HCPC suspends social worker with mental and physical exhaustion over failure to manage own health

Tribunal dismisses 'distressed' senior practitioner's claims that excessive caseloads mitigated practice failings and imposes 12-month suspension

Health and Care Professions Council

A Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) panel has suspended a senior children’s social worker for 12 months, dismissing her claims that high caseloads and poor supervision mitigated a series of practice failings.

These included failing to keep accurate records, meet deadlines and carry out visits, as well as neglecting to inform a father about plans to adopt his child.

The tribunal acknowledged that the practitioner had not been coping well in the lead-up to being suspended by Bolton council. It found one proven allegation, relating to refusing to take a vulnerable child into care, did not amount to misconduct because her mental health had by then reached a “tipping point”.

But the panel was unconvinced by the social worker’s argument that her caseload was unreasonable for someone of her experience, at least until shortly before she was suspended from work in October 2015, and therefore excused poor practice. It also found she had failed to manage her own health by returning to work after her GP advised her to take time off.

“After receiving evidence from the registrant and having questioned witnesses, it is [still] not clear why the registrant had what has been referred to as a ‘meltdown’ in her professional practice leading to these proceedings,” the tribunal said.

Phased return

The social worker had been employed by Bolton council since 2006, becoming a senior practitioner in 2007. In April 2015 she commenced a phased return to work, following a period of sick leave. However concerns were raised about her practice in October 2015 when she was found to have not visited a child.

The tribunal found the social worker had on two occasions failed to keep accurate records, noting that “from 25 September 2015 she had, in effect ceased updating [electronic case management system] Liquid Logic”.

It also established that, starting in summer 2015, she had missed a series of legal and departmental deadlines, including not completing personal education plans for two vulnerable children or providing statements to a court.

During the same period the social worker also failed to carry out five statutory visits, and around September 2015 did not inform a father “in a timely way” of the council’s plans for adopting his child.

On 30 September 2015 the social worker’s GP told her she was unfit for work due to emotional and physical exhaustion. But she told the doctor she was “far too busy… and [that] this would only increase her anxiety”.

By early October the social worker’s conduct at work was causing colleagues concern. At a court hearing on 19 October she refused to take a child into care – claiming that the child’s guardian had agreed this – then failed to return to the office in order to discuss this with her manager. The guardian subsequently told the manager that no such discussion with the social worker had taken place.

“The panel concluded that at this stage the registrant’s physical and emotional wellbeing had very significantly deteriorated,” the tribunal report said. “This evidence includes the registrant’s evidence, text messages she sent at that time and the uncontested evidence that she attended her GP soon after the court hearing.”

Visible distress

The tribunal noted that the social worker, who chose to give evidence at the tribunal, appeared “emotionally fragile, vulnerable and at times visibly distressed” and gave rambling and contradictory answers.

“The registrant accepted that on occasion her professional performance had been poor,” the tribunal said. “However, she predominantly chose to blame others, which included asserting that managers, the local authority, lawyers and the judge in the employment tribunal were trying to discredit her.”

The panel found no reason to doubt the social worker’s honesty but said inconsistencies in her evidence meant it was impossible to consider her a reliable witness.

The social worker argued that she had been “increasingly overloaded with work, and subject to inadequate management and supervision” – and her line manager admitted she could have been more proactive in monitoring her.

But while the tribunal acknowledged that the social worker’s caseload built up over time and became more complex, it found that evidence pointed to it being “within the limits expected of the registrant’s grade as a senior social worker”.

The panel also noted a responsibility on practitioners to advise managers when they are not coping with work. “There is evidence that as a senior practitioner she did not wish to appear to be unable to cope, and felt overly committed to her work – for example, by continuing after her own GP had advised her against doing so.”

‘Significant risk of harm’

In assessing the social worker’s behaviour, the tribunal found that all proved particulars, except for the court incident and one other, amounted to serious misconduct.

“No actual harm was caused to service users as a direct consequence of the registrant’s acts or omissions,” it said. “However, in the panel’s view her conduct and behaviour presented a significant risk of harm, which was unnecessary and avoidable.”

The tribunal’s conclusion was postponed by several months after the social worker was assessed by paramedics on the penultimate day, and she did not appear at the reconvened hearing.

