Guidance a chance to improve NHS support for mental health social workers, say sector leaders

Advice for NHS and independent sector employers seen as opportunity to tackle lack of leadership and professional oversight of social workers outside local authorities

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New guidance provides an opportunity to tackle a lack of support, supervision and professional leadership of mental health social workers within the NHS, sector leaders say.

The guidance, commissioned by Health Education England’s (HEE) new roles in mental health social work group, provides a blueprint for supporting mental health practitioners for NHS, independent sector and other non-local authority employers, covering leadership, supervision, CPD, performance management, promoting wellbeing among staff and workforce planning.

It is designed to emphasise the value of social work to delivering on NHS mental health objectives, and responds to challenges in getting the most out of the profession, including:

  • Partnership arrangements between the NHS and local authorities that are not fit for purpose, under-resourced, subject to considerable change or hampered by divergent IT, assessment and performance systems.
  • The lack of a race equality framework to promote progression of social workers from Black and ethnic minority groups to senior leadership.
  • Generic roles within teams that do not harness the strengths of different professionals, including social workers.
  • A lack of support in some NHS trusts for social workers to train as approved mental health professionals (AMHPs) or best interests assessors and the need for better support  and  supervision for AMHPs.
  • Barriers to social workers progressing into senior management roles within the NHS.

Social workers ‘left to get on with it’ in NHS

Steve Chamberlain, chair of the AMHP leads network, said that one of the most pressing issues raised in the guidance was the lack of support for mental health social workers in terms of supervision, CPD and opportunities for progression within NHS organisations.

“My experience and a lot of my colleagues’ experiences is the support hasn’t been there actually; whilst social workers are valued, the actual strategic support for social workers hasn’t been provided by NHS organisations by and large

He said practitioners have “essentially been left to get on with it”.

“There hasn’t been the professional management and supervision given to traditional NHS professions [like nursing and occupational therapy] and the understanding of the need for social work CPD, so I think that’s why [the guidance] is really important,” Chamberlain added.

The guidance advises trusts and other employers establish a social work workforce strategy, ensure professional supervision and appropriate CPD is available for practitioners, with specific supervision for AMHPs.

Stronger leadership needed

It also calls for organisations to have a senior social work professional lead, who should either be represented on the board or report to a board member, a proposal also supported by Chamberlain.

While NHS mental health trusts commonly have a medical director and nursing director on their boards, board-level directors of social care and social work have been rare.

Carla Fourie, director of social care at South London and Maudsley (SlaM) NHS Trust, said: “NHS employers of social workers need to ensure that they have the right balance and diversity of strategic and professional experience, skills, and leadership seniority to meet the increasing social care and mental health demand within our communities.”

In a statement responding to the guidance, the British Association of Social Workers said NHS employers could improve support for social workers by encouraging networking and contact with peers, creating opportunities to provide practice education and mentoring and developing leadership opportunities within the NHS structure.

Association chair Gerry Nosowska said: “This guidance will help employers better value and support them. BASW will continue to push for good working conditions so social workers can work ethically and sustainably.”

Practitioners ‘thrilled’ at recognition 

Fourie said social workers she had spoken to, especially within the NHS and integrated services, were “thrilled” that the guidance recognised mental health social work as an essential part of the health and social care system.

“[They are] hopeful that it provides direction and advice to their employers on how to create a supportive environment in which they are valued, supported and encouraged to develop.”

7 Responses to Guidance a chance to improve NHS support for mental health social workers, say sector leaders

  1. Julia October 13, 2020 at 8:47 am #

    Great. Can it be rolled out to those of us in local authorities as well please.

  2. Olugun October 13, 2020 at 8:01 pm #

    It’s an easy gain to highlight inadequate support and supervision in the NHS which has many fewer AMPH’s. I appreciate that Mr Chamberline and his network depend on local authorities for their legitimacy but an honest appraisal of the difficulties we face, including bullying, from local authority employers would give the network better credibility.

  3. J October 13, 2020 at 9:28 pm #

    I started my ASYE in May this year in an integrated team. Employed by the local authority but based in a community mental health team in an NHS Trust.

    Despite the evidence that social workers are more likely to burn out and have higher levels of sickness due to stress, nothing has changed. 4 months in and my caseload is 24. Some of the individuals I work with have very complex mental health issues with underlying trauma.

    The team prioritise numbers and CQC compliance. Practitioners in the team do not have the time to build resilience in individuals, their networks, and their communities transforms people’s wellbeing and improves our society and economy so people can get well and stay well.

    I did a master degree in a completely different area so I am prioritising my own health and wellbeing and walking away from a chaotic profession, 3 regulators in a decade should tell you enough.

    • Steve October 15, 2020 at 3:36 pm #

      Well said – I echo your sentiments – we were left to respond to crises with little or no opportunity for preventative work

  4. Andrew October 15, 2020 at 8:08 am #

    It’s not as if all is well in LA’s. Everything the NHS is being encouraged to implement is largely applicable to LA AMHP’s too. I work as an AMHP in a south London borough and guess what, I’m also largely left to get on with it by myself. Shortage of AMHP’s, endless changes to work conditions, AMPH lead who is paralysed and overwhelmed by lack of resources, all of this is common to my colleagues across London. I am sick of hearing from leaders and national leads who convince themselves that they understand our experiences and believe they are tackling and solving the “challenges” we face. AMPH Leads Network means nothing to us and contribute nothing to our daily struggles to organise assessments, access care and treatment and do all this in a dignified and respectful way. And diversity? What’s that?

  5. Stephen Giles October 17, 2020 at 11:08 am #

    Andrew, you must believe in our leaders. Some of them once had tea with a government minion, most tweet daily in support of each other, some even swap jobs with each other. How you are not inspired and filled with confidence in such leadership is confusing to me. Be kind, there’ll be another self congratulatory statement coming shortly. It must be so exhausting to repeat the same old guff after all.

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