Narrative of social workers stifled by admin needs revision, finds study

Researchers witness creative direct work in two council services despite impact of 'audit culture', but find social work practice and retention shaped by availability of services and co-location with other staff

Research results post-it note on mouse
Photo: Artur/Adobe Stock

The prevailing narrative of relationship-based social work being stifled by the weight of practitioners’ administrative work is in need of revision, a study has found.

Research published in the Child and Family Social Work journal found social workers in two local authorities continued to invest considerable time in delivering creative, positive interventions in families’ lives, despite operating in contexts affected by austerity, inspections and ‘audit culture’.

But the study found major differences between how such “meaningful social work” was delivered and experienced between the two sites – one an office where social workers practised in small discrete teams, and the other where practitioners were more fragmented within a large hotdesking environment.

Greater satisfaction – and much higher staff retention rates – at the small-team site rested not simply on practitioners having a desk among familiar colleagues, but on a range of interlocking factors that enabled a supportive working culture, researchers found.

They observed that the availability of co-located family support workers and team managers made a “vital contribution” to how reflective, sustaining and effective organisational cultures were.

Ability to do direct work

The 15-month study explored how social workers manage long-term relationships with children and families, and the influence of organisational cultures, office design and staff support on those relationships and on practitioners themselves.

“We set out to leave the office with social workers, to find out what they actually did when they interact with children and families – that is the key thing we did that was different [from previous research],” study lead Harry Ferguson, of the University of Birmingham, told Community Care.

In common with previous studies, researchers found no shortage of evidence of things social workers were unable to do because of constraints related to administration and regulation.

But they were nonetheless able to do good-quality work with a significant number of families, Ferguson said. Perhaps tellingly, practitioners at both local authorities did not record the amount of time they spent with children and families.

About the research

The 15-month study was carried out by academics from Birmingham, Lancaster, Northumbria and Nottingham universities, and the University of Auckland, New Zealand.

Researchers were based in long-term social care teams whose primary function was child protection,
and examined practice in relation to 15 cases in each site, encompassing 271 interactions between staf and service users, 54 staff supervision sessions and 54 interviews with families.

The researchers said limitations of the study included the small sample size and the fact that the case samples at each site were different.

“I think the idea that social work has become bureaucratised and dominated by record-keeping, sticking to tight timescales imposed by government guidance, and so on, has had a pervasive impact on how social work sees itself,” Ferguson said. “It seems to me that one implication of these kinds of findings is that social work departments need to become more attuned to what their workers are doing – the narrative has to change.”

Ferguson said he hoped the research could help teams and departments to think differently about what they do, and to recognise what they are able to do, rather than being drawn into “deficit-driven” perceptions of practice.

Promoting a reflective culture

At both sites evaluated by researchers, social workers carried out similar numbers of home visits and spent almost identical amounts of time with families. Visits to families’ homes played the most important part in delivering both social work and family support work.

At the small-team office, however, the co-location of family support workers contributed to an overall far greater level of interaction by staff with service users. The hotdesking site’s family support team was located remotely – and moreover was restricted to performing time-limited intensive work subject to prohibitively high thresholds.  In addition, at the hotdesking site, team managers had their own office, whereas at the small-team site they sat with practitioners.

This co-location fostered an inherently reflective culture due to colleagues being able to regularly have informal discussions about families.

Impact on retention

By contrast, at the hotdesking office, the weight of responsibility on social workers was greater as they largely worked with families on their own, a factor which contributed to much higher turnover: just five social workers left the small-team site while 42 left the hotdesking office during the 15-month course of the study.

A social worker who academics observed working positively with a family undertook most of her work on her own, discussing it little with colleagues, began to struggle with the pressure of her job and ultimately left.

“This typifies our finding that social workers at this hotdesking site did some meaningful relational work,” the study found. “But due to the highly individualised way in which the work was done and the fragmented and individualistic organisational culture, this was rarely sustainable over the long term.”

“These findings support the argument that how services are provided needs to be rethought and shifted to a more social model of child protection, which have family support services at their heart,” the study concluded.

Ferguson added: “When we analysed the data we could see how the kind of work they were doing in the small-team office, which was relational because FSWs were getting more involved as well as social workers, reflected back into the environment and helped create a culture that was reflective, humane and effective. People got more pleasure out of it – so they stayed.”

‘Listening to social workers’

“The research findings will undoubtedly be of interest to local authorities as we strive to create the conditions where good social work practice can thrive,” said Rachael Wardell, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services’ workforce development policy committee.

