Social work’s ageing workforce is a critical issue for the government

Policymakers and employers need to plan towards a sustainable workforce that is resilient and engaged, argues Paula McFadden

By Paula McFadden

Government policy on extending working lives has a twofold driver. First, there is a question about funding social security social welfare for an ageing population.

The second is about labour supply, skills deficits and retirement planning, which also pose major questions for government, and for global economies, because of ageing demographics.

The UK Office for National Statistics report that by 2046, people aged 65 and older will make up 24.7% of the population, up from 18% in 2016. The average age of the working-age population (aged 16-64) is to increase while the size of this group will decrease relative to the older age group.

Older age workers will be an inevitable outcome – and it’s against that backdrop that we launched a study earlier this year to explore social workers’ attitudes to ageing at work, in the context of their health and wellbeing.

Sick-leave surprises

There were some fairly predictable findings in the recent UK Ageing Social Worker survey results, alongside others came as more of a surprise.

The predictable areas included social workers reporting their need for more flexible working arrangements and role flexibility as they age. Again, fairly predictably, younger social workers don’t seem to be thinking too much about retirement yet. When they do think about this, they predict that they will be able to retire before the retirement age of 65, which is much earlier than the current policy of 68 years for those in their forties.

If younger workers don’t prepare to work longer, financially and psychologically, this workforce is in for challenges never before experienced. Employers, in the context of government policy to extend working lives, will meet milestones that are likely to be insurmountable, unless planning and adjustments are in place to ameliorate anticipated challenges.

Less predictable were responses to the question concerning absence and sick leave. Two major messages were that short-term sickness absence (less than 10 days) was reported by the majority (four fifths of the 13,000-plus sample). This means one fifth (20%) had longer-term (more than 10 days) sickness absence.

So what does this suggest? One might consider one in five to be a low figure, but when this is examined in the context of the wider workforce, it becomes highly significant with huge associated health economic costs.

Even considering the data on ‘less than 10 days of sickness’, by nominally (and conservatively) estimating the cost of a social worker on a daily basis (£118), this multiplies to a staggering economic cost.

Wider-context concerns

Caring professionals such as social workers are at increased risk of stress and burnout. Many other professions have also been reported as at risk, with nursing and general practice rating quite highly.

But while burnout is a risk, there is also evidence that resilience factors can act as protective mechanisms. The current study sought to establish a baseline dataset on social worker’s attitudes on working longer, health and wellbeing, intentions to leave and attitudes on what is needed to healthily remain at work longer.

According to the Department for Work and Pensions’ 2017 Working Fuller Lives study, during the last eight years a concerning number of employees from health-related professions and social work are evidenced as leaving work early on health grounds.

The research found 54,000 men and 257,000 women aged 50-64 in those sectors are reported to be economically inactive, leaving work early due to health. The report states that 24% of those women left on health grounds, while this cause was reported for 21% of the 54,000 men.

It also identifies the proportion of people from health and social work jobs who retired early, stating that 46% of men and 42% of women retired prior to 65 years. This is almost one in two (or 50%) of the workforce.

We cannot extrapolate the social worker numbers within this data. But we can still conclude that this trend is present in health and social care professions, and is unsustainable both in relation to government policy direction, to extend working lives, and to maintaining the skills required in the working-age population.

Planning for the future

On this basis, policymakers and employers need to plan towards a sustainable workforce that is resilient and engaged rather than burnt-out or disengaged.

A disengaged, ageing workforce is a cause for concern on many levels. ‘Presenteeism’, which is when one is at work when not practicing optimally or feeling healthy, is a risk. Thus, there is a risk of service quality deteriorating and vulnerable service users taking the brunt.

The current research provides a window into what the workforce is telling us. It gives voice to people from various age ranges, showing us how life-stage differences show differing perspectives about retirement planning and ageing at work.

These insights are timely. They will help to evidence ageing-workforce concerns in preparation for planning to manage what lies ahead for social work. Further research is planned as a next step, to establish the best way forward to manage the new challenges that are now inevitable.

