Four in ten social workers anticipate quitting profession within five years on back of high stress and caseloads

Almost half of NQSWs expect to leave social work within five years, finds Social Work England research, as practitioners call for boost to public profile, lower caseloads and better training to tackle retention challenge

Image of wooden blocks spelling out 'stress' (credit: Andrey Popov / Adobe Stock)
(credit: Andrey Popov / Adobe Stock)

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.”

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24 Responses to Four in ten social workers anticipate quitting profession within five years on back of high stress and caseloads

  1. Alan September 4, 2020 at 6:42 pm #

    I think it would be great if the published material was a tad more balanced & also reflected sw who work with adults too. Anybody would think only children’s sw exist or get stressed.

    • Dave H September 7, 2020 at 2:26 pm #

      This could have been written 25 years ago and a pretty cheap article to produce. All public services are under stress and generally SW is better paid than most. I write this as i come up to 25 years qualified. I feel the quality of SW has declined in a marked way and it is not all about resources or managers. Being a Team Manager is the hardest job in SW. Maybe Social Workers need to develop resilience and be more creative.

      • Helena Peach September 9, 2020 at 5:49 am #

        It’s managers and senior managers with your attitude that enhance stress. Build more resilience is not the answer when a large percentage of social workers express the same feelings about workload. Your response is poor and insensitive

        • Ansar Khan September 9, 2020 at 2:08 pm #

          I couldn’t agree more with this.

        • Neil S September 9, 2020 at 10:34 pm #

          I totally agree with your comments and think that Dave H must think social workers are like robots that don’t have feelings or need rest! Resilience! The fact that social workers haven’t already left the profession in large numbers is down to their resilience. Dave H, your attitude will speed up the exit pathways believe me.
          I retired 9 montgs ago after 32 years as a social worker. After 20 years of not even recognising what any of the plants are in my own garden, I’ve now become a keen gardener. Why? Because now I’m not stressed out and exhausted all the time!

    • Susan S September 9, 2020 at 5:44 pm #

      Totally agree

  2. Mercy September 4, 2020 at 7:06 pm #

    It’s the same old story every time, but nobody in Central Government, Management, Ofsted, or Social Work England want to listen to frontline social work practitioners, particularly in CP. It’s not about more staff training or development, nor new ways of thinking or working, nor new models of practice (i.e. signs of safety). The real issue for decades has been Social Workers don’t have the time, resources, caseloads, or managerial support to do their job.

    For years, Child Protection Departments have been run by punitive, oppressive, bullying, and discriminatory Managers, who are into blaming and shaming their Social Worker’s, in order to get an unreasonable amount of work done, the majority of which is free, and completed in the Social Worker’s own free time. This is to the expense and detriment of the Social Worker’s health, free time, family, and social / family relationships.

    The Social Work Regulator – whether it have been the GCSC or HCPC, have done nothing to clear out the abusive and corrupt Managers who are rife in Child Protection Departments across the UK. I feel so bad for the children/families who really need and depend upon Social Worker’s, they are not getting the support or help they deserve or require.

    I worked as a frontline CP SW for 22 years, and I was always so tired and stressed. I was very committed to my families, but I never had any time for myself. I worked late into the evenings, and on the weekends; just to do the right thing by my families, and to keep my hand in, at the minimum level. This year, I AM DONE, and am leaving this sinking and stinking ship of CP; my only regret is I should have done it years earlier.

    I feel really sorry for the young and idealistic Social Workers who come into this field because they want to make a difference and change the world, and the only thing that ‘changes’ for them, is the impact upon their own health, well-being, and social / family relationships. It’s not worth it, and one of the few professions where ‘the system’ is actually working against it’s Social Workers, and Managers are just trying to shift blame and cover their own backsides half the time.

    The other part of the problem is Social Workers have never been good at ‘collective action’, unlike teachers and nurses who will go on strike, in order to bring about change & improvements, as ha Social Workers have become fatigued, worn-down, & oppressed by the system. SW’s only leave the profession generally when they either become too physically sick to continue, or they get reported to the regulator. I’m glad to be leaving this thankless profession on my own terms.

    • Anne September 20, 2020 at 8:24 pm #

      Well said Mercy for a moment it looked like something I had written. Until the toxic environment is improved the profession will continue to loose capable and dedicated staff. Enjoy your freedom..I have found there is a great life outside of children’s services.

  3. Chris Sterry September 5, 2020 at 1:06 am #

    This, if it occurs, will be a disaster for Social Work, but can you blame them, for workloads were too far high well before COVID-19 and then COVID-19 pushed them even higher.

    But it is not just too high caseloads, but also, at times, Social Workers are not allowed to be Social Workers, by their respected Local Authorities and when mistakes are made, it is the Social Workers who are blamed not the Local Authorities.

    But is the real culprit the Government?

    With austerity measures all Local Authorities have been kept short of funding and Social Care has had to take its share of budget cuts at times of ever increasing need.

    Social Care was in crisis well before COVID-19 and COVID-19 just increased the crisis.

    This then filtered into the Social Care market.

    Much has been said about Care Homes, but very little about the other areas of social care, being, home care, respite, supported living, hospices, etc for both children and adults, so the crisis in Social Care is very grave indeed.

    But the Government still dithers, while providing money for many others areas, but little or no money to Solve the crisis in Social Care, which is why I created the petition, Solve the crisis in Social Care,

    More information!Aq2MsYduiazgnxxim5Y-U-scGMxI?e=JVEbmm

    Please consider viewing the petition and then sign and share before Social Care ceases to exist in any reasonable form.

