Third of social workers considering quitting profession in wake of Covid, finds survey

Respondents to Social Workers Union poll report worsening mental health, the need to provide their own PPE and significant concerns about referral spike

Image of an N95 respirator face mask (credit: dontree / Adobe Stock)
(credit: dontree / Adobe Stock)

Story updated 12 July 2020

A third of social workers are considering quitting the profession in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, a Social Workers Union (SWU) survey has found.

The poll of 363 union members, carried out in the last full week of June, found that 23% were now considering leaving social work based on their experiences of practising through the pandemic, with a further 11% saying they were already considering leaving before Covid struck.

Behind this figure lay significant dissatisfaction with access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and the quality of risk assessments carried out by employers, but also the significant impact of working through the pandemic on practitioners’ mental health.

Worsening mental health

Sixty one per cent said their mental health had worsened as a result of work during lockdown, with respondents citing the feeling of isolation, increased workloads, lack of management support, the impact of the deaths of service users, general anxieties about Covid and the significant challenge of balancing work and home life.

On PPE, 54% said provision had been inadequate – with a quarter saying it was “totally inadequate” – and almost two-thirds said they had had to supply their own equipment. In relation to home visits, 51% said they thought risk assessments for carrying these out had been inadequate.

Social workers also reported concerns about the use of virtual contact, with 49% saying this had not been appropriate for most of the people they work with.

There was also widespread anticipation of a surge in referrals as the lockdown eases, with two-thirds expecting a “massive” increase and a further 27% a slight rise.

On the back of the survey, the SWU, which represents 13,000 social workers across the UK, called for a six-point plan to tackle the issues raised:

  1. Adequate PPE and risk assessments: the government must ensure social workers are supplied with adequate PPE, and employers must make this available to them for work and commuting; employers should also be made responsible for carrying out effective risk assessments for face-to-face contact with service users.
  2. Better mental health support: the government must ensure that employers provide counselling for social workers experiencing heightened stress because of the pandemic, and managers should have the training to identify and respond appropriately to stress in social workers.
  3. Employers must plan for a surge in workload: a nationwide recruitment campaign must be implemented urgently and new social workers given better mental health support, including meaningful supervision.
  4. Better treatment for agency staff: amid concerns raised by one-tenth of survey respondents that agency staff have been used as a “human shield” to protect permanent staff from unsafe situations during the pandemic, employers should ensure there is parity in the way agency staff are treated.
  5. Better funding of social work and anti-poverty measures.
  6. A better balance between on and offline support for service users: employers should arrange outreach to enable social workers to meet with service users in locations in a physically distanced way, and provide practitioners with guidance on contacting people through other means.

What research says about Covid impact

The SWU survey is the latest in a string of pieces of research to examine Covid-19’s impact on social work and practitioners themselves. Findings so far include that:

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28 Responses to Third of social workers considering quitting profession in wake of Covid, finds survey

  1. PJ July 10, 2020 at 7:25 pm #

    This doesn’t surprise me in the least, sadly. On a personal note, I regret entering the profession and that has nothing to do with Covid-19. Since qualifying I’ve seen services eroded beyond recognition. We integrate, then we disintegrate only to then reintegrate again. We specialise, then there’s no specialism, just genericism. Our data systems are unworkable and anyone familiar with Swift/AIS will know exactly what I mean. When it takes the best part of a working day to input an assessment whilst simultaneously accepting referrals and managing high risk complex cases… I mean, who isn’t going to burn out? I have to question why this always seems to be the case in Local Authority Social Work? Our NHS colleagues don’t appear to have this problem. And what is going on with regulation? Three separate regulatory bodies in the space of 10 years. I mean, wow, It’s just absurd. And then there’s BASW, who I was a member of for a number of years and then it struck me – What exactly do they do? I’m still no wiser, and let’s not mention the College of Social Work! I honestly think that Social Work would be best placed in the NHS and possibly even absorbed into Nursing as stand alone branch. At this stage I think it would only serve to benefit practitioners and patients/service users alike. And yes, I am jumping ship this year and I’m taking my burnout with me.

    • Pc July 13, 2020 at 12:57 am #

      What an accurate reflection….low paid, high case loads, complicated systems that fail continually, long hours……..Basw….what do they do. Highly paid jobs, self appointed officials funded by people who are dull enough to join.

      • Abigail Jessop July 13, 2020 at 2:00 pm #

        I am a social worker currently i’m employed by the NHS. While I totally agree with all of your points, I have been so disillusioned by my move to the NHS. They are actually light years behind local authorities and if it’s possible even less care is given for the well-being of their workforce.

