vast majority (80%) reported they had suffered emotional distress during the day while 40% had been verbally abused.

Both numbers are increases on responses to the same survey in 2014.

Emotional exhaustion

Some of the situations social workers said they’d faced included a nine-year-old child self-harming and trying to hang themselves, a very aggressive father making threats and distressed colleagues crying at work and needing to be supported.

Others mentioned feeling routinely anxious, emotionally exhausted and unable to engage with partners and families after clocking off for the day. One commented that the pressures of the job had led to divorce. Many wished that stress hadn’t affected their behaviour towards others.

“I left work feeling completely drained and emotional. I wasn’t able to do anything productive in the evening and spent most of it crying.”

Caseloads over the limit

More than half (56%) felt their caseload sizes had been influenced by staff shortages and almost half (48%) reported feeling over their limit in terms of the number of cases they had been given – up from 43% in 2014. Among those who described their job role as ‘social worker’ this figure went up to just over 50%.This was despite 30% reporting their employer did operate a formal caseload management system.

As a result two-thirds (67%) had not had a lunch-break that day (a significant increase on the 54% who replied similarly in 2014) and an almost identical proportion (64%) said they almost never took a break at work.

On average social workers worked 9.5 hours, but were paid for just 7.5 hours. One in 10 social workers reported working for 12 hours or more, and 28 said they had put in a shift “of at least 15 hours”.

Serious concerns

Despite working such long hours, almost half (47%) still left work with serious concerns about their cases while two-thirds felt that cuts to services had affected their ability to make a difference.

Reasons given for this included social workers having to take on tasks that other agencies would previously have handled, the housing crisis and welfare reform agenda piling problems onto families that social workers felt unable to solve, and intervention thresholds being raised, meaning practitioners were only getting involved in situations that were already at crisis point.

However, social workers also highlighted the reasons their jobs continued to be bearable with many sharing stories about breakthroughs with service users, and receiving thanks from families and other professionals.


“A young mum ended an abusive relationship with my support and will not be hit anymore and her daughter won’t have to witness this,” one respondent wrote.

Another working with disabled service users said: “An isolated client made the first steps to attend a place where she can make a friend who is not a paid carer. It could be life-changing in her ability to access the community and not be so reliant on paid carers.”

A third said: “A 13-year-old girl opened up to me on our journey back to her placement after she had run away and I could see she was feeling much better by the end of the journey just having talked things through.”

On the brink of burnout

UNISON head of local government Heather Wakefield said: “This is a profession on the brink of burnout. Staff are working long hours without breaks and having to cope with unprecedented caseloads. Those in need are suffering because social workers have less time to go out and help them.

“All councils should set up a system of monitoring to reduce demands on already over-worked staff. Otherwise not only social workers, but those they’re trying to help will suffer.”

She called on all local authority employers to regularly undertake social work health checks, as recommended in the social work employer standards, to ensure caseloads and stress were under control and being appropriately monitored.

To read the full findings of the survey, download the report.

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22 Responses to Social workers face more emotional distress and verbal abuse each day

  1. Miss Taylor March 24, 2017 at 12:37 pm #

    The HCP has no interest in such matters, academic research or law so be careful when speaking out you will be judged incompetent and a danger to the public because you lack resilience

    • Elody April 4, 2017 at 2:33 pm #

      So very true

  2. Tom J March 24, 2017 at 1:05 pm #

    Good report and I welcome UNISON and Community Care for producing it. It sets out the challenges very clearly.

    The only two things missing are A) The role and impact of the HCPC in all of this. For many social workers they are felt to act as a smokescreen for Local Authorities through seeking to locate all blame with the individual social worker. B) The governments accreditation plans- will these tests benefit social work and be worth the £2 million that has been handed to KPMG?


  3. Veteran social worker March 24, 2017 at 5:25 pm #

    This is the reality for most of us
    However many surveys they do nothing ever changes or improves and I am at a loss to know what it will take.