She added: “Children’s services are part of wider council services, and arrangements in each council will differ, so it is vital that office arrangements are regularly reviewed and managers are able to address any concerns professionals may have so that the working environment does not adversely impact on their mental health and wellbeing or their work with children and families.

“We need to listen to social workers about what would make a difference to them, from regular, reflective supervision and being able to debrief with colleagues following a difficult visit to having a confidential space to make phone calls.”

However, she added that the researchers recognised the practical constraints councils faced in bringing this about, adding that “children’s services are chronically underfunded to meet the level of need in our communities and nine years of austerity has taken its toll on our workforce and our communities”.

‘Feeling safe, supported and valued’

Andy Gill, the England chair for the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) said the research supported findings of BASW England’s 80-20 Campaign, “that teams co-located with family support workers and administrative support helped change working practices to create increased opportunities for direct work with families”. The campaign aims to highlight the imbalance many social workers face between administrative tasks and direct work.

“We know the physical environment, access to free or subsidised car parking, practice-friendly systems and processes and sitting together with your team play a significant part in a social worker feeling safe, valued and supported,” Gill said. “We are currently working on top tips for social workers and managers on how they can practically create more time for direct work.”

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9 Responses to Narrative of social workers stifled by admin needs revision, finds study

  1. J W February 21, 2020 at 4:31 pm #

    Not really a surprise result from this research. Isolating, noisy, lonely places with only your three drawer trolley for company, hotdesking barns are anathema to a supportive team working environment. I know a team threatened with disciplinary action for claiming a set of desks for themselves in an attempt to retain something of the team culture they valued so much. Compulsory isolation does not make for a good working environment. It’s also much worse for students and newly qualified workers because how do they access that valuable informal support and advice that we all need when we’re learning? Local authorities promote hotdesking as a positive step and it may be for some; the more cynical side of me just sees it as a ploy to make money by herding everyone into an aircraft hangar with poor transport links in order to sell off prime user friendly office space in convenient locations.

  2. Lin Newton February 21, 2020 at 5:43 pm #

    I’m wondering how much of the “bureaucratic admin tasks” were completed in workers own time? Home visits are done within the working day, give or take, but “admin” is way too often completed evenings and weekends – the narrative therefore should not change

  3. Tom Barry February 21, 2020 at 7:41 pm #

    Surely they had a What Works Coffee machine to sustain them?

  4. Angela Gadsdon February 22, 2020 at 4:36 pm #

    How many more research studies are there going to have to. be before senior managers actually Do something to bring in effective changes? We all know the issues and front line workers have the answers.. We don’t need any more studies on the problems but study of Why changes are not being made. Put senior mangers and councillors under the spotlight.

  5. peter simpson February 23, 2020 at 3:03 am #

    Interesting reading. I have worked for many years in children’s services and can relate to so much of this article.

  6. Cathy February 24, 2020 at 5:41 pm #

    How frustrating… nothings new! Social work practice years ago was all about small teams developing relationships with families, reflective practice. Social workers know this they tell their managers what they need, what works , but do not get listened to.

  7. Jonathon Appleyard February 27, 2020 at 9:12 am #

    So we are to proudly own that social workers are working well and are not hampered by lack of resources, vacancies,meaningless performance targets and the rest. Apparently we have to reach Pollyanna world and not give in to “Deficient driven narratives” and all based on observations and undefined interviews in two local authorities and 30 interventions. So much for evidence based outcomes. Social workers don’t complain about excessive bureaucracy just on the basis of it being mostly useless to their interactions with service users but because its the explicit manifestation of a management mind set which values administration over imagination, targets over real experiences and budgets over quality of life.

  8. Ferrero Rocher February 28, 2020 at 3:22 pm #

    The best way of stopping the prevailing narrative of social work being one of social workers stifled by admin would be to stop stifling social workers with admin.

    Right, now that we’ve solved that one let’s move on to retention…

  9. M WILSON March 2, 2020 at 7:36 pm #

    I have recently resigned from my job – you can guess which scenario is more similar to mine… So many poor and oppressive decisions keep on being made which are inversely proportionate to staff morale. We are simply not listened to or labelled as “nay sayers” when stating the obvious. Managers respond with “I don’t accept that” when one dares speak out, demonstrating their inability or unwillingness to consider views other than their own. Where is their reflective practice? Why are they not questioning why our views are so in-congruent to theirs?
    I have been working for the Local Authority for 20 years and need to leave for the sake of my own mental health. I feel utterly dejected.