In assessing its sanction, the tribunal found that the social worker’s eventual non-engagement meant “there was no evidence before the panel that she fully appreciates the gravity of the failings identified and the impact on her standing as a social worker, the wider profession and the public”.

In addition, it continued, “there was no explanation as to how the registrant would behave differently in the future and no assurance that the deficiencies in her practice, which are capable of being remedied, have been remedied and would not be repeated”.

Despite the lack of insight shown by the social worker, the tribunal decided against striking her off, noting her stated intention not to return to practice in the near future or potentially ever.

“Given the health context [which was unable to be fully assessed], the panel took the view that the registrant should be given an opportunity to consider the panel’s written determination in full and focus on the issues that have been identified,” it said.

But it concluded that a failure to do so could well result in the social worker being struck off by a subsequent review panel.

51 Responses to HCPC suspends social worker with mental and physical exhaustion over failure to manage own health

  1. Ruth Cartwright September 13, 2018 at 3:25 pm #

    This is how it should be: colleagues and team leader have picked up that a colleague seems to be struggling. They ask if things are OK and whether there is anything they could do to help. Team Leader raises the matter in supervision and offers support, suggestion of a GP visit and possible referral to counselling and/or occupational health through HR. This is all done in a supportive and non-blaming environment so the person feels able to say that things have got on top of them instead of struggling on. Consideration is given to whether the problem is widespread because of high workloads across the board and if so health and safety may be called in to assess team’s workload and staffing situation. The person feels able to accept help and receives reassurance that it is OK to find it hard going at times and if they need time off that’s fine too and measures will be taken to ensure any wider workload management issues will be dealt with. If they are to have time off sick, a phased return to work will be considered.
    What actually happens – no-one seem to notice a struggling colleague or they assume it is that person’s own problem. The committed person struggles on and there are lapses in their practice, and then they are blamed for not looking after themselves properly so any endemic problems are conveniently covered up. This is not good enough!

    • Sharon September 13, 2018 at 7:04 pm #

      It saddens me the continued lack of support we receive as social workers. Where is the humanity. We are supporting broken people but it’s breaking us. Would we get away with treating service users the way we get treated. Why does an agency that we pay for provide limited support to it’s members.

      • Justine Hahn September 15, 2018 at 7:55 pm #

        This woman’s GP told her to take time off. She refused. No amount of support from other workers and supervisors will help a worker who refused basic advice from her GP.

      • Mary K September 19, 2018 at 7:25 pm #

        Great comment, I have realised we look after so many clients, but nobody looks after us. That’s why I’m leaving front line CP SW after 21 years, there is no support, just blame and shame, and doing free work for the council in our free time. Sick of the exploitive and oppressive conditions. I’m leaving before the system implodes, as its not sustainable.

    • Rachel Chisholm September 14, 2018 at 1:27 am #

      Spot on. And just after the launch of a new initiative for promoting mental health support 8n the work place. Disgusting

    • paul pendlebury September 14, 2018 at 9:26 am #

      I’m at the other end a foster carer and I find the council’s are very Victorian In there dealings with problems across the board it’s time people made a stand against this sort of backward thinking and think more of the adult who’s there to only help children and stop being blinkered in work ethics

    • Dom Riley September 14, 2018 at 2:36 pm #

      The social worker was ill!
      Not being able to recognise how ill they are and a reluctance to seek help is a symptom of a spiralling mental health condition. The manager should have been more proactive in offering support & recommending an OH appointment.
      Of course the social worker wanted to return to work & not take time off knowing how behind they were, that happens all the time when people care about their work & colleagues, they drag themselves in. Poor social worker couldn’t do right for doing wrong whilst battling a clearly severe mental health condition when their thoughts would have been irrational & out of control. So we sack people for this now? Shameful, the social worker was ill!!

    • Daisy September 14, 2018 at 4:22 pm #

      Well said.

  2. sw111 September 13, 2018 at 8:25 pm #

    This is another case of such inhimane attitude towards the worker and unfortunately everyone, including management and hcpc swoop on the worker.
    There was another case not that long when the worker had taken her life due to work pressure – that was the coroners verdict.
    The management and hcpc through their approach are pushing the workers over the edge.
    However, if that worker was the “capable one”, management would have rushed to protect that worker.
    It’s appalling.