        • PJ July 16, 2020 at 6:04 pm #

          Now I found the opposite, it was far more open and progressive in my locality and access to training was fantastic. I was far happier working in the NHS, until they pulled Social Work out of CMHTs and generecised everyone thanks to FACS. Now adults aged 16 to 65 with Mental Health problems are unlikely to ever see a Social Worker unless they require care for a physical disability. So on the one hand we have a skilled mental health Social Work workforce that’s been decimated and on the other local NHS services unable to manage demand due to enormous waiting lists, a lack staff, and increasing SUIs due to suicides which may have otherwise been avoided. It’s beyond regressive and very sad for the community.

    • Paul Brown July 13, 2020 at 10:03 am #

      I was saying similar things about representation of social workers when I was dong my training 25 years ago. Fire Service , Nursing Teachers etc get not only get a better press along with the Police but they are seen as individual bodies. Working for the local authority you get lumped in with every one else who comes under the union who works for local government. I always felt that we needed to be like the others and been seen as professional group of public sector workers and be able fight for better pay and conditions like those do. It does not help that many people do not know Social Worker do. They either think they just take kids off people or are carers. I don’t think it gets recognises as a profession sometimes. As for local authority systems etc – the funding ahs been cut so much I the last ten years I am surprised we are still working for LA’ which I am sure is the long term plan for this government. I have worked for health in the past and obviously know people and they are not great at treating their staff that well. Also working for a private company in SW impacts on what you might be use to working in the public sector. Good luck if you leave and I hope your ok

      • PJ July 16, 2020 at 5:44 pm #

        Thank you, Paul.

    • AS July 13, 2020 at 3:55 pm #

      I got out a few years ago, I’m still working in an LA Social Services Department but no longer as a social worker – it’s honestly the best thing I ever did. I do miss the higher pay, but not enough to tempt me back – EVER! I love being able to turn my computer off at 5pm and not think about work until the morning – no more sleepless nights and stress levels are almost zero!

  2. John Stephenson July 10, 2020 at 7:46 pm #

    Yes this magazine will still be running propaganda articles from Local Authorities heralding how progressive they are in treating their staff.Instead of being a paid mouthpiece for employers and start pursuing the Agenda of it’s readers this magazine will become more and more irrelevant.

    • PJ July 16, 2020 at 5:46 pm #

      Agreed. Though it does make for a pleasant alternative reality… If only!

  3. Karen July 10, 2020 at 8:16 pm #

    Is it me? The previous talking point was from a student social worker, discussing the inadequacy of social work training in regard to equality issues. After twenty years in the job am still learning, am still re-evaluating views, preconceptions, values, and inequalities in society. The expectation that you will come out of training fully equipped to face everything is totally unrealistic. Then we face the very short expected work life of practising social workers and burn out. We need to be compassionate, caring, willing to change, but not be unrealistic in what the profession can realistically accomplish without battering ourselves when we got it wrong.

    • Spx July 13, 2020 at 4:26 pm #

      No I don’t think it’s you Karen. I think there are those amongst us who genuinely take pride at being Social workers. I still enjoy learning something new every day. It’s sad that a a social work student should have that view, perhaps they are in the wrong local authority or wrong occupation?

  4. Sallie Johnson July 10, 2020 at 11:30 pm #

    I am an experienced social worker in a large London local authority and have worked right through the pandemic. This week, front line staff have been told that there will redundancies despite all agency and consultant staff ending and all vacant posts being deleted. There were not enough staff for the workload before Covid with high caseloads and long waiting lists. Great timing.

  5. Paulette Robins July 11, 2020 at 3:12 pm #

    Social workers receive such little support from government and the public. They do so much good work extremely hard with a very demanding workload yet they are never mentioned by the media etc for their good works.why is this profession never treated with the respect it deserves,. It is no wonder so many are thinking of leaving why woukd you want to stay? The pay in comparision to other professions is low ,the workload is high and sressful plus they are made accountable for every decision rhey make. Without social workers and tgeor dedication the whole social network would fall apart!
    They government should acknowledge them now!

  6. Isobel Brown July 11, 2020 at 4:27 pm #

    I can relate to every concern raised by respondents. Based on the attitude of managers towards workers throughout the pandemic I hold out little hope of managers taking on board any aspect of plan proposed by SWU.
    On the contrary, I suspect that this cavalier attitude towards workers will become the new norm.

  7. Mike July 13, 2020 at 9:55 am #

    I work in a region that has done a similar poll and got much more than 323 responses. (Tiny number to draw any conclusion on) and SWs have overall felt well supported and cared for.

