An increasing number of social workers are looking to leave their jobs as working conditions remain “chronically poor” within the sector, according to new research.
The UK Social Workers: Working Conditions and Wellbeing research, co-commissioned by Social Workers Union (SWU) and the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) found that almost two-thirds (61%) of social work practitioners and managers surveyed were looking to leave their current position in the next 16 months. This compared to 52% in last year’s study.
Those working with children and families had the highest desire to quit their current job in that time, with 62% saying they were looking to leave. In comparison, only 55% said they wanted to leave their current job last year.
Independent social workers had the lowest desire to leave their current job at 50%, a small rise from last year’s figure of 49%.
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Almost 40% of the 3,421 members of the SWU and BASW questioned said they were looking to leave the profession entirely within the next 17 months. Around 43% of independent social workers indicated they wanted to leave the profession within the next year – the highest rate of any group.
Increasing levels of stress were also captured by the study, conducted by Bath Spa University, on the working conditions of social workers.
Using the Perceived Stress Scale, a widely-used measure of stress across occupational populations, respondents to the survey produced an overall score of 8.54 out of a maximum 16 on the scale, up from 7.82 in 2017.
Those working in adult social care recorded the highest levels of stress, averaging a score of 8.72. Meanwhile, independent social workers were the group which experienced the highest increase in stress levels, with their score rising from 6.96 in 2016 to 8.32 in 2017.
Meanwhile job satisfaction rates were relatively low, with 21% of social workers saying they were extremely dissatisfied with their job.
Denise, a children’s senior social worker based in the South West, gave her account as part of the survey of what it was currently like to work in the sector: “Demand on social services feels unrelenting, with too few social workers around to cope. In addition, thresholds of all types and names require us to wait longer until we can act regardless of the significant harm which has taken place.
“For example, situations which five years ago would have been responded to the same day by a social worker and police officer, now get filed up to be followed by a phone call days later. And even where action is agreed a shortage of skilled social workers and suitable placements result by default in short-term, unsafe and unrealistic remedies.
“Over the past year many of my colleagues have been off-sick after breaking down under this relentless pressure, while some have already left. It’s heart-breaking to see this happening to my profession.”
High workload and insufficient support
Among factors contributing to high levels of stress were a high workload, a lack of resources for service users and insufficient support, the study found.
A large workload was mentioned 1,890 times in responses to the survey, with people indicating that both the difficulty and amount of work both had an effect on levels of stress.
Social workers reported working an average of 11 hours more per week than they are contracted. Not having enough staff for the number of cases and a tendency to over-record information were two factors which contributed to workload complaints.
Participants suggested that co-working the most difficult cases would be one way in helping to reduce stress in the workplace; this was in conjunction with lowering caseloads. There were also calls for the recruitment of more staff and a fairer allocation of cases.
Insufficient resources were mentioned by 680 social workers, with many saying more community resources were needed for to help service users. However, “aggressive and inappropriate behaviour” from service users and their families was another reality of the job that workers said contributed to stress.
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More than 40% of respondents reported being exposed to negative physical behaviours by service users – this increased to half the respondents among children and families’ social workers – with negative verbal behaviour experienced by around six in 10.
Speaking at the BASW standing conference today in Birmingham, Dr Jermaine Ravalier of Bath Spa University, who co-led the study, spoke of a need for a “greater respect for social work as a profession”.
Social workers said clear management and sticking to policy would improve issues relating to a lack of resources, but also noted an improvement in the behaviour of service users and their families would reduce stress levels.
Increased managerial support was also requested by those taking the survey, who said that reflective supervision was an important element of the profession.
‘Lonely and dispiriting’
One social worker emphasised the poor conditions practitioners are currently experiencing, saying that “children’s social work can feel like a very lonely and dispiriting place to work. Unmanageable caseloads, burdensome and repetitive procedures, clumsy IT systems and inadequate support makes me consider my future all the time.
“I feel worse for the children though, their needs no longer come first. They experience multiple social workers because my colleagues across the region are unable to cope in this broken system. Something needs to change and the voice of the poor and those who are tasked with supporting them must be heard.”
Working through illness
The percentage of social workers turning up to work when they are ill, termed presenteeism, was also measured by the study.
It found that 67% of practitioners had gone into work when they were ill and should have taken sick leave. This represented an increase of 7% from last year when 60% of social workers admitted working through illness.
Those working with children and families had the highest level of presenteeism (69%) in this year’s study – admitting that they worked through illness at least twice a year. Meanwhile, adult social workers saw the biggest increase in levels of presenteeism, rising from 56% to 67% in the space of a year.
Managerial support and demands were two key influences cited behind increased levels of presenteeism, alongside working relationships, change, control, and negative words from service users and/or their families.
General secretary of the SWU, John McGowan, said of the survey results: “The new working conditions report is further and continued evidence that the social work sector is in crisis. It was clearly evident throughout the report that those who work in the sector are incredibly committed to their work, to maintaining the highest of standards for service users, and for the most part, they want to find a way to remain working in social work.
“If this is not addressed then we will be facing a crisis; impacting on the loss of skilled, well trained and necessary staff who impact daily on our lives from the work social workers do covering all ages and backgrounds.
“The government needs to listen to this. once you identify the issues resulting in low workplace morale, addressing the working conditions of social workers is necessary to keep morale from further declining. This is an on-going challenge and we will continue our battle to fight them.”