Majority of social workers looking to leave their job within the next 16 months, says new research

A study of over 3,000 social workers found high workloads and a lack of resources to help service users were the main stressors contributing to poor working conditions

Social care staff turnover continues to rise.

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%.

Read about Community Care’s retention risk tool:

Two local authorities have been using the retention risk tool to safeguard against loss of staff and spoke about how the tool has become central to improving operations.

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.

Rising stress

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.

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.

On-going challenge

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.”

More from Community Care

30 Responses to Majority of social workers looking to leave their job within the next 16 months, says new research

  1. Firestarter October 30, 2018 at 3:10 pm #

    Im heading to NZ. Bye all.. the UK is screwed.

    • J October 30, 2018 at 10:47 pm #

      Nz is a lovely place, but has difficulties, choose your areas carefully- small population everyone knows everyone, Maori people treated badly very often. And earthquakes. Enjoy

  2. Ivan October 30, 2018 at 8:34 pm #

    And this is “New research”? Laughable if it wasn’t so tragic.

  3. Hortense October 30, 2018 at 10:42 pm #

    We’ve all been saying this for years. Nobody gives a damn. 32 years in this profession and virtually nothing has changed. Cheerio.

  4. Jax October 31, 2018 at 5:48 am #

    Is this really news! We have been saying this for years.

  5. Julie October 31, 2018 at 5:53 am #

    I Agree and this is new research. I must admit though working conditions for social work appears to have got worse overload of cases scapegoating and over recording of information. Not sure why it has got worse though is it due to this Tory government ?as since they have got into power more local authorities are failing, not sure what is going on but I do not think things will change. Research questionnaires will not make this goverment listen.

  6. Peter Ward October 31, 2018 at 6:11 am #

    This situation has been serious for some years.Its a combination of reduced funding,riddiculous ecpectations from senior msnagement and politicians.They want the service to look like a michilan star but only want to pay McDonald’s prices.Sw experience a high level of fear from poor senior managers.Look at the disaster zone known as Northampton children’s services.

  7. Denise October 31, 2018 at 7:35 am #

    This is a true reality of exactly that I have used the service for many years to support my now young adult son with severe learning difficulties. I have liaise with local authority professional and multi disciplinary staff and as a parent whose child has been through the system of care.
    Agree with the reality of this report that will only regrettably get worse.
    However the majority of the work that I have experienced through support by a particular known commissioning social worker has been exceptionally brilliant and I commend that personally whole heartedly take heart social workers when supported are a much needed service and should be recognised for the work that they do bless you all social care is a rewarding progression.

  8. Peter fox October 31, 2018 at 8:08 am #

    If social workers were honest with each other and their clients,
    Things could work better for all

  9. Sarah October 31, 2018 at 8:11 am #

    The social work profession will be ignored until a true crisis hits. Instead of reporting on celebrity nonsense, this should feature in the main headline news! The current government doesn’t care about people, only the economy; health and social care professionals have been left clinging onto their important services, making it work only through good will and self sacrifice. Wish I was off out of the UK too.

    • Darius November 19, 2018 at 8:52 pm #

      If working conditions are that bad the why don’t social workers take strike action as they have a union that should represent them. Is this not the course of action they should take to improve their situation.

  10. Tel Francis October 31, 2018 at 9:10 am #

    It could be worse. You could be foster carers. How many of you would swap with a foster care worker?

  11. sw11 October 31, 2018 at 11:24 am #

    Crtical and unsupportive management and workplace culture where bullying is rife contributes to declining morale. It is not surprising that workers want to leave the profession.
    Workers are not valued by the organisation they work for and neither by the public.
    I agree with peter fox, situation would be different if workers (and that includes managers also) are honest with each other and their clients,

  12. Disappointed October 31, 2018 at 2:36 pm #

    I’ve had enough of this thankless relentless excessive workload. I’m saving up for the time I can leave the profession sometime in the next few months with a view to starting again in a new field; lots and lots of planning and preparation; won’t be easy at all but I cannot wait to move on.

    • Stacey October 31, 2018 at 9:26 pm #

      Me too. After 14years in adults I’ve had enough. The pressure, stress and bullying culture is too much. I have no idea what I will do or how I will pay my mortgage but I have to for the sake of my mental health and well-being.

      • Tru November 14, 2018 at 8:51 pm #

        I have same feeling, same experience of pressure, stress and bullying culture. I sometime feel exhusted and feed up with panel process and lack of sr manager support, feeling not connected with my work anymore. Not sure whether I should leave or hang around for new hope and better future because I like being a social worker and the reason I trained as a social worker keeping me positive.

    • Jennifer November 1, 2018 at 8:55 am #

      Is this a profession anyone would recommend as I’m looking to go into this profession at the moment.