    Need to be careful about drawing conclusions form such tiny surveys which impact on the perception of the profession

  8. Sarah Dearling July 13, 2020 at 10:15 am #

    Accept that none us do social work, that we are bureaucrats prodded and cajoled to conform to the inadequacies of self aggrandising time servers, that our ‘debates’ are irrelevant and the echoes of frustrations are going to be always ignored and you will be content and perhaps one day be a Chief Executive, a sector ‘leader’, a Chief Social Worker and may even be ‘honoured’ in the name of the British Empire. Forget your training, forget your empathy, forget your humanity and you will be venerated as a model social worker. That’s why I quit.

    • David B July 14, 2020 at 10:45 pm #

      Don’t ‘completely’ agree, tho I hear what you are saying. I work in mental health social work and have found my opinion counts and has influence. Much more so than in other types of social work I worked in previously

  9. Wollnut July 13, 2020 at 2:11 pm #

    I think every social worker knows why there is a crisis and you can see it in the responses above. GSCC, HCPC and now SWE. Can someone actually tell me what they do other than produce professional standards that are largely unattainable on a day to day basis and act as henchmen/women to pick off already stressed individuals who are struggling to keep up. Support? Where is it? BASW? I read Professional Social Work as I am still a member but the articles therein are as far removed from social work in a local authority office as we are from Mercury.
    When you add in the regulatory requirements, unworkable computer systems which I am sure are designed to keep you away from service users ; the high turnover of Senior Managers who come in , start a ‘redesign’ then leave before it is completed only for another one to come in and change it again and it’s easy to see why it’s in a mess. How many social workers actually feel valued by their bosses? Remember they will ask ‘how do you feel? But they don’t want the real answer. Very recently I recall being asked how I felt with the caveat ‘ just put aside the pandemic…..’ you couldn’t make it up.

  10. Peter Jones July 13, 2020 at 6:09 pm #

    After 25 years in children’s social care I now work selling tickets and working bars in the tourist industry. Last financial year I earnt over £26,000 and had zero responsibility and zero stress.

    I really feel for my friends still in social work as they are paid so little after a decade of below inflation payrises and having all the safeguarding responsibilities with less resources available to them. The amount of unpaid overtime they do is also a national scandal and many have already left.

    I can’t see why young people would go into the profession which has used over regulation and threat of deregistration to get beleaguered social workers to work heavy case loads and work additional hours for free. This having had to clock up a substantial university debt makes the profession not viable and unwelcoming.

    I may not earn as much as I used to but now I’m home on time and work just 7 hours a day in peak season.

  11. Donna Jordan July 13, 2020 at 7:41 pm #

    I am a former social worker who left the profession. I was unable to do my job effectively due to not being able to manage the workload and this had a huge impact on my mental health. There is some support out there but not enough prior to pandemic. I can’t imagine what it has been like for my former colleagues and the families who we try to support has been during the pandemic. However my fears that long term there will be a significant negative impact on social workers. Workloads will increase as schools return and we identify a massive amount of cases that need social care interventions. Social workers will still be isolated due to remote/lone working practices that have increased due to pandemic. We will be driven out of the profession due to unmanageable work loads, being vilified for not being able to protect vulnerable people even though circumstances beyond our control prevented it,lack of support leaving us disillusioned and at breaking point. How can we safeguard vulnerable people if the system doesn’t safeguard and support its workers.

  12. Patrick McAllister July 14, 2020 at 2:07 pm #

    Agree with a lot of what’s been said. I’ve been watching Professors of social work on twitter and some ‘senior’ people in the professional sparring. Neither of these groups do anything for us in the trenches.

    People appointed into government jobs and one woman professor from tup north who is forever asking what’s going to be done about this and that. I want to ask her what’s she’s doing other than webinars with RIP. She needs to rally her professor colleagues and actually use research to make changes. Don’t get me started on the appalling education of social workers.

    Sorry this is a big rant but it’s so hard in children’s social work. Then to hear the head of psw children’s is in bed with the government and now off to cafcass. When we are all struggling and none of them do anything other than feather their own careers.

    We are struggling. We need help. Basw aren’t any better.

    Like many of my frontline colleagues we are looking out

    Thank you for giving us a space to speak

  13. Jan Hamilton July 14, 2020 at 6:51 pm #

    It is my experience of over thirty years in SW that many managers are in their ‘elevated’ posts because they were ‘crap’ at the job and dangerous. So, to get them away from the coal face where errors make front page news they’re promoted. Hence the service is managed by idiots who hide behind meeting after meeting but never actually DO anything.

  14. Zoe July 15, 2020 at 10:54 am #

    I left social work with eleven years in, after carrying chronic caseloads, working umpteen hours of unpaid overtime, being supervised by a manager who was highly critical; micromanaging the team. Support was non-existent and the LA saw many excellent practitioners leave.