  3. Phil Sanderson September 13, 2018 at 9:02 pm #

    Another pitiful example of a worker put to the sword whilst the management get off scot free. Tut Tut you really must manage your mental breakdown and make sure you keep liquid logic up to date!

  4. sandy beach September 13, 2018 at 9:09 pm #

    “After receiving evidence from the registrant and having questioned witnesses, it is [still] not clear why the registrant had what has been referred to as a ‘meltdown’ in her professional practice leading to these proceedings,” the tribunal said.

    followed by;
    -The tribunal noted that the social worker, who chose to give evidence at the tribunal, appeared “emotionally fragile, vulnerable and at times visibly distressed”
    and
    – The tribunal’s conclusion was postponed by several months after the social worker was assessed by paramedics on the penultimate day, and she did not appear at the reconvened hearing.

    However despite determining the SW gave
    -rambling and contradictory answers,
    -the panel also noted that a responsibility on practitioners to advise managers when they are not coping with work.

    So imagine this transposed onto CSE, it’s kinda like the old days when everyone said its the child’s fault they are being abused? Which brought us the various rochdale etc scandals.

    Or the old days of Domestic violence, but he is your husband, sometimes he just gets a bit cross and hits you, but you can sort it out cant you, bye. Which brought us MARAC as women were dying.

    Or the old times with depression, well, just pick yourself up? After all you just need to pull yourself together, which brought us various campaigns against sucide as comments like this, strangley didnt help?

    Ah the HCPC time for a party when they are gone!

  5. Lesley September 13, 2018 at 10:29 pm #

    The whole system is an unfunny joke. If service users were treated as badly as this Social Worker, there would be an uproar

    • Charlie September 15, 2018 at 8:24 pm #

      There would be an intervention!

  6. Alison September 13, 2018 at 10:40 pm #

    Ruth, you took the words out of my mouth. You saved me a long time typing!!!

  7. Prussik September 13, 2018 at 10:50 pm #

    More victim blaming from the HCPC – it’s no wonder no one wants to be a social worker or remain as one!

    • Darcey September 17, 2018 at 8:56 pm #

      Modern day workhouses disguised as social work offices.

      I became exhausted giving up my personal life in order to achieve unrealistic expectations and demands of managers devoid of compassion or duty of care.

      My self care was to get out and I thoroughly recommend it.

    • Maria September 19, 2018 at 4:50 pm #

      I’ve just handed in my notice after 12 yrs & it feels fantastic!

  8. Claire Jones September 13, 2018 at 11:20 pm #

    I agree

  9. jen September 13, 2018 at 11:34 pm #

    How can someone with a competent manager/legal team not be submitting court reports though? that’s a systemic issue, not just a personal issue. Most LA’s require a court report to be completed 5 working days prior to submission deadline for checking over by management and legal – where are the safeguards supporting this social worker? I’m not saying they are blameless in this situation (nor am i saying they are to blame – just going on what is said in this article), but you have to question the system around them that allows this to happen.

  10. Martin Porter September 14, 2018 at 9:08 am #

    So the HCPC is sanctioning someone for not going off sick??!?

    As the employer had clearly spotted that work was affecting the social worker’s heath they had a legal duty to refer her for an Occupational Health assessment. There is no mention of why this was not done, and crucially no sanction on the employer for not doing so.

  11. sw111 September 14, 2018 at 9:17 am #

    When the management wants to protect their worker they would go out of the way and be defensive even though the lack of activity on part of the manager leads to significant harm of a child.
    However, if they want to make a case against a worker they will create a situation, raise the bar, give inconsistent message to set the worker to fail.
    The hcpc happily follows the managements recommendations, take their word as gospel completely dismissing the systematic failures and bullying.

    • Daisy September 14, 2018 at 4:21 pm #

      You’ve hit the nail on the head. This happens all the time.

  12. Fred September 14, 2018 at 9:51 am #

    The HCPC’s pompous statement about a team manager in melt down is typical and who so many social workers would like to see an end to this ridiculous madness.

