‘I love being a social worker but it takes over your life’: children’s practitioners on their caseloads

Community Care’s survey of children’s social work caseloads highlights fine lines between coping and being overwhelmed, and that complexity of cases often outweighs their number

Photo: blacksalmon/Adobe Stock

Community Care’s recent survey of children’s social workers’ caseloads asked respondents to categorise their current caseload as one of four categories: comfortably manageable, mostly manageable, hard to manage or completely unmanageable.

As well as those classifications, we asked practitioners to comment in more detail about what factors lead them to consider whether their workload was manageable or not and what bearing this had on their lives, wellbeing and future plans.

The comments we received underline the fact that workload stress cannot always be gauged by simple case numbers and often it was the complexity of cases – not their number – that determined how manageable they were.

The added factor in this year’s survey is the impact of Covid-19. Many of the practitioners who deemed their cases unmanageable cited  the impact of the pandemic in their comments.

Completely manageable: ‘I’m able to be the professional I want’

“I left frontline child protection work in December 2020 due to the high caseload and unrealistic expectations, and pressure on staff to work magic. I am now in an adoption team, able to focus on the children and build relationships with them, learn about them in detail and do good quality, focused work where I no longer feel I’m ‘winging it’ and am able to be the professional I wanted to be.”

Social worker in an East of England adoption team, 7 cases

“I have time to make additional visits, beyond the required amount to complete intervention work and actively inform assessment. My management team are aware of my cases and ability to take on more, they look at the challenges of cases as much as possible when allocating so we are not overstretched. When I have challenging cases, they try to give space and a breather after. I am actively encouraged to take TOIL (time off in lieu) and not work late.

“The culture in our office is to finish on time as much as possible especially on a Friday…A manageable workload has made all the difference to my stress levels, family life and practice. I have time to care about the families I work with and delve deeper to the facing issues and exploring root causes.”

Social worker in a South East referral and assessment team, 14 cases

“I’m in my 3rd week of starting a new role and feel I don’t have enough work. I’m a very experienced worker and feel my manager is being very generous allowing me time to settle back into frontline practice.  Across the team I am aware average caseloads are around 18-24 children.”

Senior social worker in a South East referral and assessment team, 7 cases

Mostly manageable: ‘It only takes one crisis for things to become unmanageable’

“It is manageable at times, but it only takes one crisis in cases and the amount you are holding quickly becomes unmanageable. It’s hard to quantify, as managers can sometimes think that, because you’re experienced and up to date that it’s acceptable, however, it leaves little time for other work and intervention.”

Senior social worker in a Yorkshire and Humberside safeguarding team, 24 cases

“My caseload is mostly manageable, however with others in my team having higher caseloads, when crisis arises it tends to fall on us to support, which I do not mind, however this takes away the time I have left to spend managing my own cases. These past two weeks I would say my caseload has been unmanageable due to reasons within my wider team, this has impacted my personal life, working late, feeling stressed and emotionally drained.

“I am in my ASYE in safeguarding and I love the area, however, Covid has massively impacted our service and it makes me question whether I will be able to emotionally and physically cope with the demand, whilst still maintaining my personal life and commitments.”

ASYE social worker in a Yorkshire and Humberside safeguarding team, 15 cases

“I have previously had caseloads of over 30, sometimes pushing 40. I worked part time and had 20 plus cases. My cases feel manageable at the moment as the local authority I work for has invested a lot of money into extra teams (agency) and workers. I feel this is only a temporary fix though and not a true reflection of most local authorities.”

Social worker in a North West referral and assessment team, 27 cases

Hard to manage: ‘Social work becomes your life’

“There is not enough time in the day to complete all the tasks and it’s exhausting trying to keep things within timescales and meet specific deadlines with such high caseloads. Mangers are stressed, co-workers are stressed and this severely impacts on team morale. There seems to be a lack of social workers and our organisation currently has a high turnover of staff, which bumps up the caseloads of those left on the team and causes frustration for families as they are allocated a new social worker time and time again.

It saddens me that I do not have the available time to support the families and be the social worker that the families deserve and need. I often work late in the evening and switch the computer on at weekends to catch up on admin tasks. My own child has shared that they hate my job and as a parent, that is heartbreaking to hear. It makes me feel that I need to do better, not just in my work life but my home life.”

