Admin pressures accelerating children’s social worker burnout, study finds

Research finds that children's social workers are more likely to burn out than social workers in adult services

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Children’s social workers are more likely to burn out than their adult services counterparts, as a result of feeling disengaged from and drained by their work, an academic study has found.

The analysis, based on two large datasets compiled between 2010 and 2013, found “higher levels of emotional exhaustion and depersonalisation, and lower levels of personal accomplishment” among children’s social workers.

Factors included the amount of “emotional labour” involved in different roles, the quantity of admin work practitioners were subjected to and the impact of staff turnover on workforce experience levels.

“The key is engagement in their work,” the study’s author Shereen Hussein, a research professor at King’s College London, told Community Care.

“Across adults’ and children’s [roles], the more a social worker feels part of a system, engaged, part of the decision making process, with their ideas listened to – that was strongest factor,” Hussein added.

Both adults’ and children’s social workers experienced “moderate to high” levels of burnout, the research found.

Gill Archer, social work lead at Unison, said the study underlined the “unbearable pressure” many social workers find themselves under and the need for extra resources to mitigate it.

Burnout indicators and influences

The study took in survey responses by 3,786 social workers employed in 22 English local authorities, which had previously been used in two separate evaluations of children’s and adults’ social work practices.

It scored burnout based on three interlinked elements: emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation (the sense of feeling jaded by work and less sympathetic towards service users) and personal accomplishment.

Overall, adults’ social workers displayed moderate feelings of emotional exhaustion and personal accomplishment but only low levels of depersonalisation.

The picture was reversed for children’s social workers, with practitioners showing moderate levels of emotional exhaustion and depersonalisation but only low levels of personal accomplishment.

Four influencing factors were identified by the study: the level of work experience, the level of engagement with work, the nature of tasks performed and the resources and support available.

Importance of engagement

Engagement with work was found to have the strongest bearing on all three indicators of burnout, with high engagement suppressing the two negative elements while raising the sense of personal accomplishment.

“Adult social workers tended to have significantly more positive views about their levels of work engagement and were more experienced, with higher mean number of years in the sector and in their current posts,” the study found.

More experienced children’s practitioners displayed lower levels of depersonalisation and stronger feelings of personal accomplishment. But because of higher turnover in children’s services directorates, they were thinner on the ground.

Fewer than a quarter of children’s social workers felt they delivered “the right level” of direct work with service users, compared with 40% of those working in adult services.

The burden of excessive admin work, the research found, had a “large impact” on levels of emotional exhaustion, which had a correspondingly strong association with depersonalisation, especially among children’s social workers.

‘Worrying’ findings

Commenting on the findings of her research, Hussein said they were “worrying, especially at a time of austerity measures and shortages across departments”.

The difference in levels of depersonalisation between adults’ and children’s practitioners was especially concerning, she added.

“[Engagement with work and with services users] is crucial for social workers – it’s what attracts them to the job, and gives them reward,” Hussein said.

Investment in better admin support resources would be a “relatively easy” means of positively influencing workers’ wellbeing, she said.

Archer said the study’s conclusions, were “no surprise”, and added weight to surveys such as ‘A day in the life of social work’, conducted jointly by Unison and Community Care. Almost half of social workers surveyed for the project in 2017 reported feeling ‘over the limit’, while three-fifths said they felt austerity had affected their ability to make a difference.

“I wholeheartedly agree we need to tackle staff turnover,” Archer said. “There are too few people, juggling too many cases, under unbearable pressure – and clients are suffering.”

Archer also warned that incoming accreditation for children’s social workers was only likely to increase their admin burden.

Maris Stratulis, England manager at the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), said it was important to set the new findings in context of the pressures experienced by all social workers.

Research carried out by Bath Spa University with BASW support, published last year, found 52% of all social workers intended to leave their jobs within 15 months. The figure was higher for children’s social workers – but only by 3%.

“We know the key elements of success,” Stratulis said. “[They are] access to professional supervision, manageable caseloads, good leadership and management, fair pay, reduced unnecessary bureaucracy, time to spend with individuals and families, and access to ongoing professional development and wellbeing support.”

The working conditions of social workers will be the subject of a debate in the House of Lords on Wednesday 16 May.

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5 Responses to Admin pressures accelerating children’s social worker burnout, study finds

  1. sw111 May 15, 2018 at 9:21 am #

    Poor inconsistent management is the main factor that has resulted in burnout, low staff morale that translates to poor performance. Social care role was to understand the problem and address issues but within the culture of bullying, the pressure from top, and failing to consider the systemic pressures, the profession will continue to be in such a disarray. The managers are blaming the workers in their attempt to please the higher up management.
    Caseload, bureaucracy and austerity are the contributing factor but in my view poor management is the main factor. Previously the managers supported their workers but in the current climate they are shifting blame and because of that the system would collapse.
    If the management does not change from top up, the workers will continue to feel under pressure and the clients will suffer – it is a waste of public money, of tax payers money.

    • Kayjay May 16, 2018 at 4:58 pm #

      I may be in the minority when I say that my direct managers have been excellent. I’d identify with the reasons given in the article actually, and my Managers have done all they can to mitigate and support the team. Like I said, I’m probably in the minority though. I quit two weeks ago though. Burnt out already and devastated. I worked hard to get where I am and I’m not able to do my job due to my current mental state.

  2. Imelda May 16, 2018 at 3:43 pm #

    I’ve just done 2 days free home working on my non-working days. Supposed to be part time. More like full time on part time pay = low morale. It wasn’t as bad on full time. Love my job/hate my job!!

  3. C Hopkins May 16, 2018 at 6:37 pm #

    I have recently left front line Children’s Safeguarding SW after two years in the role. I am a very experienced successful senior professional in a former career, and felt that the simple solutions were being missed. All of the above are correct, but senior managers are unwilling to think laterally about how they manage resources to deliver – for example the cost of some decent admin support to bespoke sets of SWs would give them the additional capacity to undertake the direct work and manage workloads better. the cost of an additional SW would pay for up to two admin supports in many organisations, add to this the cost of staff retention or not and the savings – its got to be worth the money.
    The stress and extra hours in my experience are caused by SWs compensating by writing up their case notes, reports, court reports, multiple forms for multiple bits of a splintered organisation to ensure that payment is made, an action happens or another professional assessment is undertaken to progress the support or case,all i their own unpaid time. Yes this is driven by professional integrity and pride, but also fear and anxiety of the repercussions of failing to do so. It is a fear driven narrow minded culture that does disservice to those who receive it and those who try to deliver and administer it. This is the “burn out” – not lack of capability – lack of capacity.

  4. Darcy May 22, 2018 at 7:45 pm #

    Social work is a bureaucratic nightmare where 85% of a social workers time is spent on administration. Assessment layered upon assessment with sight of children and families needs lost. Add that to punitive managers, overwhelming caseloads and a toxic environment After 11 years in CP, the pressure became untenanble and I resigned. Now in a job with less pay , however that’s a small price for positive mental health and a good work life balance.