    If you make a mistake as a social worker, you now get a triple sanction for the same error. First you get disciplined by your employer. Then if not already sacked (or even if sacked) the HCPC clowns are all over you, then with the SSSC in Scotland you get free press publicity and public humiliation in the media. And this all supposed to be to “promote the social work profession”.

    All this would be bad enough, but social workers are, on top of all this utter stupidity, then forced to pay a fat wad each year for the privilege of having these arrogant examples of sheer pomposity making judgements about you and your colleagues.

    And they wonder why social work vacancies are hard to fill.

  13. frustrated September 14, 2018 at 10:40 am #

    Why don’t HCPC go after all the supervisors who have acted inappropriately when a practitioner told them they weren’t coping with work. Or even the few good ones who just say there is nothing they can do because everyone else in the team is overloaded.

    I feel for this social worker it is an example of why it is best to leave social work before you are completely broken.

  14. Minnie Watson September 14, 2018 at 10:43 am #

    Again, the individual being blamed for the “meltdown” occurring in public services! This poor worker made Ill by the increasingly unrealistic demands of our job. This should serve as a warning to all of us. Never have I seen the HsPc blame the management structure or systemic problems, always the personal weakness of the individual worker. We need to stop this blame culture before we all fall foul to it…

  15. Graham Hennis September 14, 2018 at 10:51 am #

    So, we have a situation where the SW is becoming stressed and over worked, the GP advises her to take time off work, but she can’t as she is too busy! I think this would ring true for every Social Worker who feels that they can’t take time off as they will then have to go through the sickness procedure and then be monitored. When it is the amount of pressure that people are put under that causes them to take time off on sick leave!
    The article states,
    The tribunal noted that the social worker, who chose to give evidence at the tribunal, appeared “emotionally fragile, vulnerable and at times visibly distressed” and gave rambling and contradictory answers.’
    And
    “The tribunal’s conclusion was postponed by several months after the social worker was assessed by paramedics on the penultimate day, and she did not appear at the reconvened hearing”
    Didn’t the tribunal conclude that something was wrong with the SW’s mental health and that rather than being punished that she needed help and support? A vulnerable offender would be supported in court so why not provide this same support to a professional?
    The big question is “what were the managers doing whilst this person’s practice was declining? Did they offer any support or just go for the jugular?”. And that she could have struggled to ask for support, possibly feeling that she would have been considered weak and unable to do the job?
    Even if they did offer support having to go through the HCPC process is daunting enough and if you are already struggling to cope then this is something that can push a person over the edge. The SW’s lack of engagement could have been down to her mental health state where she probably just couldn’t face other people or see any way out of the dilemma that she was in.
    As for not recording on Liquid Logic, I don’t blame her; the systems are not always logical and can add to the stress and pressure that workers are under.
    When these cases come up the response is that “the practitioner by writ of being professionally qualified should be able to manage their health, well-being and workload”. What fails to be mentioned is that the Employer has a duty of care to the Employee; where the Employer should monitor the workload and the Employee’s well-being and take measures to support them.

  16. JM September 14, 2018 at 11:11 am #

    Can someone tell me the HCPC perspective on what is an acceptable caseload in terms of staff to service user ratios?

    If we are going to run the risk of getting sacked then we should know what’s acceptable/unacceptable for each service.

  17. Sad September 14, 2018 at 1:09 pm #

    Just wow HCPc!!

    When do they disbanded this victim blaming organisation again? Not soon enough in my book

  18. seizertheday September 14, 2018 at 5:03 pm #

    What is the point of the HCPC just to judge and beat up social workers. I left the profession for a break after cancer treatment. Now it is seemingly impossible to get back into the profession so I’ll go and do something else where I will be supported and not judged. Just walk away from such a stressful profession

  19. Julie September 14, 2018 at 5:48 pm #

    Enough blaming of social workers, how about look at the broken system they work in, seven years in the local authority and I had to leave to preserve my sanity and get my family life back, sadly it’s just not worth it! I really feel for this social worker and I have seen this profession destroy many other amazing social workers.

  20. KM September 14, 2018 at 10:57 pm #

    Does modern slavery ring a bell. Screwed top down and bottoms up. Performance targets, process and procedures and resource issues….. Social workers have little chance to survive, if this blames system continues.

