Children’s social workers moving on from their assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE) need more help while they adjust to expectations placed on them as experienced practitioners, government-backed research has concluded.
The first chapter of a five-year study carried out on behalf of the Department for Education (DfE), by the IFF Research agency and academics from two universities, identified the period two to three years after qualification as a pinch-point for social worker stress.
The survey of 5,621 local authority children’s social workers, which was augmented by in-depth qualitative interviews, found half (51%) felt stressed and an identical proportion overworked. Respondents worked an extra seven hours a week on average, with 48% describing an excessive workload as a barrier to career progression.
Among those who had been employed as a children’s social worker for two to three years, 70% reported feeling stressed by their job, while 60% said their caseload was too high.
“The qualitative research identified a shift in perception among some social workers, who began to feel less positive about the role as they moved out of the ASYE, and encountered more of the ‘reality’ of the job,” the report said.
“There is a need to explore how to better support the transition out of ASYE into experienced practitioner roles in order to support retention and develop resilience,” it added.
The new research was conducted across 95 local authorities, with the 27% survey response rate equating to more than one in six of all children’s social workers in England. The 40 qualitative follow-up interviews were split between practitioners planning to stay within their local authority jobs and those looking to move on.
In keeping with other recent studies, it found too much paperwork had a big impact on workplace wellbeing.
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Just over two thirds (68%) of social workers described it as a cause of stress, with 50% citing caseloads more generally and 27% a lack of admin support.
Asked about their working situation, barely more than half of respondents said they had resources (53%) or a physical environment (54%) adequate for their role. Just 50% felt that IT systems supported them to do their job.
Social workers were more positive about the support they received from managers, with a majority saying they received recognition for doing their job well (81%), had confidence in their supervisor’s decisions (79%) and were encouraged to develop skills (76%).
Overall, 74% said they found their job satisfying, though interviews highlighted that job satisfaction was likely to fluctuate with social work’s variable workload and level of emotional drain. Social workers at councils with a higher Ofsted rating were more likely to be happy in their work.
Job satisfaction was another area where some detailed questions – for instance, around how much influence social workers had on their role – revealed practitioners with two to three years’ experience, moving on from their ASYE, felt less positive than new social workers and those with more experience.
Of the social workers surveyed, 14% were already working via an agency. Meanwhile 11% said they planned to move into agency work within 12 months.
Agency workers, who were disproportionately concentrated in London and South West councils, were less likely to report feeling stressed despite having average caseloads of 20, compared with 18 for directly employed social workers.
Half (50%) said better working flexibility was one factor in their move away from council employment. But the single biggest driver was better pay, with 29% describing it as the ‘main’ reason they had gone agency.
Qualitative interviews though also revealed social workers sacrificing income in order to move from stressful roles. Several said they had forfeited retention bonuses in favour of protecting their wellbeing.
An overall workload reduction was the single biggest factor that social workers considering leaving their jobs said could entice them back to local authority work.
One in five (21%) said a more manageable caseload could make them reconsider, with 11% mentioning higher pay as a main consideration and 11% saying less paperwork.
But in its conclusion, the report noted that qualititative interviews had highlighted “how precarious the positioning was between [social workers committed to] staying and (thinking of) leaving”. It was unclear what combination of negative features needed to be present before a practitioner decided they had had enough, it said, and added that this would be a future area of focus for the study.
Responding to the study report, Rachel Dickinson, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), said it offered “important messages” for local authorities.
“There are messages for the DfE and Treasury too, particularly in relation to a lack of resources cited as a common cause of stress by social workers,” Dickinson said. “We know there is not enough funding in the system to meet the level of need in our communities and that this is impacting on our ability to improve children and families’ life chances, which as a country will cost us significantly both in human and monetary terms.
Dickinson added that it was positive that most social workers felt satisfied in their jobs, because this meant they were more likely to stay in them and provide continuity for children and families. “Despite the impact of austerity, local authorities are doing a range of things to resolve difficulties which affect social workers, including investing in dedicated administrative support teams and IT systems and offering flexible working arrangements, and we will strive to continue to do so,” she said.
But she said that ongoing recruitment and retention issues were a concern and reiterated calls for a national, DfE-funded campaign that “clearly articulates that good social work can, and does change lives”.
Meanwhile John McGowan, the general secretary of the Social Workers Union, said the research underlined the “incredibly challenging” nature of the profession.
“Although there are some positives, the challenges of a being a social worker in 2019 still remain – with high stress levels in the workplace, excessive caseloads, the challenges of hotdesking, covering for colleagues who are sick and onerous procedures and timescales,” he said.
Unison’s head of local government, Jon Richards, added: “The government talks a good game about helping families, but its own findings reveal the resources just aren’t there to enable social workers to do their jobs properly.
“Such high stress levels should ring alarm bells at the DfE,” Richards said. “People will fail to thrive in their careers or quit altogether if this situation continues. It’s no wonder councils are struggling to recruit – the government must act as a matter of urgency.”