A new initiative by the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) is aiming to improve social workers’ circumstances by rebalancing their paperwork-dominated working lives.
The 80-20 campaign bids to ‘reverse’ the working situation that many practitioners face, in which close to 80% of their time is spent on admin tasks rather than working directly with families.
A survey of 350 BASW members showed that social workers spent 29 hours on a computer or doing paperwork in an average 45-hour working week. A third also said they spent no time during an average week on reflective practice.
One respondent told BASW they felt their work life – including supervisions – was “totally skewed” towards admin, while a team manager described the shortage of time for direct work as “the most common frustration” among their staff.
The new data follows a recent academic study by Shereen Hussein, a research professor at King’s College London, which highlighted the “large impact” admin pressures have on levels of burnout among social workers.
It revealed that less than 25% of children’s social workers felt they undertook “the right level” of direct work with service users, compared with 40% of those working in adult services. Practitioners, especially in children’s services, were left emotionally exhausted and with strong feelings of depersonalisation.
A statement by BASW acknowledged that improving the current situation would take a lot more than “clicking our fingers”.
The organisation said it would be advocating for efficient and reliable IT systems that eliminate or minimise the amount of task duplication social workers face.
It also argued for the provision of ‘team administrators’ to support social workers, and for a change in managerial cultures away from excessive focus on performance indicators and targets.
“This is not a case of remodelling social work but getting back to what works best,” the statement said.
‘We need to listen’
BASW acknowledged the aggravating effect austerity had caused, both in terms of admin staff cutbacks and on the wellbeing of people social workers support, and pledged to continue lobbying against cuts.
“The term ‘relationship-based social work’ is not an add on – it is fundamentally about building relationships and that takes time, investment and commitment,” said Maris Stratulis, BASW England manager, who is leading the 80-20 initiative. “More direct contact is what children are telling us they need, and we need to listen to what they are telling us.”
Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, said: “Children themselves say stability is the most important aspect of their experience of care. That’s why I think the 80-20 campaign is an important opportunity to look at the impact of the direct time social workers spend with children and families, and at how we can improve the experiences of children in care.”
Gill Archer, national officer at Unison, said BASW’s survey underscored the fact that social workers need “all the support they can get at”.
“Unison research shows half of social workers finish their day with concerns about their cases – mostly due to being unable to get the necessary paperwork completed,” she added, alluding to research findings by the union in association with Community Care.
“Staff shortages and budget cuts mean social workers are struggling with huge workloads. Government action is needed to ease this burden, so vulnerable children and adults get the support they so desperately need.”