  21. Jobren September 15, 2018 at 5:57 am #

    Who else is thinking of leaving this job? I see numerous complaints about the way social work colleagues are being treated by managers and HCPC. Who would recommend this work to an aspiring under graduate considering a career in social welfare?

  22. Terrel September 15, 2018 at 7:31 am #

    Frightening. So we all pretty much risk getting suspended by the HCPC as most of us are working high caseloads but just haven’t yet reached breaking point.

  23. Karen September 15, 2018 at 9:43 pm #

    I’m a service user. A children’s social worker refused to believe that I’m not mentally ill, dispite my own gp telling them.
    Though I’ve just found out that my local authorities children’s services doesn’t require mental health awareness training, which in 2018 is awful. It’s important no matter what walk of your life to be more aware of mental health it’s happens in 1in 4 adults and 1 in 10 children and young people.
    Childrens social workers often miss the vital signs of young person mental health issues as they are too focused on the wrong things, they are quick to blame parents for children failing to go school, and for the basic need for support at crisis.
    10/10/2018 is world mental health awareness day.

  24. Nate, a social worker September 16, 2018 at 1:58 am #

    Don’t you guys have unions over there?

  25. Mandy Snee September 16, 2018 at 12:09 pm #

    Has a social worker’s union ever helped? Like could a worker in this kind of situation take their employer to a tribunal for unsafe working conditions?

  26. Gwyn Powell-Wilde September 16, 2018 at 9:56 pm #

    Social Workers drowning while HCPC stand and describe the water to them.

  27. Paddy September 17, 2018 at 10:01 am #

    This honestly makes me weep with frustration and anyone who is a social worker will understand. Those who are not will never understand the pressure that makes someone who feels so stressed refuse to go off work because this would only increase the stress. I have been there: the referral to Occy health and the assumption that I’m not managing because I’m individually incompetent and need to manage my time more effectively…nothing of course to do with the relentless high case loads, lack of support and constant demands and attendances at panels for funding that is never agreed etc. And then of course there is the constant harassment from managers (disguised as concern for your wellbeing) and the underlying suggestion that if you can’t manage then maybe you should consider leaving. And of course the reality that when you do go back to work (probably after 2 weeks because you can’t take any more stress of occupational health appointments or phone calls from your manager) your cases will be waiting for you, only now they will have reached crisis point and you’ll be thrown right back into it and will find colleagues are unsympathetic because they will see you as weak or taking the piss because everyone is stressed and you have just increased their workload by going off. No it really is less stressful to stay in work and have a meltdown than go off with stress

  28. frustrated September 17, 2018 at 1:44 pm #

    why why does our profession put up with this. I have been dealing with other so called professionals who are inept and don’t do what they are meant to but they have no repusscisions they just demands the money and leaves others to sort their mess.

  29. Adrian Wilkins September 17, 2018 at 7:38 pm #

    It’s difficult to explain the insanity of this decision, and more fundamentally, how it progressed to a HCPC tribunal hearing in the first instance. It is not up for debate, or a HCPC determination, as to whether social workers are dealing with unsustainable workloads which impact on their mental health – the evidence is well and truly in. These issues are themselves the consequence of budget cuts, combined with the range of structural issues which have increased the number of families in crisis. Social work needs to radically rethink how it understands its relationship to the state in this country. We are increasingly in a position of being unable to deliver meaningful social work services while risking the naming and shaming of the HCPC. Irrespective of what the new regulatory regime holds, social work needs to stand up for itself – certainly no one else is.

  30. Cymone Medas September 18, 2018 at 6:54 pm #

    This is so sad. Clearly this social worker was not receiving any support from her supervisor. An environment should have been created where employees can off load.

  31. Deb September 19, 2018 at 2:59 pm #

    I feel so much for this social worker.
    I am going through a HCPC hearing myself and I have to say the stress is unbelievable!
    The HCPC say that sanctions are not punitive. Well I can tell you that is exactly what they are.
    The HCPC need to get into the ‘real world’. It just shows how out of touch they are with the stresses and strains of the social work profession (and the other professions they govern).
    They have no compassion!
    Shame on you HCPC!
    I hope the social worker get the help and support they need to make a full recovery.

