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.”
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.