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
- Social workers satisfied with employers but often required to do more with less, finds health check
- Improving social workers’ wellbeing: the possibilities and limits of ‘light-touch- interventions
- How wellbeing has decreased for social workers and care staff as the pandemic has progressed
- 11% increase in Cafcass social worker numbers in past year as caseloads reach record levels
- Children’s social worker caseloads continue year-on-year fall, according to DfE figures
“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