  32. Dainty green September 19, 2018 at 4:11 pm #

    Shocking behaviour by HCPC when there is evidence to suggested this worker is overly committed. I agree a party at the end of HCPC. They are ruthless to Social Workers, incompetent in their decision making and not fit for purpose in supporting the cause of Social Workers.

    I guess HCPC panel members even those who are Trained Social Workers have no real experience in the core business of what we do. We are consistently faced with poor systems, ongoing changes, high case load and expectations above and beyond what we are paid to do; but that never seem to reflect in any decision made by HCPC.!

    I do hope they read these reviews as I think overall i have lost confidence in their Intergrity, knowledge, reasoning and commitment to our very difficult profession.

  33. Janet Francis September 19, 2018 at 4:25 pm #

    The social worker argued that she had been “increasingly overloaded with work, and subject to inadequate management and supervision” – and her line manager admitted she could have been more proactive in monitoring her.

    Only the social worker was accountable? The article certainly didn’t make mention of anything different to this. Social workers work in isolation do they? Safeguarding decision are made entirely by the Social worker on their own are they? Designed to be a part of the problem or part of the solution in looking at finding new ways to safeguard the Social Worker and not just the Management. Social Workers are not fodder, just as service users aren’t. There needs to be a more proactive political agenda where understanding is the order of the day rather than looking for punitive measures, in line with keeping who in employment? It sounds a very imbalanced view of this Social Worker but she had worked for how long and kept on as a social worker for how long? The accountability of managers needs to be looked at to keep balance. The Regulator needs to continue to look for balance.

    • Joe September 19, 2018 at 5:15 pm #

      I just despair when I read these things I think the HCPC is totally ruthless and unfit for purpose and the sooner they are removed from our profession the better. I thought the purpose of registration was to raise the profile of our profession but that really doesn’t seem to be the case all these regulators we have had to register with are in my view just in it for the money. This poor SW is a good example of how the system churns people up and then spits them out broken. This truly is a worthless profession- I wonder what they would actually do if all SW’s in England just refused to pay their registration fees I can’t see them barring us all from work!

  34. SarahJ September 19, 2018 at 4:27 pm #

    Awful. No other profession would treat their employees like this. I actually have no words.

  35. Maria September 19, 2018 at 4:45 pm #

    No wonder no-one wants to be a SW anymore & they are leaving the profession in droves & most Children’s Services are run by agency SW’s! No-one is safe in a Local Authority, get out while you have your sanity & SW qualification! They are very dangerous & hostile places to work in!

  36. Anna September 20, 2018 at 3:02 pm #

    Is this not a case of disability discrimination?

  37. Errin September 20, 2018 at 9:29 pm #

    The stark brutal reality of social work today. The pressures of the job takes a terrible toll on our physical and mental health. It is not a profession you can stay in long term and it is unreal the amount of social workers leaving.

  38. AM September 24, 2018 at 9:25 am #

    I have just taken several weeks off work for stress as advised by my GP. Upon return, nobody was there to greet me, no Occ Health referral was done despite the policy stating it should have been done (a cost implication for the authority), the in house support team is as poor as poor can be (turning people away as nobody there to speak with), continued limited support from management (still waiting for my stress risk assessment action plan to be returned to me)!
    I am a senior and have recognised that I am not coping with the sheer volume of work and pressures of the job (all unrealistic expectations I might add) and I have took all the measures required of me to get support. The support is not there – the LA just have one focus – saving money at whatever cost!
    I de-allocated cases myself and took all the measures myself that my manager should have done.
    I am now in the process of leaving the organisation and stepping down from management as it is not worth it!
    I am also trying to leave the profession…it’s not what it used to be!

    I feel for each social worker who is not supported in the way they should be and I am angered by the blinkered managers who bury their heads in the sand – where are their morals and more importantly where has their social work values gone!!

  39. Steward October 12, 2018 at 7:39 pm #

    I’m writing as a Social Worker and a Union Steward. Agree with so many of the points. Worker gets stressed and has high caseload. Goes off sick and is then put through capability or managing sickness absence. Or something goes wrong on a case and it’s on them not the management. We are fighting against this as hard as we can and the HCPC isn’t helping. And we pay them!!!