    The impact of the work/system on your mental well being and personal/family life is not worth it.
    I was in a constant state of preoccupied anxiety.

    I am now employed in a lower-paid 9-5 job but have no regrets leaving whatsoever.

    I feel for my ex-colleagues who are struggling to cope, especially now during Covid 19 situation which will impact significantly upon their work and coping,

  15. PJ July 16, 2020 at 5:41 pm #

    I find it refreshing to hear people’s honest accounts about the dire reality of their lived experiences as Social Workers. So what are we going to do about it? Perhaps Community Care Online would consider running a feature on the infinite and toxic epidemic of mental ill health that existed in our profession long before Covid-19?

  16. Karen July 17, 2020 at 12:44 am #

    I have been in CP for 25 years I went as a agency worker as the LA I worked for didn’t offer support. I am a TM and have watched over the years the job become harder the demands increase and senior management become ruthless. COVID 19 has put so much additional pressure on SW and TM trying to offer support manage the unrealistic demands and I feel I am in a domestic abusive relationship with the LA being told everything is not good enough. Volumes of emails all critical expecting you to put staff on action plans as it’s not good enough. Managing the assessment team referrals have increased case loads are rocketing and there is no acknowledgement of the increased demand, cases all complex I think this is the time for a change sadly.

  17. Mitch July 22, 2020 at 6:46 pm #

    Social worker in childrens have had no choice to take risks in light of the COVID-19.
    We were not able to source PPE and told we could not wear it at visits unless the family had positive test. Even then we were told no PPE and to do a window visit.

    I’ve never been more vulnerable in my life.

    I am unable to drive so I have been taken to visits by colleagues sometimes three different workers in one day. I was told if I did not accept this then I would have to take unpaid leave.

    My partner was shielding and was told I had to complete visits in the house without PPE. I was told I had to provide evidence that they had diabetes colitis blood pressure, even though the la that’s she was working for as a social worker. Told her that she had to work from home and not do visits.

    I feel like we gave been used as cannon fodder.

    I have done visits with workers who had then been told to isolate and not told about this or the results of their test. I continued to work putting clients and families at risk.

  18. Pip Jay July 22, 2020 at 8:11 pm #

    I echo many of the comments above.

    I am an Adults Social Worker in a London Borough. Having been in the profession 10 years, and worked in 3 boroughs, I see the post code lottery of services. Management-wise , Ive seen the good (seems to be close to exstinction), the bad and the ugly. Great staff burn out or retire. Newbies come in and quickly leave..

    The job remains the same, regardless of geography . Juggling multiple high risk clients, balancing this alongside frequent Duty work, with the regular MDTs. The increased risk of legal challenges and JRs, despite a distinct lack of legal support.

    The Covid 19 work has added greatly to the bottomless amounts of admin work, on using wholly inadequate and disjointed IT systems. I have not a Scooby do what the SW College do? Why aren’t they, BASW and SW England’s advocating for Social Workers?? Publically advocating for better working conditions? We’re drowning here!!

  19. Andy July 23, 2020 at 5:33 am #

    I left the profession about eighteen months ago. Usual reasons; stress, excessive workloads, frustrating IT and bureaucracy and ludicrous hours. I was also eating and sleeping very badly – you know there’s only one way those habits end. I developed a couple of stress-related health conditions. One evening, driving back from a long-distance visit, I fell asleep at the wheel for a few micro-seconds – that was a terrifying experience. I decided I’d had enough and made the decision to leave the work after some twenty five years.
    I don’t earn very much money now especially due to the virus lock-down but I now exercise regularly and my health and well-being has improved dramatically.
    It’s often very difficult to effectively assess one’s own challenging circumstances whilst actually experiencing them. Many of the issues raised in the article above and in the accompanying comments have been relayed repeatedly by social workers for many, many years. Ironically, the high turnover of social worker staff in many departments at virtually all levels means no one person or group of people remains in post long enough to encourage or develop a gradual culture of change. In the face of such powerlessness to effect change, many social workers like me take the reluctant step to simply walk away.
    Quite how all this impacts directly or indirectly on the families who receive services from social workers, one can only guess – the most obvious impact must be lack of continuity due to changing social workers (staff turnover and long-term sick leave) which emphasises another very cruel irony that stable relationships are often absent from the lives of service recipients and this instability is often reflected in their broken relationships with multiple social workers.
    The virus has also clearly exposed the extraordinary lack of duty of care by some employers towards their staff (see comments above by Karen and Mitch). Such practice would result in well-merited critical oversight if expressed by a worker towards service recipients!
    Like AS, Peter Jones and Zoe have stated above, I have no regrets at all about leaving.