      • Errin November 1, 2018 at 10:49 pm #

        I recommend that you steer welll away from social work. it will consume your life People are desperate to leave; so what does that tell you?

      • Cassie November 2, 2018 at 9:06 am #

        Hi Jennifer,
        I’ve been a qualified SW for 5 years and spent 7 years before that as an assistant SW. If you have the passion for it, I do still believe that it’s a profession worth considering. It is undeniably hard work and I think good social workers need quite a sophisticated set of skills (good communication, written and verbal skills, empathy, curiosity, effective organisation and time management to name but a few). It is stressful on the frontline and you have to be resilient. I can honestly say I loved my time in child protection, although I knew it was time to move on after 2 and a half years as it was consuming me and affecting my personal wellbeing. I still work in children’s services but in a less stressful area of the work. I would say go for it! But have a plan to move out of frontline work after a few years. Good luck.

  13. Paul October 31, 2018 at 3:20 pm #

    Helpful in reaffirming what js essentially old news. I think the voluntary sector provides a much better working environment that local authorities – and it is really questionable whether local authorites should remain the main employer lf soci workers.

    I think a better solution would be social work (gp like) practices that allowed social workers a hreater say in developing the orga isational culture and deciding how money should be spent.

    loc authorities too often place their needs (financial constraint) over practice – which js extremely short sighted. Good practice will save money in the lkng run. That includes ensuring that caseloads are low. Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in the early 2000’s showed that lower caselaods was psotivy associated with fewer children needing to be looked after.

    Unfortunately too many in senior roles in local authorities lack the foresight or courage to act on important measages like this. Their mantra is more for less – meaning more work and less money (pay)

  14. dave October 31, 2018 at 3:21 pm #

    They may leave the profession, but the 9% graduate tax for the degree they had to do before they joined it is forever.

    • Disappointed October 31, 2018 at 4:51 pm #

      Some of us aren’t subject to the graduate tax because our qualification date precedes the current loan system. Also changing careers is not an uncommon pathway for many people today regardless of time and energy spent attaining a relevant qualification.

  15. paul October 31, 2018 at 4:26 pm #


  16. Mary K October 31, 2018 at 8:58 pm #

    21 years in front line CP social work, and its almost been a prison sentence with hard labour. Cannot work in a broken system not fit for purpose, so I handed in my notice and looking forward to a SW free future.

  17. Bionic Woman November 1, 2018 at 5:18 pm #

    Education, Police, NHS & Social Work have all been seriously hampered by an explosion in red tape generated by government demand for accountability. The focus has been on writing reports over and over again repetitively churning out the same information for paranoid management teams eager to evidence the achievement of targets. When workers start to stumble with the weight of work, managers criticise and bully to deflect the blame. Workers then leave, so management dumps more unallocated work on remaining workers.

    Slash and burn austerity policies have stripped funding for even a basic service. The charity and goodwill of workers is worn out. The government does nothing to address the problem, but promise that we are at “…the beginning of the end…” of their austerity policies!

    Reality Check – the writing has been on the wall for years.

  18. Ann November 1, 2018 at 7:23 pm #

    I left hospital social work (also did some community work) after 15 years – now I’m not anxious and depressed and sleep ok most nights! Such a shame for all the amazing people who work in social work and do their best every day with little support or means of helping people. Sad times.

  19. Lalaland November 2, 2018 at 9:31 pm #

    Statutory social work services have been able to bully, control, and dump excessive and oppressive workloads on front line staff whilst giving zero support, as we have allowed and enabled them to do so unchallenged and unchecked for years. The profession has been in crisis for years, and is at the point of total collapse. When do we say enough is enough and leave end masse? Social workers are not good for standing up for themselves as a collective group, unlike nurses or teachers. I started to get chromic headaches and chest pains, and I realised no job was worth risking my physical or emotional health, so I handed in my notice the next day. I’m looking forward to finishing up and following the yellow brick road out of this toxic mess called CP SW.

    • Darcey November 5, 2018 at 6:15 pm #

      Well said. I left the torturous world of CP and it took me a year to decompress.

      • frustrated November 6, 2018 at 10:00 pm #

        I think SWs are not good at standing up for themselves collectively because there is a lot of rule and divide, lack of energy due to the emotional nature of the job and just being too busy doing it. The system is broken and it breaks the conscientious caring workers

  20. Braveheart November 6, 2018 at 9:32 pm #

    Working over 30 years in frontline child protection, 11 years in Scotland and it’s just getting worse every year. No admin support, no resources, outdated IT systems, an inspection system that is out of date and focussed on processes and not outcomes, duplication of information all the time, corporate complaint procedures where every moan of service users is being investigated, offices with no working heating or break areas, poor salaries, no parking even so it is expected to use personal cars for work all the time. Too late for me to leave the profession but it’s hard to stay motivated.