ASYE social worker in a North West safeguarding team, 27 cases

“Whilst 19 seems relatively low, the complexity of the cases is significant when considering whether my caseload is manageable. Being a senior worker, naturally I hold more complex cases than colleagues newer to the profession. The time and energy required on these cases is much greater than cases where there is less complexity.

“Travel is another factor when considering whether my caseload is manageable. Of 19 cases, only four of these are living in placements within my local authority. I spend an awful lot of time on the road and this takes me away from the job. There’s a lot of wasted time travelling. This then means I fall behind on the admin side of the role and feel the need to put in extra hours just so that I keep up.

“It also means late nights home as I can only see children after school. If a placement is two or three hours away, I’ve lost my evening and, more importantly, valuable time with my own family. I love being a social worker but it does take over your life. It becomes your life.”

Senior social worker in a South East children in care team, 19 cases

“I hold a varied caseload ranging from assessment, court and CIN work. I am contracted to work 37 but will often work 50-hour weeks to try and get everything done. The paperwork element of the job is becoming unmanageable. There’s a focus on targets, deadlines and lots of management scrutiny. I’m suffering from stress and anxiety which impacts my sleep. I’m meant to be on leave this week however worked a full day yesterday, two hours today and need to work another full day before Monday to complete paperwork. I’m looking at leaving social work in the very near future.”

Senior social worker in a South East referral and assessment team, 28 cases

Completely unmanageable: ‘My team and I are operating at harmful levels of stress’

“The impact of the isolated nature of practice during Covid-19, and how this seriously impacts the wider team’s ability to support and learn from each other is making beginning to hold a complex case in the PLO very difficult.  Similarly, our local authority has lost a raft of social workers from the service, due to the massive reach and high caseloads in our service, and we have also had a full new team of managers, who are not as experienced as the managers we lost.

“Our team is mostly made up of agency staff, who almost all began their work with us under Covid, and we have extremely low resources of support workers, who are responsible for all supervised contact for the children in care in our team, and all of the parenting and perpetrator work with our families due to our early help service not jointly working with us. The result is having to watch families struggling and not gaining access to the right resources, and so as practitioners completing large proportions of work ourselves and crisis managing our cases.

“I am two years into practice, have not managed to complete my ASYE due to having very high demands on my caseload and a lack of buy-in from my line manager, who has seriously struggled to take on their role. They are quite inexperienced as a manager, and are currently off sick. A 15-day training program stretched over seven months has not correlated with an appropriate reduction to my caseload. I am likely to leave the authority once I have been able to complete my ASYE, and next level of progression.”

ASYE social worker in a North West generic/end-to-end team, 29 cases

“Caseload is not manageable due to high caseload and the complexity. Shortage of family support workers has also added additional pressures. Covid has made it more difficult to have support from colleagues. The stress of the job makes me consider leaving the profession and going elsewhere.”

Social worker in a West Midlands safeguarding team, 25 cases

“Expectations and volume of work are beyond any individual social worker’s capacity. Number does not reflect the complexity of cases. I and my team are operating at harmful levels of stress. Staff are burning out, despite the emotional support from management. I feel I have no long-term future in safeguarding children.”

Social worker in a Yorkshire and Humberside safeguarding  team, 22 cases

22 Responses to ‘I love being a social worker but it takes over your life’: children’s practitioners on their caseloads

  1. Helena April 3, 2021 at 6:52 pm #

    I’d love to read success stories of social workers who left the profession to do something else. I need inspiration.

    • Kyle April 5, 2021 at 8:53 pm #

      The only success story is of those who retire to the Spanish beaches, unfortunately! Although, I am sure there are some success stories of maybe setting up their own businesses, or going back to university to train for a different career, such as nursing. Don’t give up hope, there is always light at the end of the tunnel. xx
      Best of luck, Kyle 🙂

    • Andy April 6, 2021 at 7:50 pm #

      I left SW a couple of years ago to start a small business. Not been easy at all and the money’s not great but I now enjoy my health and my spare time. I really felt a huge sense of responsibility to the families with which I worked but a combination of excess workload and deep concerns about certain irreversible or immovable systemic issues increasingly made me question what I was doing. The last straw for me was experiencing a micro-sleep on the motorway late one evening after a (typically distant) home visit.
      SWs should ALWAYS be at their best for the families they serve and it’s worrying to read (above) that is not the case in many examples.

    • Rachel April 27, 2021 at 11:06 pm #

      My husband left social work and worked in children’s residential care for a year but the long shifts were unmanageable when we had a young family. He is now a Reg 44 visitor and (children’s home monitoring visits) and gets all his work through NYAS. He is much less stressed, much happier and still feels like he is making a difference.

