‘Eight months in, I feel pessimistic and tired, and I wonder if social work will be the career for me’

A social worker in their first year discusses the pressure of beginning practice in an 'inadequate' local authority and being made to feel guilty over fears and anxieties

Photo: Bits and Splits/Fotolia

by Anonymous

Like thousands of other newly qualified social workers, last September I embarked upon my Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (ASYE), marking what I hoped would be the beginning of a challenging and fulfilling career.

In theory, the ASYE is supposed to be a comfortable middle-ground between education and qualification, a chance to find your feet before caseloads and complexities really step up, with an emphasis on support and training throughout. In a local authority that has recently been deemed to be ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted, however, this has very rarely felt like a reality.

Eight months in, I feel pessimistic and tired, and I’m left wondering how much longer social work will be the career for me.

After finishing my qualification in the summer, I was itching to move into practice. I was relieved to have passed all my assignments, and felt, maybe naively, that my placements had given me a solid foundation to start building my experience. I felt particularly grateful to be returning to a local authority where I’d spent time on placement and hoped the familiarity would help me hit the ground running.

Fading optimism

It wasn’t long, however, before this optimism started to fade. My ‘capped’ caseload lasted for a month. Since then, I’ve constantly had more cases allocated to me than the supposed limit. Particularly with such limited experience, I often feel like I’m failing to give each family the time and quality of work that they deserve.

Read more about social worker experiences of the ASYE
‘I hate being a social worker but I’m not trained for anything else’: how social workers struggled with the ASYE
49% of ASYE social workers promised a protected caseload don’t have one, survey finds
‘It’s really hard to protect an ASYE’s caseload, but if we don’t, the programme falls apart’

When I raised this with my manager, their response was to point me towards other social workers who had more cases than I did and were managing.

This has been part of a familiar pattern for supervision, where I and others have been made to feel guilty for raising our fears and anxieties. Supervision itself has often been delayed or cancelled, and I was surprised to find out recently that it’s supposed to have happened once per fortnight.

I don’t think that this is necessarily the fault of my own or other line managers, as it fits into a much wider feeling that the whole local authority is stretched to breaking point. Caseloads are high across the board, and particularly during the Ofsted inspection itself, there was a really noticeable sense of anxiety going around.

Before I came to social work, I’d spent time working in schools, and I knew from this how exhausting the time around an Ofsted inspection could be. What struck me about my experience during my ASYE, however, was the way that this pressure filtered all the way down to ASYE participants like me, and even students on placement. I’d prepared myself for the fact that an upcoming inspection might have an impact on my first few months of practice, but I don’t think I’d grasped how much of a culture of fear and recrimination it would create.

‘Ofsted’ felt like a monster

In the months before, ‘Ofsted’ felt a bit like a monster that was used to frighten naughty social workers into making sure every email and phone call was duly noted. It was easy to forget that the inspection was supposed to reflect the effectiveness of the service as a whole, and not to single out individual workers whose plans were written-up late.

This sort of environment often means that I’ve felt the learning aspects of my ASYE have been minimised or forgotten. Although I’m lucky to have been involved in a diverse range of cases from Child in Need to Looked After, I’ve rarely found the time to reflect or consolidate my learning.

Instead, I’ve often felt seriously out of my depth, or like I’ve been given responsibilities that I’m not properly equipped for. What makes this even worse is that I’ve often felt like I don’t know who I can turn to for guidance, with managers and experienced social workers stretched to the limit with their own work.

I know that I’m not alone in feeling like this, and the morale amongst my ASYE peers has been dipping for a while now. Lunches and coffee breaks frequently turn into group support sessions, and I know that several of my colleagues are seriously considering leaving before they’ve finished the programme.

It’s been months since I felt able to use my study days to go on training or to catch-up on some academic reading, and instead I often find myself using them to make sure that my emails are all caught-up and my case notes are up to scratch. The ASYE was billed as a protected time to learn and grow, but it’s been a long time since I’ve felt like I have the space to properly reflect and adapt.

During the inspection, I and other ASYE social workers felt a real disconnect between the messages of optimism we’d been hearing from senior management, and the months of experience we’d had of feeling overworked, out of our depth and undervalued.

In some limited ways, I suppose, the Ofsted report was a relief: it was a relief to know that this isn’t the way social work is supposed to be.

This article was written by a social worker in their assessed and supported year in employment.

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15 Responses to ‘Eight months in, I feel pessimistic and tired, and I wonder if social work will be the career for me’

  1. Elouise May 8, 2019 at 2:02 pm #

    This is indicative of working in a service that is meant to support and facilitate change with families! Good managers are receiving huge pressure to operate under pressure themselves , while ineffective managers are using the system for finger pointing and blame. To change this is going to need a cultural shift! We owe this to each other as caring human beings!
    The majority of Social workers/Early help Practitioners do this work because they believe that it is a valuable and rewarding job!
    I left my position because of the latter type of boss who used ridicule, bullying and finger pointing tactics for a sense of power – that person has now, thankfully, been removed from a management position and can no longer apply these tactics.

