‘As soon as a crisis occurs, it can get unmanageable’: what children’s social workers say about their caseloads

Community Care's survey of children's social work caseloads highlighted the fine lines between coping and being overwhelmed, and that simple numbers do not tell the whole story

Image of stack of files (credit StockPhotoPro / Adobe Stock)
(credit StockPhotoPro / Adobe Stock)

Community Care’s recent survey of children’s social workers’ caseloads asked respondents to categorise their current caseload as one of four categories: comfortably manageable, mostly manageable, hard to manage or completely unmanageable.

As well as those classifications, we asked practitioners to comment in more detail about how their social work caseloads made them feel, and affected their lives.

Their comments underline the fact that workload stress cannot always be gauged by simple case numbers, and illustrate the fine lines that may lie between feeling able to cope with your job, and feeling overwhelmed by it.

‘Comfortably manageable’

“Currently my caseload has diminished to its present number after a period of working with families and recently closing a number of cases. The manageability of the cases could change quickly with the allocation of new ones.”

Social worker in a South West safeguarding team, 13 cases

“As an advanced practitioner my caseload is managed well but I do have to support other staff. While my caseload is currently manageable, things could worsen with the current climate of coronavirus – by picking up other cases but also supporting social workers with planning and decision-making while managing my own cases, which usually are more complex.”

Social worker in a North West safeguarding team, nine cases

“I work in a supportive team and receive regular supervision and management oversight. I can approach my manager and more experienced colleagues for advice at any time. My colleagues and I will also cover things for each other if need be, meaning that it’s a team effort.”

Social worker in a North East safeguarding team, 20 cases

“I have the largest caseload in my team but all my children are long-term matched, so placements are stable. Additionally, I have had my cases for the last two years and have a good relationship with the foster carers.”

Social worker in a South West children in care team, 16 cases

‘Mostly manageable’

“This number of cases would typically be less manageable, but with a student social worker on placement with me currently this reduces the pressure. My caseload has been as high as 27. While numbers can appear small, as soon as a crisis occurs, this can lead to a ‘lower’ caseload becoming unmanageable.”

Social worker in a Yorkshire and Humberside end-to-end team, 19 cases

How we surveyed

Community Care’s survey ran during the first two weeks of March 2020. We asked all respondents, 784 of whom gave complete responses, to identify themselves as children’s social workers employed by English local authorities or children’s trusts and to specify whether they worked full- or part-time hours. Average caseload numbers were calculated using the responses from the 679 social workers who said they worked full-time.

“I am a newly-qualified social worker undertaking my ASYE. I’m supposed to have a protected case load of 15-17, but this is not in effect due to high volumes of children in care within my local authority. I have good and bad days with my caseload.”

Social worker in a North East children in care team, 19 cases

“I am able to manage my day-to-day tasks, but when it comes to important work – such as life-story work – I am unable to find the time to complete this well. Some tasks drift due to competing priorities. I do not feel able to work at the level young people deserve, but am able to meet statutory duties.”

Social worker in a North West children in care team, 16 cases

“I chose ‘mostly manageable’ due to our model of working, where we can do an assessment, work with CP/CIN cases and also cover children in care. [The mix of cases] can change over time and can become harder to manage. In my old team my manager was highly unsupportive and made us feel deskilled and undervalued, so my current cases would have felt unmanageable, but in my new team the manager is incredible at containing her team – she really understands your limits.”

Social worker in a South East end-to-end team, 14 cases

‘Hard to manage’

“Seven of my cases are complex ones with young people involved in gangs and country lines, going missing and self-harming. I hardly get enough time to do direct work and build relationships with young people. I could use my systemic training experience to work more hours with young people and their families, but there is no time.”

Social worker in a London children in care team, 19 cases

“The caseload itself is high given the number of children in placement, but what makes it so very much more difficult is the constant addition to paperwork. A manager will create five versions of the same document and ask us to complete them all. We have had a new system that’s completely unfit for purpose, and we are unsupported.”

