Employers should offer social workers more flexible hours to keep them in the job, study suggests

UK social workers report below-average mental wellbeing, with one in three planning a career change in middle age

Photo: Cineberg/Fotolia

Employers should consider offering social workers more flexible hours if they want to keep them in the job as retirement ages rise, new research suggests.

A study of more than 1,300 practitioners, based mostly in England and Northern Ireland and shared exclusively with Community Care, found their mental and emotional wellbeing scores fell below those of the general population, leading many to weigh their options as they get older.

One in three said they were planning a career change in middle age, with stress and the impact of work on wellbeing – cited by around half those looking to switch – being the most common reasons.

Employers could encourage social workers to stay in work longer by offering more flexibility around hours or duties, almost half of respondents said. Almost as many suggested being able to work part-time, take a break of a month or more, or switch to a less demanding role could help keep them in the profession.

The findings mirror, to a large extent, reasons given by social workers for leaving permanent employment. Agency staff interviewed by Community Care have said that the ability to set their own work patterns and take periods away from work has mitigated burnout and kept them in careers they might have left otherwise.

“People in their forties are now expected to work until they are 68, and it’s expected that trend will continue,” said Paula McFadden, a senior social work lecturer at Ulster University who led the study, which was supported by Community Care. “[Respondents] are saying that in order to work longer they need flexible arrangements – so if the government wants them to do so they will have to consider these accommodations.”

‘Low quality’ working life

In common with other recent research, the study highlighted practitioners’ low levels of engagement with their work.

Almost half said they had little control around important decisions, while nearly two thirds felt unhappy with working conditions, resulting in a generally negative perception of working quality of life.

Excessive admin duties were singled out by many as negatively affecting working conditions, with one respondent complaining: “Too much bureaucracy and back covering. Not enough chance to do proper interventions that may help clients.”

On average, social workers participating in the study reported lower than average levels of mental and emotional wellbeing.

Practitioners working in child protection and adult learning disability roles reported the lowest scores, while frontline staff were more likely to experience low levels of wellbeing than senior managers.

Nearly half of respondents said they worked more than full-time hours during a typical week.

‘Committed’ workforce, or presenteeism?

Despite those findings, more than 40% of respondents said they had taken zero sick days in the past year, with 80% having taken fewer than 10.

“This might be an indicator of a committed workforce who require support to maintain this level of engagement for the duration of their career,” the report said.

But it warned the figures could also point to “a rise in ‘presenteeism’ with people at work who may not be functioning optimally”.

Another study published this year, carried out by Bath Spa University, and backed by the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) and the Social Workers’ Union, found many social workers were working through illness to keep up with caseloads.

McFadden told Community Care that while it was impossible to predict whether the new study’s sample was representative of the national social work workforce, the numbers of respondents taking longer-term sick were also “worrying”. More than 10% had taken more than four weeks off – with a recent BBC investigation revealing increasing numbers of social workers taking at least a month’s sick leave.

‘Reversing the flow’

Maris Stratulis, England manager at the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) said the new findings highlighted the “urgent need to improve the working conditions of social workers, so as to reverse the flow of dedicated professionals leaving the job they trained for”.

She added that BASW would continue to lobby government to increase funding across the sector, to relieve pressure caused by increased demand and diminishing resources.

“This is in the interests of everyone, particularly those on the receiving end of care, for the last thing vulnerable people need is a burnt-out and exhausted worker suffering from ill health,” Stratulis said.

She added: “Not to promote effective strategies and actions to promote resilience and wellbeing of staff is not only wasteful of human resources but of financial ones too, both of which come at unacceptably high cost.”

Familiar issues

Rachael Wardell, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) workforce development policy committee, said: “We would like to thank all our social workers for the life-changing work they do on a daily basis and for choosing to work and remain in one of the most important professions in the country. We recognise many of the issues raised in this report.”

Wardell said councils remained committed to implementing appropriate working conditions and bearable caseloads, and to ensuring social workers receive reflective supervision during which they can raise concerns about their emotional and mental health and wellbeing. “This can be a way of reducing ‘churn’ or burnout in the profession, alongside offering sabbaticals and flexible working patterns,” she acknowledged.

But Wardell echoed Stratulis’s concern about the toll austerity – both in terms of growing demand and shrinking budgets – was taking on the workforce.

“Without enough social workers to meet the needs of a rising number of children and families coming to our attention, we as directors of children’s services cannot do our job, which is to enable children in the local area to thrive,” she warned.

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11 Responses to Employers should offer social workers more flexible hours to keep them in the job, study suggests

  1. Mary July 11, 2018 at 1:25 pm #

    In my previous social services management role, the refusal of senior managers to let me have compressed hours was part of the reason I left the job after 12 years. I went back to front line work and away from management in a new borough, with compressed hours. I earn less than before, but I am much happier, although still working over my hours, at least I can now take them back.

    I would suggest that senior managers need to understand that it is a false economy to cut admin support for teams and a good support officer can save staff so much time in dealing with day to day admin staff that people do not have time to deal with.

    Short term savings, tend to have long term consequences.