  2. Jane May 8, 2019 at 9:45 pm #

    This is so sad to read. I echo what is described. I’m exhausted and have started to have anxiety following a bout of extreme pressure from managers, threats from families and what feels like a constant devaluing from external professionals. I’m beginning to realise no one higher above me actually cares, the amount of over time is simply making me ill and if I did become unwell, the LA would replace me without a second thought. I’ve seen many drop out before me and now realising it’s my time.

    • Darcey May 9, 2019 at 8:17 am #

      This is so sad to read, however, will resonate with many AYSE,s and also experienced workers. People do become ill working within a toxic system pressured by bullying managers to meet performance indicators and targets and basically achieve the impossible. Local authorities are experiencing a mass exodus of social workers with years of experience. NQSW come in and are like rabbits caught in the headlights. All the rhetoric local authorities spew out about valuing and protecting their social workers is laughable and it is not about families or children, it’s about getting reports etc on the system to satisfy data figures. Good luck to those who stay and endure the regime. I left and my life is my own now.

      • Lola May 9, 2019 at 1:51 pm #

        Fully agree. It is really sad to read this and I suspect this will resonate with all NQSW.
        As an experienced SW who has worked for over 20years in adult services this also resonates sadly with me and many other experienced colleagues. Working as a SW whether in adults or children’s services has now become so toxic and stressful. SW are working in a climate of fear, pressure and bullying from managers when they are unable to achieve the impossible asked of them.
        Sadly I do not think this pressure or culture that is now firmly embedded will change and for many they will only leave when years of prolonged stress becomes unmanageable.
        It is disgraceful that NQSW and so many experienced staff are feeling like this when we are supposed to be working in a caring profession.

  3. Tom J May 9, 2019 at 10:45 am #

    Thank you to Community Care for allowing other voices to be heard. Many social workers chuckle when they read the corporate spiel on local authority adverts they work in.

  4. Tom May 9, 2019 at 10:46 am #

    This is exactly how I’ve felt for ages, but my LA is supposed to be good. At least if it’s in special measures something might change

  5. Catherine McCrea May 9, 2019 at 8:46 pm #

    please consider changing your job …as I have found in my 4 years stat social work experience and many more years before that in social care…the culture of your manager and how they lead the team is so important to your experience of work …social workers are in demand as I understand and don’t be afraid to move on ..agency work can give you a good overview..do NOT put up with bullying or lack of supervision

  6. Disillusioned May 10, 2019 at 12:59 pm #

    Unfortunately things do not change even when you are an experienced social worker. The team culture can simply destroy the person’s ability, potential and to be confident.

    It is important that the managers/team culture is supportive. I have known managers to be giving inconsistent, confusing and vague messages to the social worker/s such that it makes you wonder is that a deliberate attempt to undermine you or are the managers so incompetent. In any case, it is the worker who loses out.

    So be careful where you work – sometimes the real picture of the negativity becomes apparent after the damage of that work culture has already been meted. These managers are on the lookout to find lapses to use that against you (no one is 100 percent correct all the time) – this is so toxic and there is no sight for change. There is no recognition on part of the management/work culture how destructive things can be.

    I had never anticipated that negative work culture can be so debilitating.

    There are supportive work places but that sadly that has become rare.

  7. jim May 10, 2019 at 1:29 pm #

    you only get one chance at life [well at least the same life!] so if a job or career is horrible or making us ill its time to get out of it and take if necessary a much lower paid job,downsize etc ,anything that reduces stress associated with what you choose to work at in life

  8. Disillusioned May 10, 2019 at 7:57 pm #

    There is some misconception in my view about the role of social work.

    The goal and aim of safeguarding children are worth pursuing that career.

    But unfortunately the toxic work culture and adversarial management are completely eroding this profession from within and the regulatory body is reinforcing the punitive stance.

  9. frustrated May 10, 2019 at 10:08 pm #

    thank you Disillusioned for your remarks they are more helpful then any counselling has been. Sometimes it can take a long time to realise just how damaging the Social Work culture has been to one’s sense of identity, confidence and abilities.

  10. Frasierfanclub1 May 15, 2019 at 11:41 am #

    I dont believe it is going to get any better I’m afraid, not until we have a change of government Willing to provide local authorities with the resources they need. Since 2010 LAs have lost 67% of funding. Those cuts have been catastrophic upon the fabric of society. Every week it seems that yet another service is deemed inadequate, gets a bit of extra money, change of shiny suited management, meaningless soundbites and an influx of agency workers so disillusioned that they can no longer commit to a permanent contract. It is a tragedy that such a wonderful and rewarding profession has become so unwelcoming that a newly qualified social worker even needs to question their decision to join us.

  11. Revolution Please May 16, 2019 at 9:53 am #

    I agree with all the above comments and sentiments. What will take for social work and social workers to be valued and what what price will we have to pay?

    • Simon Cardy May 16, 2019 at 9:03 pm #

      Your employer should hang their head in shame.

  12. Relieved June 5, 2019 at 9:54 pm #

    I left children’s social work several months ago after nearly twenty years; I’ve had to downsize i.e. lower paid work but I’m exercising regularly and I have a smile on my face at weekends. There is no price you can put on your health and mental well being.