Social worker in a West Midlands fostering team, 26 cases

“My caseload has had a severe impact on my mental health and work-life balance – I’m working approximately 20 hours overtime for late visits and weekend working. In assessment teams, lots of work needs to be completed prior to handover, which means going into duty weeks with already high numbers. I know I wont be doing this long-term.”

Social worker in a West Midlands fostering team, 26 cases

“I love my colleagues, but the best ones leave all too often due to burnout or seeking more work-life balance. I think we would benefit from clinical supervision to support our well-being in a job fraught with so much personal conflict and ethical dilemmas. Supervision with managers can often involve case direction rather than reflection, and it’s difficult to reflect very personally with your manager, particularly if you are having issues with senior management. An independent psychologist or support person would be very helpful. Within the next year, I would like to change to a less high pressure team such as children in care, which seems to have a lower caseload and more opportunities for direct work.”

Social worker in a London safeguarding team, 19 cases

‘Completely unmanageable’

“I inherited too many care proceedings from social workers who have left. The personal impact is huge – I am setting my alarm at 4.45am just to cope, and am still not meeting task demands.”

Social worker in an East of England end-to-end team, 19 cases

“I am newly qualified, towards the tail-end of my ASYE, and didn’t have a children’s statutory placement during my degree. There is an expectation in our team that carrying larger caseloads is normal, and that social workers need to adapt, rather than the service make any changes. Currently all my cases are CIN, but this doesn’t capture their complexity. My caseload at its highest prior to Christmas was 34, and I know of colleagues whose caseloads were 38 or more. [My workload] is disrupting my sleep, and significantly reducing my confidence as a practitioner. It is unlikely this local authority will retain me in its frontline team much past my ASYE.”

Social worker in an North West safeguarding team, 28 cases

“I think about work constantly because I know what needs to be done. My responses are frequently not planned, but are crisis responses. At home, I am very well-supported by my husband who has taken almost total responsibility for my daughter and household tasks. I love the work. There’s just far too much of it. I am an ASYE.”

Social worker in an East Midlands safeguarding team, 31 cases

“Children are placed out of county – factoring in travel time, individual looked-after children reviews, placement changes/breakdowns and case supervisions, I’m completely unable to deliver a safe social work service. I did my own time and motion study and it revealed that out of my working week, I only spent 9% of my time face to face with the children on my caseload.”

Social worker in an East Midlands children in care team, 22 cases

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3 Responses to ‘As soon as a crisis occurs, it can get unmanageable’: what children’s social workers say about their caseloads

  1. Margaret Logan April 4, 2020 at 4:18 pm #

    I am a retired Social Worker of 4 years. What I have recently been reading in terms of Social Work case loads, is that nothing has changed since I qualified in 2008. I came to the profession late (from nursing) but after reading what present day Social Workers are having to do when given large case loads even as a newly qualified Social Worker I realise that absolutely no changes have been made to make working with Children any easier. Cases going to court need to be concluded in 6 months this generates a huge mound of paperwork plus other cases you are working with need to be concluded as well. As just one example. I had anything from 16 to 27 cases to work with. This doesn’t sound a lot to those who are not in the profession, 1 of my cases alone, had 8 children in the family, all removed and in care. This case was in court, paperwork was a nightmare. Working a ‘ normal day and into the early hours and weekends. Family and friends did nog understand the workings of the job. Timescales are important and especially court cases. Social Workers are Salaried and do not get overtime. They may be permitted to ‘take back’ hours but you can’t because you have so much work to do. Social Work is definitely not a profession to go into lightly. You have to keep up to date with models of working and the law as well as the organisation’s own policies.

  2. Nikki April 4, 2020 at 11:14 pm #

    Does this mean things are going to effect the cases in north west court cases etc

  3. Jane April 8, 2020 at 9:37 am #

    I remember those days as expressed above. Our department offered a £1000 thank you one year. I refused it because the senior manager had the audacity to suggest nearing the Christmas holiday that we all took an extra hour for lunch making it a two hour lunch break. They had no idea of the earlier starts late finishes or the fact we NEVER had time for a lunch break (we ate at our desks). I just felt what is the point of offering a reward for the work we were doing – not knowing what we were doing!