    • Longtime SW March 27, 2017 at 10:06 am #

      Maybe it starts with us individually and collectively saying ‘these are my contracted hours Mr/Ms Senior Manager – in writing, tell me what I prioritise and how much time is allocated to each ‘task’, including completion time/date. Include in that regular supervision dates and times of at least 1 1/2 hours – that time to be deducted from that week’s contracted hours availiable.

      Any sanction threatened or actual, immediately consult a union or legal adviser informing the manager that you are doing so and don’t make any further comment.

      Collectively we can begin to change things – support each other – don’t get drawn into Agency v LA peeing contests – that’s classic divide and rule – our working conditions for us and service user’s should be the same for all – humane!

      • Rachelle March 29, 2017 at 6:29 pm #

        Spot on Longtime SW. I couldn’t agree with you more. If we all stand united and strong on this, we will make progress.

  4. Anne March 24, 2017 at 8:23 pm #

    Never have a lunch break, nowhere to go and usually eat at desks, a different desk every day due to hot desking, or eat in the car. Not unusual to work from 6am at home, get in office at 8.40, do visit, meetings, conferences etc., write up reports and case notes till 6.30pm then go and visit families who are in work, carry on at home from 8pm till 10pm. Anyone who says they are stressed or struggling is deemed incompetent and unable/unwilling to work as part of the team, a moaner or worse. It is time to acknowledge that social work is Ofsted led and not child centred, all those in high places are concerned about is the Ofsted inspection, we are cannon fodder and nothing more.

  5. Angie March 25, 2017 at 1:48 am #

    I just did an emoticon Monday this last week and honored and thanked all the social worker and other clinicians for social worker appreciation month. It was great their smiles lit up the room. I used to be a patient there. I came back to show them their believing and caring is what saw me through the tough times. Because of the help and support I was able to receive I’m going to succeed on my own. In the process of creating my dream life.

  6. Veteran social worker too March 25, 2017 at 11:29 am #

    Im interested in what you’ve said Veteran Social Worker…..I think there is a difference between highlighting the issues thereby enabling others to empathise and affirm their own experiences and highlighting the issues as a tool or step for change. I cant see where our profession is influencing any statutory developments, we get told what to do and how to do it then we get told off for not making systems work then we swallow it down and feel disempowered. We should be at the table offering up solutions…thats what we do…right? When social work is regulated by the government in power how will the profession challenge and seek systemic changes? Im not convinced our Chief Social Workers have professional teeth rather than delegated political presence……would really have liked our Adult CSW to have been independent from government and attached to a mandatory professional body….rant nearly over, I would just say that if you supervise or manage a social worker please check that you are overtly valuing and empowering their skills and posibilities.

  7. Ex social worker March 26, 2017 at 9:32 pm #

    HCPC have no interest in professionals who bully and intimidate the staff they manage. The abuse and emotional distress experienced is not limited in origin to service users, but is also happening within the office.

    • Cyrnix March 31, 2017 at 11:52 am #

      I totally agree with Mahrg – having faced bullying, harassment and intimidation from SSW upwards to Head of Children’s Services within my authority. I can only recommend that staff subjected to such overt violence not by clients; – but by their colleagues as was my experience. Get the support of a good union. Lodge formal complaint under anti bullying and harassment protocols, follow through, report to sick bay, GP and OHS.
      Ultimately it will be deemed toxic stress syndrome and management will get tired. Watch out for the smallest faux-pas on their part. Complain to other Agencies, such as Human Rights organisations, ombudsman’s Office and the like. They do not like being exposed for their dubious actions and responses iin close examination of such practices.
      Record a chronology, verbatim statements made and actions taken by management. Watch out for ‘investigation’ and disciplinary procedures being invoked, which becomes another abuse. My senior management took over two and half years to look at four small case files and arrive at their decision. Meanwhile, I was referred to psychiatry out patients on the basis of the abuses which had taken place the preceding two years before investigation and the unduly long process attached to it.
      Overall the more my employer and their representatives tried to swart me in their actions, the more it rebounded on them. I am one of the few individuals who was awarded PIB on the basis of psychiatric injury, described by one psychiatrist as a more significant injury than just PTSD.

