More social workers seeking new roles as pay and work-life balance demands raise retention risks

Just one in six practitioners ‘highly unlikely’ to leave current roles compared to a quarter last year, finds annual Community Care jobseekers’ survey

Close up interviewer interview candidate apply for job at meeting room in office
Photo: weedezign/Adobe Stock

By Kirsty Ayakwah and Judy Cooper

More social workers are actively seeking new roles and fewer are ‘highly unlikely’ to move from their current positions, as demands for better pay and flexibility drive increased retention risks for employers.

Those were among the findings of Community Care’s jobseekers’ survey, our now annual report on the jobs market, which was answered this year by 1,353 practitioners, most of whom were social workers.

Reduced stability

The key finding from this year’s figures is a decrease in stable retention within the workforce. In 2018, a quarter (25%) of respondents said they were highly unlikely to move jobs, but this has dropped to 16%, or one in six, in 2019.

This corresponded with an increase in the proportion of practitioners actively looking for jobs since last year, from 7% to 15%. In addition, almost a third of respondents (32%) said they could be tempted to look for another job, or were browsing job adverts (31%).

Greater demand for better pay and work-life balance are among the reasons for the increased retention risks. The latter has topped the list of factors that would tempt social workers to consider a new job in all four of our jobseekers’ surveys. However, its importance has increased over time, from being cited by 48% of respondents in 2014 to 59% in 2019.

Pay has continued to surge in importance, with 53% now saying it is a significant jobseeking factor, compared with 48% in 2018 and just 31% in 2016. This may reflect the legacy of a decade in which the value of social workers’ wages has dropped by a fifth in real terms due to pay freezes and caps and the rising cost of living (Unison, 2019).

Full-time preference

The increasing value of pay and work-life balance was reflected in practitioners’ attitudes to full and part-time work. Overall, 79% wanted to work full-time, a marginal decrease from last year’s 80%, though above the 73% from 2014.

However, analysis of comments provided by respondents showed that, in some cases, practitioners could not afford not to work part-time even if that would help with work-life balance. One London-based respondent said:

It’s all about the financial stability. If I could, I’d prefer to work part time and have more work-life balance and time for my studies; however, I cannot afford a massive pay cut.”

Other reasons for opting for full-time work included job security, paid leave and other benefits and the ability to forge good relationships with service users.

Turn away from agency work

The survey also found a turn away from agency work, with just 10% saying they preferred working as a locum compared with 16% in our 2016 survey. Also, the number of respondents who felt agency work was easier than a permanent role was 34%, compared with 51% in 2016.

The changes are likely to be, in significant part, because of 2017 changes to the so-called ‘IR35 rules’, which means most locums can no longer lower their tax bills by operating as limited companies. They may also reflect focused employer strategies to convert long-term locums into permanent employees.

However, a minority of respondents continued to value the flexibility that agency work offered – including the ability to walk away if they no longer wanted to stay in a role – as well as the increased pay rates.

Responding to the research, Association of Directors of Children’s Services president Rachel Dickinson said: “Positive, continuous relationships matter to the children and families we work with so it’s good news that more social workers expressed a preference for permanent or full-time employment which makes building meaningful relationships more likely. And it’s unsurprising that the reasons why social workers look for another job are similar to other professions from a better work/life balance to career development opportunities. Understandably, pay is a consideration too.”

Research background

Community Care’s  survey took place between July and September 2019, with respondents filling out an online questionnaire, promoted through articles on the website and e-newsletters.

The majority of respondents had a social worker job role (61%), ranging from newly qualified to principal social workers, and a further 14% defined themselves as ‘practitioners’ or ‘senior practitioners’ a title often applied to social workers. Of the remaining quarter, the majority were managers of varying levels of seniority.

Find out more

This is just a snapshot of the results of the 2019 survey. Our full report, which will be published shortly, includes:

  • Demographic analysis, carried out for the first time, of the different jobseeking preferences of children’s as opposed to adults’ practitioners, and more or less experienced social workers.
  • Further analysis of what tempts social workers to consider a new job, and the key factors that make a difference to a practitioner in choosing a new employer.
  • Where social workers go to find out information about a potential employer.
  • What social workers look for in an application and recruitment process, including what puts practitioners off applying for roles.

To get hold of the report, and to hear about how Community Care can help with your recruitment and retention challenges, email

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One Response to More social workers seeking new roles as pay and work-life balance demands raise retention risks

  1. Naeema mohamed November 1, 2019 at 5:13 pm #

    Very useful facts about retention risks

    Thank you.