  2. Kyle April 5, 2021 at 8:56 pm #

    I can’t believe that an AYSE has a caseload of 29!
    Although I hope to become a social worker in the future, these stories do give some discouragement. But, It won’t discourage me completely! Maybe if I work in a rural area, there may be some hope that I will have relatively manageable caseloads??

    • Bev April 26, 2021 at 2:28 pm #

      I think the big message for me is caseload numbers only tell a small part of the story. In our team, 29 is a low number for staff as the team is high volume, with 90% being low complexity. The difficulty is when we get high numbers for our team, such as 60 or 70 plus.
      Complexity in our team is often the big that creates problems as suddenly 40 cases are left while one case takes up all the time.
      Equally, it is the support the team offers with the work.
      But I guess if they are in a team with higher complexity, then 29 is too high. For anyone really.

    • Lucy April 27, 2021 at 8:38 pm #

      Kyle, I work in a rural area and whilst caseloads are averaging at 25 currently, the travel takes up a lot of time.
      There are always going to be issues in every authority and times where workloads can be overwhelming. Having a supportive manager and team is key in my opinion. Good luck.

  3. Kieran April 6, 2021 at 9:21 am #

    Tou will find your own way to cope and if you have empathetic colleagues it will be easier to deal with the bureaucracy and the peripheral nonsense that infects the working day. I left social work after 33 years so I am sure you will find your coping strategies too if you want to practice. I am a painter and decorator now, much time for introspection and reflection. Frankly I probably do a much better social work now with many of the unhappy, lonely, angry and damaged people I work for. Twice I had to make safeguarding referrals which was an eye opener given the almost hostile response from duty teams. Hence why I follow Communit Care even though I am no longer a social worker. Keep going if you want to but it’s not a failure to give up to do something else that doesn’t debilitate you. Best advice? Keep away from those who are “devoted to the job” martyrs.

  4. Becks April 8, 2021 at 9:11 pm #

    I start my MA SW in September, I’m excited but I’m not going to lie the stress of big case loads does worry me.

  5. Abdul April 9, 2021 at 5:42 pm #

    I’m a Statutory Children’s Social Worker who has practised for 23 years, and I sadly cannot wait to leave the profession, as there is too much red tape, too many cases, too much paperwork, too many reports, too many meetings, and too much bureaucracy; and too little time, too little pay, and zero managerial support. We are not doing the right thing by our children and families, and with so many visits, report writing, case noting, telephone calls, and meetings; where is the time to build relationships, advocate, support and conduct the direct work? The system is failing everybody so badly – Social Workers, Families, and Children. Sadly the ‘system’ has done it to ourselves. There is no reason why a ‘Single Assessment’ for a Review Child Protection Case Conference needs to be completed from scratch again. I recall the days when a CP report with just an update, & update of the plan was required. I recently had a case where a CP Chair gave me 35 tasks to conduct at an Initial Child Protection Case Conference, all to be completed by the first CP Review? Madness, we are failing our children, families, and most of all ourselves.

  6. Andrea April 10, 2021 at 2:45 am #

    I practiced for 10 years in the UK, working case management, duty and assessment, MASH and Emergency Duty Team. I was feeling disillusioned with the systems.

    I moved to Melbourne in 2019, the stress and pressure here is different but I’m so glad to be here. I feel appreciated for my hard work which makes a big difference!
    The early help services here are plentiful but the IT systems leave a lot to be desired. Sometimes I actually miss Ofsted! And I definitely miss Working Together guidance!

    I am certain Victoria will be looking for international social workers soon and would recommend the opportunity if you want protected caseloads and a new perspective/challenge!

  7. Arthur Kona April 11, 2021 at 10:45 am #

    Being a social worker is tough. My main concern over the years is all the talk and research with no change for the better.

    Who is responsible for what? Who is going to hold the bull by the horns & take charge? I always read the same depressing comments, about high workloads, complexity of cases. Lack of support, never ending paperwork, admin work, thousands of tasks, overworked overwhelming.

    No one has come up with a solution. No one has found any tangible solutions its all talk.

    I suggest, we start by lobbying/asking government to legislate the number of cases a social worker should have, in different areas of social work. This will cater for complexity, newly qualified social or senior workers & other spheres of social work.