  8. Maharg March 27, 2017 at 2:06 pm #

    Reality is the situation is shutting the gate after the horses bolted. Though in some cases clients past history is known, but concerns over the data protection act means that people are reluctant record incidents or concerns, which may put others at harm or risk.

    Having moved from local authority that allowed you to put red flag on a client’s file, highlighting risk to individuals, e.g. lone working, female or even Big dog. To another authority, which requires everything in triplicate, signed off by a senior senior manager
    , just in case somebody demands to see her file, clearly there is a in balance in maintain the safety and well-being in work practices across social work teams. Especially when people are perturbed and paranoid about the implications of the data protection act. It seems that is far more appropriate to apply the perceived rights of individuals to not have any remarks which may be perceived as negative, irrespective to the safety and well-being of the individual going out to the person’s domain.

  9. William Sparks March 29, 2017 at 1:34 pm #

    What courses and workshops are offered by UK SW schools and agencies on Compassion Fatigue, Secondary Traumatic Stress, Burnout, Self-Care, Resilience and Agency support policies? There is a small but growing amount here in Canada and recognition by schools and agencies that this needs to be promulgated. – Bill Sparks MSW,RSW,CATSM, Compassion fatigue educator, ARP Counsellor

  10. SW lover March 29, 2017 at 2:12 pm #

    The government has published several policy documents about what is expected of social workers, however, very little is mentioned in regards to what constitutes a reasonable case load. In my experience it differs significantly depending on where ever I have worked. It’s not rocket science… if a SW has 50 cases… the children are still AT RISK of significant harm as he/she will not be able to be on top of all those cases. What that just means is if/when something happens management will have a named person to blame. The pink elephant in the room… There is a significant need for reasonable case load limit. Not for the SW but for the vulnerable children that will not be seen in time due to the SW being over stretched.

    • Rachelle March 30, 2017 at 6:40 am #

      Caseloads must be limited to protect the vulnerable (child/adult) AND the social worker. The old adagé rings very true here. You can’t help others if you don’t help yourself.

  11. Planet Autism March 29, 2017 at 3:14 pm #

    All the while there is an automatic parent blame culture within social work there will be innocent parents reacting in righteous indignation to false allegations and sometimes lies directly from social workers. Whilst not condoning bad behaviour from anyone, there will naturally be times this righteous indignation spills over into confrontational behaviour. Change the system and ‘service users’ are likely to behave quite differently on the whole, the innocent ones, the ones who have been traumatised by unwarranted interventions will feel less threatened and less likely to behave in any way which might contribute to SW emotional reactions.

  12. Neil March 29, 2017 at 3:48 pm #

    I am about to become a student Social Worker and I can see how much stress and pressure is put on Social Workers but what I do not understand is why nothing has yet been done to change this.
    Where is the Union that will fight your corner?

    Things are already at Crises point – do we have to see things get worse before things get better? I believe one child dies every week yet the Government seemingly is blind to it and does not appear to empathise with the problems and challenges Social Workers deal with daily.

    From my short spell in learning about Social Work I know helping to change people’s lives for the better is what I want to do but the cost is seemingly a heavy one. I’m not sure our local MP’s would want to take on such a challenge, which is a shame as they might learn something. Perhaps they should spend some time shadowing Social Workers and see precisely what is getting ignored.

    My hope is the the ‘voice’ of all Social Workers gets heard and that the Union starts to take on the responsibility it is meant to, to protect the wellbeing of all who practice in this profession. It is about time our elected Government became accountable for the distress they are creating…We all learn about Anti-Oppressive Practice…isn’t it about time our Government learned to respect this practice also?

