Story updated 7 September 2020
Four in ten social workers anticipate quitting the profession within the next five years as a result of high caseloads, stress and a negative working environment, finds research for Social Work England published today.
The perspective was held more strongly by children’s practitioners (41%) than adults’ colleagues (37%) and was particularly high among newly-qualified social workers at 48%, found the research by YouGov, based on online surveys of 494 existing practitioners, 135 former social workers and 48 students, backed up by qualitative interviews with 43 others across all three groups.
The study – carried out in April and early May, just after the country went into lockdown – found practitioners had significant pride in the profession, reported by 89%, driven by the feeling of making a difference, their key motivation for joining the profession.
However, this was difficult to feel because of workload pressures, with 77% saying they were unable to help people as much as they wanted to, with a similar proportion saying they felt excessive pressure in their job.
High stress levels
Job-related stress was common among current practitioners (85%), though children’s practitioners were more severely affected, with 33% reporting being very stressed and 55% fairly stressed, compared with 28% and 54% respectively for adults’ practitioners.
Among those who reported stress, 62% cited administrative burdens as a cause, reflecting the squeeze on direct work that practitioners encountered.
Social workers estimated they spent just 19% of their typical week on frontline work, on average, compared with 40% on administration, 25% on attending meetings and 10% travelling.
Other causes of stress included a focus on targets rather than resolving issues for people, cited by 56% of those feeling stressed, high caseloads (48%) feeling emotionally overwhelmed by causes and an inability to refer people to other services (both 44%).
Qualitative interviews underlined the combination of administrative burdens, targets, high workloads and a focus on meeting serice users’ needs despite these pressures in driving stress. Practitioners reported carrying out admin, such as writing up notes and preparing for court, as well as training in the evenings and weekends, to avoid taking time away from service users.
Interviewees also reported not being able to take time off in lieu within the limits they had to do so, which was often two weeks, because of high caseloads, leading to greater levels of tiredness and resentment.
What social workers say about causes of stress
“Workload expectations are a problem… That means doing less deep work and doing more superficial work – temporary solutions that work on that day rather than time sensitive intervention.” (experienced social worker)
“Hard to get work life balance. There is a pressure to do a number of visits, it’s not focused on quality… You can’t get work done in set hours and it’s hard to use toil.” (newly qualified social worker)
“I am concerned about the culture in social work organisations that have expectations of long hours, no breaks, weekend working, no work-life balance – students are often being inducted into this way of working whilst still on placement. It’s no wonder the average number of years before burnout for social workers is 7 years.” (social work academic)
Though both men (82%) and women (86%) reported stress, women were more likely to cite administrative burdens (65% of those reporting stress, compared with 53% for men) and feeling emotionally overwhelmed by cases as causes (48% compared with 33%).
The latter was also a more significant problem for younger workers with 53% of those aged 25-34 reporting stress citing being emotionally overwhelmed as a cause, compared with 33% of those aged 55-64.
Lack of respect from society
Three-quarters of former, current and student practitioners felt that the profession was not respected by society, as a result of negative press and a lack of public understanding.
Relatedly, tackling the public profile of the profession was a key demand from practitioners in improving retention, alongside lowering caseloads and improved training and support.
However, separate research from Social Work England issued today found largely positive perceptions of the profession among the public, with 88% of a sample of 1751 people saying that the profession was important in helping vulnerable people and 77% that it helped ensure children came to no harm – though 74% agreed the value of social work was not appreciated. This study was carried out between January and March of this year.
Responding to the two studies, Social Work England’s executive director of strategy, policy and engagement, Sarah Blackmore, said: “These research reports give us a unique insight into the evolution of our regulation right at the very start of our journey. The findings are not for us alone to solve or act on, but for the social work profession to own and address as one workforce with a shared goal to improve people’s lives.”
She added: “They immediately throw up questions for us around learning and how we can further build and refine our approach to continuing professional development (CPD) over our first three years, for example. We also have greater insight as to how we engage with social workers and the public and the role of the media in reinforcing or challenging perceptions.”