  4. Charlie September 5, 2020 at 10:09 am #

    I can really to this article, I have no work life balance and I am working an extra 10-15 hours a week to try and catch up with the work. The coronavirus has increased the need for children, young people and the people around them for the need of support and direct intervention. We need to slimline the assessments, plans, and all the other forms, there is too much duplication and plans are not user friendly which leads to poor engagement. BASW 20:80 campaigned last year seemed to fall on deaf ears, but this needs to be revisited. We need to be working with service users in a meaningful and purposeful manner.

  5. Susie Abrahams September 5, 2020 at 12:50 pm #

    I worked in L.A as a social worker and then as a team manager for 35 years also 5 years as aCAFCASS officers.
    I am now a local Town Councillor and remain committed to both social work and community programmes. Whilst not wanting to return full time to work, I feel I still have enthusiasm to promote and support younger staff. However this mentoring role appears still a rarity the focus often been on supervision about caseload volume, and not on the emotional impact on staff
    I believe this sort of mentoring from people who have hands on experience is crucial if we are to help the next generation remain in a noble profession

  6. frustrated September 5, 2020 at 9:46 pm #

    It seems like a continuous circle for which there will never be any resolution because Social Work England are not listening and their solution is to heap even more work on an overloaded workforce.
    Continued Professional Development adds to the pressures of a social worker takes time away from managing caseloads affectively. Of course it is important but structural issues within Social Work need tackling more than individual.

  7. DS September 6, 2020 at 10:21 am #

    I am not at all surprised by these findings.
    I have been trying to get back into social work for the past 3 years but without success.
    Social Workers are evidently not that hard to find or is that employers are being just too particular and unrealistic when recruiting?

  8. Andrew Cooper September 6, 2020 at 6:22 pm #

    Apparently the public attribute failings in social work to individual social worker “styles” than to systemic weaknesses in social work itself. Trebles all round to educators, and bureaucrats and SWE for embedding excellence. Not sure how this confidence sits against the theme in both surveys that the public lack knowledge about social work and the wish for more information and publicity. Better to skew findings to show blame of individuals I suppose than identify why social workers have little to no confidence in those leading them and why we feel so hopeless about future directions.

  9. Maria September 6, 2020 at 7:40 pm #

    What’s new?

    • Andy September 7, 2020 at 9:54 pm #

      A depressing yet sadly accurate comment, Maria… sigh!

  10. Kieran Donalon September 7, 2020 at 10:40 am #

    Apparently 28% of respondents say social workers are not “neutral or objective” and 19% say social workers “don’t believe” the people they work with. It would be great to hear from Sarah Blackmore how the questions these raise will translate practically into enhancing our learning and what refinements SWE will be building in to make a difference to CPD? If the survey ‘findings’ are for us all to respond to, I hope perceived shortcomings will not just be laid on practitioners but will also be owned by SWE and their pals in academia. For once let’s see us being in the driving seat for learning and improvement and not the usual top down edicts and hectoring. Listening to us might surprise.

  11. Julie September 7, 2020 at 3:46 pm #

    I am now leaving the profession as I am exhausted I work late into the night and at weekends and still unable to catch up with my work. Social work has become a culture of fear and blame but still nothing changes. I am done with this profession

  12. Flint September 8, 2020 at 7:54 am #

    All this talk and again no change ? its the same over and over again. Lets hope that Social work England will do something to change the public perception and the working ethos of this very important profession. OK I can dream cant I …

  13. One-sided September 8, 2020 at 6:37 pm #

    With Alan on this one, very heavy sided about children services as per usual.

  14. Louise September 9, 2020 at 12:46 pm #

    Pressure on social workers and unrealistic expectations from senior managers make social work as a profession increasingly unattractive. Coupled with vilification in the media and no strong voice to promote the excellent work that goes on daily it is no surprise that social work has recruitment and retention issues. There is a need to start listening to practitioners by government, SW England and local authorities. Social workers go over and above time after time but the constant pressure and endless bureaucracy are at times overwhelming.

  15. Neil S September 9, 2020 at 10:54 pm #

    After 10 years of austerity and about £13 billion cit from LA social services budgets in England and Wales, it’s not really shocking to see the results of this survey. Social workers need to look after their own health because if that’s gone you can’t help any service users! When I came into the profession 33 years ago it was stressful and testing but our managers backed us and we felt supported to keep going and make a difference, despite high workloads.
    Now, the training sections, development officers, Equality and Diversity officers, etc have all gone or been reduced to bolt on roles for the few middle managers who are left. Adult Social Services don’t provide services, they just assess people continuously under the Care Act 2014 and then tell them they need to benefit from a “Strengths-based Approach” – meaning “get your friends and family to help you or good luck for the future!”.
    With Covid 19 and the final WTO trade terms from the No Deal Brexit in 4 months time I can only see a near total collapse in the care system, which will be exacerbated by the privatisation of the NHS. I am so glad I managed to retire last December. My 2 days per week part-time job keeps me going. I just pray for all you tens of thousands of social workers out there for a miracle as that’s what is now needed.

  16. James Appledore September 11, 2020 at 8:16 am #

    For goodness sake pull your selves together and stop being so selfish. Just because you are exhausted and have unmanageable caseloads and you see more of the office desk you share with 3 others than your gerbil doesn’t mean you can’t just get on with your jobs. What nonsense about a work-life balance you go on about. You get paid don’t you? You have access to a toilet in your workplace don’t you? You get meaningful advice about best ways to fill in forms don’t you? You have employers that constantly validate your work and support you, don’t you? Honestly you’d think most social workers were disillusioned and wanted better for themselves and the people they work with from your comments.

  17. Dan Midwinter September 11, 2020 at 10:34 am #

    Great article. It certainly is a tough industry to work in with some difficult problems to solve.
    My experience is that it can be difficult to identify the recruiting managers in social services in order to get in to social work. Making it easier to identify the people employing and managing social workers so that they are more accessible might help the flow of candidates into the sector.