  13. lilybright March 29, 2017 at 10:13 pm #

    Lots of strands here…so here’s my twopennorth.
    The CSWs are a waste of space – government place(wo)men, not social workers.
    The HCPC is a health organisation, it hasn’t got a clue about social work and is totally ill-fitted as a regulatory body. The “standards” would be laughable if they didn’t actually mean that people can’t practice genuinely creative professional social work without being in contravention of them; and can’t be victims of organisational failings without being victimised.
    LA’s won’t look at caseloads or working hours until they’re forced to. We need to take united, organised, action. If offices work to rule, refuse to work extra hours unless paid overtime,; present managers with daily lists asking what they wish us to prioritise, given realistic time constraints & writing up time…. we can start to wrest back some control over our professional practice, & personal lives.
    No matter how caring and committed we are to helping people and to social justice, by no stretch of the imagination is acceptable for our colleagues to be sacrificing their emotional health and relationships for this job.
    Finally, to misquote Joe Hill of the IWW “Don’t moan, organise”.

    • Cheryl April 2, 2017 at 2:55 pm #

      Agree wholeheartedly, Lilybright.
      Unlike other professions, there’s a a pervasive culture in social work characterised by high and unreasonable expectations & poor working conditions: namely the unpaid hours we work, the unacceptably high caseloads, the toil accrued (that there’s never time to take) and the poor life/work balance generally.
      Even if we don’t sign up for this initially as social workers, it is simpler to collude in the long run because if we didn’t, many local authorities would just go under.
      I qualified in 1996 and sadly it was exactly the same then. One of the main reasons that social workers don’t actively challenge the status quo is because they just don’t have any more time available to them to do it.
      Btw, Isn’t this the sort of issue the chief social workers & the HCPC should be addressing on our behalf?

  14. Nina Hall April 1, 2017 at 10:04 am #

    I was working a 60-70 hours a week in child protection and was told in supervision I had poor time management and should only spend 15 minutes with parents and 15 minutes with children. In my view this is not working with families to support them, this is tick boxing. How can 15 minutes with a child develop a positive relationship where they feel they can talk to you and trust you. Oh I forgot to say that 15 minutes covers every child in the family whether it is 1 or 7.

  15. Miss Mel April 3, 2017 at 10:57 am #

    Sorry, but having experienced no less than 4 different social workers on my brothers case, I can only conclude that the whole children’s Social care system is no longer fit for purpose. Three of the SWs were women and completely biased and have sided with the mother despite a mountain of evidence of failures. The only male SW jumped ship very early on, so did the male team leader and the three female SWs all on the sick. One of the problems is that people have access to the mass amount of information available to them through the internet, so people are now more informed and can challenge like never before. Access to social media platforms they are able to share information in seconds so they can galvanise support very quickly. People are fighting back and social workers don’t have the necessary tools and training to meet the challenges of a modern 21st century world.

  16. Paul Owen April 5, 2017 at 10:21 am #

    Sorry to hear of your problems Miss Mel. There are complaints procedures if you feel your brother/family have had a bad service, which it sounds like is probable. You certainly wouldn’t be the only family in this position.

    Regarding the service not being fit for purpose. You’re right. it isn’t. Not due to workers not trying inputting in enormous amounts of time and effort but due to very poor systems and continual changes.
    We’ve just had a major transformation which led to an 80% movement of staff into different teams. 30 % of whom left the service in the first year and a service staffed by agency workers, most of whom are good but don’t have the local knowledge and staying ability of contracted staff. We had a few who came in and either left the same day or within a week. This is probably one of the reasons for changes of worker.

    Most workers are well over and above contracted hours just to try and keep on top of the amount of work being given. Regular 55 hours instead of the contracted 39 with no hope of taking TOIL. Often 65+ especially if there are court reports to be done within the ridiculous timescales.

    Computers that crash every few days, hot desks so there’s no regular place to sit, offices miles from where you need to meet people. Regular 60 mile round trips for visits, often the family isn’t in when you get there despite it being an arranged visit. 40+ cases. Abusive parents/young adults who threaten to ‘smack your ‘ead in’ and tell you to F off.

    Managers who are never available and take months to sign of reviews. Changes to paperwork which no-one tells you about before you write a mapping so you have to do it again in the ‘correct’ way.

    Wakefield talks about the profession being on the verge of burnout. Much too late it’s now burnt out and smouldering. Talk about Social Work Health Checks. We’ve just done one, waste of time, whitewash. No discussion regarding staff morale or case loads.