  2. David Jordan July 11, 2018 at 2:26 pm #

    I am a Social Worker, AMHP and DOLS BIA with many years experience, despite the fact that the local authority that I work for has a flexible working hours policy, with the ability to work early/late and accrue a certain number of hours to carry over, the caviat is ‘that it is at the ‘manger’s discretion’ and ‘not something that is offered as a team’ I have therefore been told that I cannot start work until 8.30 or work beyond 5.30 unless it is with prior approval of my line manager.

    The response from my union:- This is not a breach of employment, it is only at the manager’s discretion and despite my letter of employment stating that the ‘council operates a flexible working policy’………tough.

    Makes you wonder why there is policy in the first place………and a union.

  3. Paul July 11, 2018 at 3:26 pm #

    There needs to be a wholesale review of how and where social workers do their job in my opinion. Local authorities no longer provide the environment or culture that would encourage social workers to stay committed to a team or want to stay for the long haul. Social work practices should be explored again – in my opinion they offer a better culture and environment for social work. Local authorities have had their day in my opinion as the main deliverer of social work.

  4. frustrated July 11, 2018 at 9:29 pm #

    the profession would love this the would have social workers on part time contracts but expect full time hours and they would get it. The only way to have flexible hours is to leave the profession.

  5. sw111 July 12, 2018 at 9:00 am #

    The extra hours are so many it is impossible to take that as TOIL, taking into account the work pressure and deadlines one has to meet. The managers are not bothered about the worker’s welfare or flexible working condition.
    Their interest is solely to get the work done regardless – if you are sick, feeeling pressured that is irrelevant.
    This is the most thankless unappreciated profession and if the values embedded in social care remains ignored, things will not change. There is bullying, oppressive and discriminatory practice by the management but not so if you please the managers and run at their beck and call.

    • Sabine July 16, 2018 at 9:33 am #

      Hi sw111, it is not only impossible to take the hours as toil, but more to the point you lose them in the end, so having worked additionally for no pay.

      Another rarely mentioned aspects are the effects of prioritising work over family can yhave on those very close relationships. Issues of guilt for neglecting own children emotionally by expecting them to accept that you come home ‘knackered’ at the end of the day……. From my own experience this was brought home to me by my son, when he asked in frustration if he had to misbehave or cause problems so he could see more of me and get my undivided attention.

      This shocked me, and from then on I started to assert my son’s and my right to having a family life by working sensibly, ie overtime only in ‘life and death’ situations, but not as a rule. Considering that I have all my life been a parent family this issue was even more pressing.

      As a union rep I have represented quite a number of sw colleagues, frequently over issues relating to long term sickness/attendance management. It is not only shocking but also inhumane to treat people in a way that makes them feel guilty about being ill, the whole process of attendance management procedures is rather punitive and causes many more stress. I have seen people use their annual leave during illness or in an attempt at hiding that they have an illness or a condition that keeps them off work for a longer term.

      I left the profession 7 years ago and have since worked with children and young people in different settings. I have enjoyed that work. It came at a cost of 5 increments, but money is not what it is about. For me it gave me a better quality of work/life balance, but could more importantly see positive change happening for those I worked with.

  6. frustrated July 12, 2018 at 12:31 pm #

    well said sw11 .

    • Darcy July 12, 2018 at 9:32 pm #

      Couldn’t have put it better sw11. Been a CP social worker for 11 years and I am now done . No more working as a robot for the state.

  7. Jini Sen July 13, 2018 at 8:16 am #

    I am a qualified social worker and used to work as SSW for many years under a private fostering agency. I struggled a lot after I had my 2nd and 3rd child as I decided to work at flexible hours but I ended up to work as full time hours. My manager also was unwilling to understand my situation and manage my cases while I was not working. At the end I had to leave my job after 10 years though I liked my work so much and tried to continue. All I realised it is hard to manage case loads as part time or flexible hours if manager and management do not have a good plan, working structure and supportive attitude towards the employee. At the end it does not work and ended up with stress. Now I have planned to return to my profession but struggling to get flexible hours contract, again I am planning to change my profession to consider responsibility of my three young kids. But it is hard to choose something new when you like your profession. The government should look into this matter to keep professionals at their track. Otherwise we cannot attract our professionals to continue the profession. At the we will have to face huge crises in the country and will have to consider more social workers from abroad for no reason.

  8. maria July 16, 2018 at 8:41 pm #

    I am supposed to work p/t as I have 2 small children, I had high risk/complex cases who were placed all over the UK & I ended up working 7 days pw, evenings & wkends to the detriment of my children, partner & myself. I also had a sociopath psychotic service manager who was trying to bully, harrass & intimidate me. I eventually went off sick as I was a mess & my own children were getting neglected & my relationship with my partner was suffering. When returned to work I had to attend an absence management meeting where they informed me I would be getting a written warning which I am now trying to appeal with the support of my union rep. I have been working with this LA for 12 yrs & I have hardly been off sick in that time. I am now leaving the social work profession as I have had enough of being treated like crap!

  9. Wemattertoo July 25, 2018 at 12:06 am #

    We need to strike… look at the teachers and docs!