    Let’s stop complaining, let’s get solutions with tangible results in place.
    No-one will help social workers except them selves. United we stand divided we fall. Let’s make a start, action now for our health & wellbeing.

  8. Leona April 11, 2021 at 11:28 am #

    With so many social workers raising the same issues, which is the platform for this to be addressed nationally? I am a Newly Qualified SW, and a member of BASW but I do not see BASW or Social Work England acknowledging these concerns? (I may be wrong and I am happy for someone to point me in the direction of where they are addressing this). How do we raise this to them and try to initiate change?

  9. Nigel April 11, 2021 at 7:07 pm #

    BASW are too compromised by their cosy relationship with SWE to challenge effectively. Social Work Action Network are a more grass root and campaigning alternative where theses and other issues are very much alive and discussed. I declare an interest in being a member of SWAN. I also used to be a BASW member so can compare where my voice is heard better.

  10. Lorna curran April 11, 2021 at 10:42 pm #

    Reading what all of you have written it gives me hope that maybe one day my very complex son will eventually get the correct support he needs.
    I have been providing this care obviously all his life but the last 8years have been very hard.
    I am almost a broken woman.

  11. Esther April 12, 2021 at 4:26 am #

    The pandemic and lockdown has made things worse. Unbearable and stressful.

  12. peter griffiths April 12, 2021 at 2:33 pm #

    I qualified in 2011. Remember those days at uny writing over 50k words, 200 days placement and for what? Cuts, cuts and more cuts to services running alongside cuts to SW salaries. Back in 2012 I earned £21 p hr . Today my local authority are paying just 14.82 p hr. and that is doing the same job at the same grade. Only agency work available over the past decade averaging 8 -12 weeks placements. Last contract was over 12 months but changes to workloads resulted in 10 SWs leaving over 2 weeks with no cover. 10 SWs who between them had worked over 150 years for the same authority. Totally useless manager who in 12 months never arranged any supervision or team meetings. When I confronted him he claimed I was the worst SW he had worked with. Yes Charming. That prompted me to get my coat and walk out. No regrets at all. Now it is over for good which is a shame but do I miss it ? -NO . The senior management, SW England and BASW are not interested in confronting this governments social care policies so why should I. What happened to DOLS during the pandemic? Forcing elderly people to remain in their care homes ?? No questions asked -just sweep it under the carpet and do not upset Boris. Sometime a lawyer will open a file into the failure of applying DOLS . For those of you remaining- two words. Good luck .

    • Mafuta Mingi April 18, 2021 at 9:25 am #

      I have been qualified 6 years and i am ready to quit! I love the job still but i hate not having the time to do it! I work in child protection and i am constantly chasing my tail…casenotes…visits…assessments…reports…reviews…..not forgotting duty!
      Unrealistic expectations! Im leaving SW for good!

      • Helena April 19, 2021 at 3:48 pm #

        What are you going to do? I feel trapped in a stressful and pressurised profession. No matter how many hours I work during the week and weekends, I can never catch up or I’m allocated additional cases.

        • Laura April 28, 2021 at 6:49 am #

          I’ve just left Local Authority social work and moved into charity work based with the NHS – it’s only been three months but stress levels are entirely different. It’s still officially a social work role but feels very different, the emphasis is on social justice and I’m not the ‘lead professional’ so it’s more collaboration which can mean it takes awhile to get things done but I finally have time to listen to the families and young people I’m working with.

  13. Nicky April 17, 2021 at 5:12 pm #

    Being a SW for over 20 years, sadly the priority in social work has become endless form filling and making the file look good for Ofsted and this seems to be much more important than a quality intervention! Awful as this involves constant tail chasing exhausting when case loads are very high and still very little time to spend with service users can be soul destroying. Its all about back covering and politics instead of truly being child focused

  14. Grace April 27, 2021 at 8:30 pm #

    I worked for different LAs for 6 years since qualifying in CP and LAC teams and finally assessment. I always felt stressed, not able to manage the workload and that I wasnt touching the sides on what I should be doing for the children.
    I have since having my own children worked pretty much the hours Im paid for… this isnt always possibly and means having to say no alot and further feeling of not doing the job fully but feeling like I cant neglect my own family. Looked at lots of jobs end of last year all outside of SW as Id had enough. Applied for 1 social work job at an IFA that Ive was offered and was the best decision I made. I thought id feel like I wasnt being a SW but I genuinely do not feel like that. If your thinking of quitting there might be a role for you that is not LA.