Paula McFadden is a senior lecturer in social work at Ulster University

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8 Responses to Social work’s ageing workforce is a critical issue for the government

  1. A Man Called Horse August 17, 2018 at 12:21 pm #

    Very interesting piece by Paula McFadden- The facts, trends are clear more people in the caring professions are leaving employment before the age of 68 years many on the grounds of ill health. The Government’s preferred solution to the fiscal crisis is to make people work longer, pay more pension contributions and get less should they be lucky enough to make the official retirement age which could even be extended to seventy should this particularly vicious Tory Government be returned to power over the coming years. By making life more difficult, cutting pension provision, many ill people will linger on into old age when they should have retired, some will die from stress, some will be forced out through capability assessments. In both of these routes out of employment some will be judged unfit for social work, nursing but fit to do other work and denied access to benefits. Only the wealthy will be able to retire and live anything remotely resembling a good old age, the rest will be almost expected to work until they drop hence creating further inequality between the have and have not. It is also true that the Tories have attempted to fuel hatred against public sector workers by perpetuating the myth of gold plated pension provision and the end of defined benefit pensions in the private sector. The Tories have a pathological hatred of public sector workers and the pensions they have and have done much to undermine their pension provision while it might be added preserving their own truly gold plated pensions. The decision to raise the retirement age was entirely unnecessary and was a political choice made after bailing out rich bankers. We the staff in the public sector are being pushed to the point of breaking by Austerity, cuts, increased workloads and then pushed out onto a threadbare conditional welfare system designed to create stress and kill many of them through sanctions. It cannot be stated enough that the Tories are criminals and enemies of the people of this country. Soon many Local Authorities will start to go bankrupt and will start mass redundancy programs the inevitable outcome of starving Local Authorities of government funding. Working longer will not mean being employed for longer in the public sector. It is clear that the Tories intend that many people should be denied dignity in their older years and attacking public sector workers is one part of this plan.

  2. Kim Holmes August 17, 2018 at 1:22 pm #

    My comment is about the picture at the top of this article – a lot of men’s’ arms all in blue business shirts – hardly representative of the demographic for social workers where the biggest majority are women and looking around my office yesterday, of the men and women who were there from social care – both social workers and junior and middle managers, not a single person was wearing a blue business shirt. I think you may need some new stock images.

  3. jim August 17, 2018 at 1:44 pm #

    there is no way most of the social workers now in their 20s and 30s are going to last until age 66 never mind 68 in this profession in my opinion. When they get another 20 years under their belts and they are in their 50s they will be doing well to make it to 60 and retire if they have not been burnt out by then! If the stress of working with children and very vulnerable often high risk adults is often too much for a 40 year old how on earth are they going to cope with the workload and pressures at age 65 after a long career of being emotionally ground down?…big crises lie ahead and unless the government allow some high stress and high risk professions retire much ealrier without penalty then it will struggle to recruit and retain quality staff.

  4. Mark August 17, 2018 at 1:51 pm #

    Social work’s underpaid, overworked, ageing population. As we go into another year of ‘pay rise’ below inflation, it should be clear to anyone that there is likely to be an issue with recruiting and retaining a competent workforce.

    The health and social care sector functions on a remarkable amount of good will and human compassion. It’s a shame our society values caring so much less than celebrity for example. It is more than a shame, rather a clear insult, when ‘public servants’ in higher office are treated to generous pay rises. This while being the mouthpieces for further austerity, both to the workforce they require, and the public they are supposed to be serving.

  5. kez August 20, 2018 at 1:40 pm #

    The government needs to follow the example of Imran Khan – PM of Pakistan. Putting the people first.

  6. Debra August 20, 2018 at 6:02 pm #

    As a woman approaching 54 this article is very apt. With the onset of menopause and all the associated issues this can bring, tiredness, forgetfulness and a general slowing down employers need to be empathetic to the needs of their workforce. We can still do what we’ve always done and do it well. We may however need a little more time to reflect and act as well as understanding from bosses/organisations that generally are uncaring and not protective of their employees

  7. Ann August 21, 2018 at 8:34 am #

    If the system is resourced, managed and delivered effectively then social workers and any related services such as carers would enjoy this very privileged career. The current system masks any good work delivered by these professionals who feel frustrated and angry that their work is not recognised. Yet all of us including those Tories will expect good care and support delivery to them personally and their families in times of adversity. How can we work with such hypocrisy? The current health and social care system is not fit for purpose.

  8. Red1 August 21, 2018 at 5:33 pm #

    As someone who is nearing the state pensionable age (just over 2 years to go- hurrah – but as a Waspi I have been robbed!!) and who last year took a new job away from Adult Social Care Management after 23 years, I have to say I am tired. My current role is not as stressful as Care Management thankfully, but I am aware that I am ageing, I can’t pick new things up as rapidly as I once did, and my tolerance is declining. Generally we ‘oldies’ need more time to accomplish assessments etc, and not to be harassed out of our jobs by younger, bullying management. This is a general observation and I am in the position and mindset now that if I find myself becoming stressed I will simply leave and either retire or find a job in a shop or similar – one that you don’t take home with you!. I am still committed to the people I meet and to our SW values – but fear that Social Work as a profession is doomed unless changes are made and Social Workers listened to. As things stand I doubt there will be many still in the profession when they reach my age…. and to be honest I would not recommend anyone going into this profession (currently trying persuade a family member not to!)