Cuts causing stress and long-term sickness, social workers tell survey

More than eight in 10 practitioners say they are unable to give children support and time they need

Shrinking services are increasing stress levels and making social workers unwell, practitioners surveyed by a leading children’s charity have said.

Of 295 children and families’ social workers who participated in the research by Barnardo’s and YouGov, 79% said statutory sector workers were stressed, with many experiencing long-term sickness as a result. The findings come in the wake of a debate last week at Community Care Live, where sector leaders discussed the need for employers to do more to support practitioners experiencing emotional distress.

Reflecting the stretched picture, 85% of social workers also said they were unable to give all the children they work with the support and time they needed.

The main survey, which explored standards of care for vulnerable children, included responses from teachers and law enforcement staff, with 1,090 professionals participating overall. Barnardo’s shared the responses relating to social workers with Community Care.

Rising thresholds

Broadly mirroring the findings of an all-party parliamentary inquiry published in July, 73% of social workers said thresholds for accessing support had risen, to the point where “only the most extreme cases are offered services”.

A majority (62%) said they had seen an increase in the overall numbers of children at risk of harm, while just over half (53%) said there had been a rise in numbers of children who had experienced multiple forms of abuse or trauma.

A large majority (82%) blamed a lack of early intervention services, which research by the Institute for Fiscal Standards (IFS) for the Children’s Commisioner for England, published in June, revealed had been cut by 60% in real terms between 2009–10 and 2016-17.

Seventy per cent of practitioners, meanwhile, said children and families were waiting too long for help and support, with 51% also stating that children were experiencing increased incidences of abuse and trauma while waiting.

Confidence issues

Most social workers remain confident in their own abilities, according to the Barnardo’s survey results, with 84% deeming themselves to be sufficiently skilled to “deal with and respond to” children with complex vulnerabilities.

Despite that, almost half (44%) said they lacked confidence in their ability to offer effective support for children considered to have experienced multiple forms of trauma and abuse.

More than eight in 10 cited a lack of resources as a barrier to children getting the support they need, while 67% highlighted the postcode lottery as to what is actually available.

A third (32%) of respondents also said they felt partner agencies do not work well together to prevent complex child abuse and trauma.

Familiar picture

Maris Stratulis, England national director for the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), expressed concern but not surprise at the findings.

“Sadly, these figures echo research commissioned by BASW and the Social Workers’ Union (SWU), which showed 75% of social workers are feeling stressed in terms of their work and that 52% want to leave the profession within 15 months,” Stratulis said.

She added that the amount of time social workers were having to spend on admin and other tasks, as highlighted by the organisation’s 80-20 campaign, was further exacerbating the situation.

“BASW England is committed to working with local authorities to promote and share innovative best practice so that social workers can do the work that they were trained to do: develop trusting relationships with children, families and vulnerable adults to improves outcomes,” Stratulis said.

‘Trying to get the basics right’

Rachael Wardell, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services workforce development policy committee, said local authorities were “doing the utmost to get the basics right so that good social work can flourish”.

“Some of the best protections from the impact of stressful work are manageable caseloads and high quality, regular and reflective supervision, as well as improving administrative processes to enable for more direct work with children and families,” Wardell said. “However, these protective measures are harder to achieve against a backdrop of funding cuts and an increasing number of children and families in need of help and support.”

Wardell insisted there was “no evidence” local authorities were raising thresholds across the board, but acknowledged area inconsistencies and that cuts to early help were inevitably increasing pressure on services.

Meanwhile Barnardo’s chief executive, Javed Khan, described the survey as depicting a “perfect storm”.

“The results of this survey are a wake-up call,” Khan said.

“With less and less resource for early intervention, and long waits for specialist mental health services, we are in danger of failing a generation of vulnerable children who face a future without hope,” he added. “It’s also a false economy – young people who don’t get help now may develop far deeper and more costly problems in the future.”

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