Social workers experiencing rising stress and workloads on eve of Covid, finds DfE study

Second instalment of major longitudinal survey charts growing concern over wellbeing, despite increased loyalty to employers and large majority of practitioners planning to stay in profession

Image of pressure gauge (Photo: Palo/Flickr Creative Commons)
Photo: Palo/Flickr Creative Commons

Children’s social workers were experiencing rising stress and workloads on the eve of the Covid-19 pandemic, research for the Department for Education (DfE) has found.

A survey of 3,300 local authority practitioners from September 2019 to January 2020 showed workforce wellbeing was of “growing concern” for practitioners when compared with a similar piece of research the previous year.

‘Wave 2’ of the large-scale longitudinal survey, which is tracking the careers of children’s social workers over five years, found:

  • 56% of social workers felt stressed by their job (up from 51% in the wave 1 report).
  • 55% felt they were asked to fulfil too many roles in their job (up from 47%).
  • 54% felt their overall workload was too high (up from 51%).

The results were based on responses from 59% of those surveyed in the wave 1 research. Research by Community Care, among others, has found that the experiences of children’s social workers has worsened still under the impact of Covid, with 71% of practitioners reporting increased workloads and 63% reporting anxiety about infection risk in the line of duty.

However, researchers pointed out that changes between waves may reflect the impact of career changes as practitioners mature, rather than broader changes to the state of the workforce. For example, the proportion of those undertaking the assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE) fell from 6% to 2% between waves 1 and 2, and this group were much less likely than average in both waves to report workload challenges, though more likely than average to report stress.

More positively, the wave 2 respondents reported greater loyalty to their employer (75%, up from 71%) and a greater sense of feeling valued (59%, up from 54%).

The study found relatively few respondents – 5% of the total – had left statutory children’ social work, with almost half of this group remaining within the profession, either in adults’ services or outside the statutory sector. Of those remaining in statutory children’s practice, 83% anticipated doing so in 12 months’ time, with 8% anticipating quitting the profession.

In keeping with other studies, the survey found that workload, stress and burnout were “deep-seated and recurrent” issues for the minority of social workers who had left, and among all social workers who were considering leaving, a more manageable workload was seen as the most important factor that could lead them to remain, cited by 29% of this group.

Overtime levels stable

As with the study’s first wave, most social workers were found to be working above contracted hours, with the average extent of this remaining at seven hours across waves, despite the increased proportion of respondents reporting high workloads.

Social workers in authorities with lower Ofsted grades were more likely to be working more than 45 hours per week.

The survey also picked up disparities between social workers of different ethnicities, with Black practitioners more likely (46%) to be say they worked overtime ‘all the time’ than peers from other groups (39%).

The study report pointed out that this may be because Black social workers were more likely to be working as agency staff, a workforce segment that also reported higher instances of overtime.

A similar correlation was also observed among practitioners’ views on line management, with both Black social workers and agency staff being more likely to report receiving positive feedback from their supervisors.

Social workers from both Black and Asian backgrounds were also more positive about their line managers’ ability to motivate them and enable them to perform better. But White British counterparts felt managers were more open to their ideas, and more considerate of their lives outside of work.

Stress factors

Interviews conducted with 40 practitioners as part of the study revealed how important line managers’ support could be in terms of managing stress, which was most likely to be caused by having too many cases (24%) or too much paperwork (22%).

“I think you felt like you got a manager [who] was keeping the team together… but also, that leadership of having somebody there who was available, who would make time for everybody and protect you,” said one interviewee. “So if there were issues, you felt they would take them up the ladder.”

The study also found strong links between how often managers provided reflective supervision, stress levels and overall job satisfaction. Compared with wave 1, the frequency of such supervision had dropped off, again reflecting the movement of the main survey cohort beyond their ASYE, where supervision is more frequent.

Practitioners who had progressed into fully-fledged social work jobs since wave 1 were also more likely to have developed negative views of their work resources, researchers found.

Among this group, 20% said they did not have the right tools to do their job, compared with 13% of other respondents. Frontline workers were in general less positive than managers about their working resources and environment, the study found.

“This indicates that those in case holding roles felt less equipped to do their jobs than those in non-case holding roles,” the report said. “As some of the tools and resources used differ across roles, this suggests either the resources exclusively used by frontline social workers are lacking, or they are not as appropriate for use in this type of role.”

Social workers ‘cannot be taken for granted’

Responding to the report, Rebekah Pierre, a professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers, said the findings were “yet another reminder of the toll that long hours, high caseloads and poor working conditions is taking on a workforce that is hugely committed but is too often being left without the support it needs”.

“A lot in the report chimes with our own research on social worker wellbeing and reinforces the need to tackle the root causes of stress and burnout that the study shows are not only affecting experienced workers but also practitioners starting out in the profession during their ASYE,” Pierre said.

She added that while it was positive that most respondents to the research said they planned to stay in social work, their commitment to the profession “cannot and should not be taken for granted” and that employers and government should ensure the provision of supportive working environments and adequate resourcing.

That need could become even greater in the coming months, given the added pressure exerted by Covid-19 both on social workers and the communities they support, Pierre warned.

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One Response to Social workers experiencing rising stress and workloads on eve of Covid, finds DfE study

  1. Catherine Moody July 28, 2020 at 9:33 pm #

    The failure of central government to provide adequate extra funding vis covid means some services face a further 20% of cuts taking their total to 80%! (Where has all the money gone?)

    Prepare for dimmed streetlighting and sustained uncollected rubbish.

    Prepare for the UK becoming the first underdeveloped nation in the northern hemisphere and prepare for the reality that significant numbers of people will starve post no-deal Brexit but remember there is nothing natural nor inevitable about poverty – it is a politically driven phenomenon.