Safe, supported and happy to go to work: how local authorities can retain their social workers

Evidence-based tool helps local authorities understand the risks they face within social worker retention - and what the solutions are

Photo: hvostik16/fotolia

How can social workers thrive in local authority contexts? This question is at the heart of exclusive research conducted for Community Care by Dr Elizabeth Frost, associate professor in social work at the University of the West of England. Dr Frost looked at the contemporary research literature on wellbeing and retention, and found these basic principles were consistently reinforced:

“Social workers need to feel safe, supported, able to develop, part of a community, and in sync with an organisation that shares their values, and supports and looks out for them”.

For instance, ‘feeling safe’ in social work covers a range of complex issues. Both practical and emotional concerns are relevant. Haight (2017) discusses harm occurring to social workers through issues including under-resourced systems, unfair laws and policies and abusive parents. So to be able to thrive in their roles, social workers need to feel that the organisation is supportive and protective against these pressures.


We know that local authorities struggle to retain experienced social workers; in the year ending September 2018, more than 5000 children’s social workers (16% of the total) left the role at the local authority they were working at. This means councils have to spend already over-stretched budgets on recruiting new staff, employing agency workers and forking out on retention bonuses. And when social workers with experience leave a local authority, service users may get a poorer response.

And the factors that support the retention of social workers are frequently the same set of issues as those around social worker wellbeing – just seen from the employer’s perspective. So the basic principles of feeling safe, feeling part of a community, and so on, are also indicators for a local authority of the potential areas of risk and resilience for retaining their staff.

Development of the retention risk tool

For more than two years, Community Care has partnered with Dr Frost to develop and deliver an evidence-based diagnostic tool that helps senior leaders of children’s services understand the risks they face within social worker retention – and what the solutions are.

The five basic principles are at the heart of a visual dashboard that shows how a local authority is performing against the core retention indicators, such as the availability and quality of supervision, work/life balance and career development. The tool comprises an organisational self-assessment, social worker survey and in-depth qualitative interviews.

The five principles of social worker retention

  1. I feel safe
  2. I feel supported
  3. I feel the organisation values social work
  4. I am able to develop my career
  5. I feel happy to go to work

Merton case study

The London Borough of Merton was the first local authority to undertake the retention risk tool. Merton’s children’s services department was rated ‘good’ by Ofsted in 2017, but despite this, the service had a 25.9% annual turnover of social workers, higher than the national average of 15-16%.

The RRT analysis identified three high-risk areas for social worker retention at Merton:

  1. Overload
  2. Burnout
  3. The transparency of the organisation.

In all these areas, solutions were offered by practitioners, such as more administrative support to deal with paperwork, and better internal communications around secondments and promotion opportunities.

The RRT also highlighted Merton’s key strengths, such as effective training, friendly and supportive colleagues, and supporting practitioners to develop their resilience and confidence.

Paul Angeli, then assistant director for children’s services, said of the RRT:

“It’s helped us in terms of our performance; it’s helped us in terms of our budget, because our agency spend is the lowest it’s ever been, and it’s helped in the delivery of quality. I would encourage everyone to do an exercise around retention of this kind to get a baseline and engage with staff about it”

And these improvements are borne out by the statistics; in the year ending September 2018, Merton’s annual turnover of social workers had dropped to 14.9%. And the agency rate has remained broadly steady at the same level ever since.

What’s next for the RRT

Authorities rated from ‘outstanding’ to ‘inadequate’ have now completed the retention risk tool, with 50% of those authorities now using the tool to replace the Social Work Health Check, the traditional way local authorities have assessed the wellbeing of their social workers.  Lincolnshire County Council, which has carried out the RRT two years in a row, is one of those to have replaced the health check. Sam Clayton, principal social worker at Lincolnshire, said this was because social workers had tended to respond more honestly to Community Care as an independent organisation. And she also said the tool provided more detail than the health check, making it more helpful in planning areas of work.

As more local authorities undertake the retention risk tool, we are building a rich body of data and insights around social worker wellbeing and retention. We plan to share these findings with the sector through our Insight events around the country, in articles on Community Care, and on a new workforce-focused podcast series.

If you’re interested in learning more about the retention risk tool, download our brochure here, or email


Haight, W; Sugrue, E and Calhoun, M (2017)
‘Moral injury among Child Protection Professionals: Implications for the ethical treatment and retention of workers’
Child and Youth Services Review, Vol 82, pp27-41

2 Responses to Safe, supported and happy to go to work: how local authorities can retain their social workers

  1. Anon November 28, 2019 at 2:13 pm #

    I agree completely with the information highlighted in this article.

    Workers have to feel safe, supported and given consistent and clear guidance. The management/managers are the worker’s leaders and how they carry out their task depends on the culture of the place. If injustice meted out is ignored by the rest of the management it will bring about deep suspicion and regardless of glowing publicity to attract workforce it’ll be just a matter of time when the real picture will be known.

    In one local authority, the managers decided to dismiss and then the process to seek evidence or exaggerating accounts to justify their decision began.

    Who would want to work in this local authority?

  2. Klee December 1, 2019 at 5:25 am #

    Totally agree with Anon. If one looks at abuse, it transcends up & down the ‘organic’ organisation. Likewise your comment re: Process of seeking & exaggerating evidence, I have first hand witnessed this practice in care proceedings. Ethically worrying practice of exaggerating evidence in order to get Care Orders. Local authority managers & SW’s must remember service users are “ human” and their intervention needs to be in the best interest of the child in the long term.