Growing majority of children’s social workers feeling stressed and overworked, finds DfE study

Surveys of cohort of practitioners reveal stress levels grew before and during pandemic and that job satisfaction rates, while still high, are falling

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

A growing majority of children’s social workers are feeling overworked and stressed, while job satisfaction – though still high – is falling, according to research for the Department for Education (DfE).

The proportion of practitioners feeling stressed and overworked grew both before and during the pandemic, with Covid-19 a clear contributory factor to the latest rise, according to the study, which is tracking the careers of statutory children’s practitioners over five years.

The third wave of the longitudinal study of local authority child and family social workers, for which practitioners were polled from September to December 2020, found that:

  • 60% felt stressed by their job, up from 56% in wave two (for which research was conducted from September 2019 to January 2020) and 51% in wave one (November 2018 to March 2019).
  • 58% of social workers felt their overall workload was too high, up from 54% in wave two and 51% in wave one. This was despite the fact that the average number of full-time cases fell to 18 in wave three from 19 in waves one and two.
  • 55% felt they were being asked to fulfil too many roles in their job at wave three, the same as wave two but far higher than wave one (48%).
  • 72% were satisfied with their job, compared with 73% in wave two and 74% in wave one. However, among respondents who completed all three waves, satisfaction had dropped significantly, from 76% to 71% since wave one.

Survey sample

The first wave had 5,621 respondents, almost one in six of local authority practitioners. Of these, 3,099 completed the second survey, as did an additional 256 social workers on their assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE).

Of those who completed wave two, 2,240 completed wave three, as did 283 practitioners on their ASYE. Researchers said the survey was designed to track practitioners’ experiences as they moved through their careers, so changes between years may reflect the respondents’ career development, rather than broader changes to the state of the workforce.

The study is being carried out by agency IFF Research and academics from Manchester Metropolitan and Salford universities.

Frontline practitioners were more likely than average to report stress (68%, compared with 60% overall), though team managers were more likely to say their workloads were too high (69%, compared with the 58% average) and that they were asked to fulfil too many different roles (62% compared with 55%).

Qualitative research suggested that managers could feel overworked due to the increased intensity of managing teams in a more virtual way due to Covid-19.

The chief cause of stress across the workforce was having too much paperwork – cited as the main factor by 23% of those who felt stressed by their job (up from 22% in wave two) – followed by having too many cases (20%, compared with 24% in wave two).

Covid impact

Covid-19 was cited as the main factor by 4%, however, the research indicated that the pandemic was a significant cause in the increase in reported stress between waves two and three.

Almost three-quarters of wave three respondents felt that work-related stress had increased as a result of Covid-19, while over two-thirds of social workers considered that anxiety, complexity of cases and workloads had all risen due to the pandemic. The problem was particularly acute for practitioners on their ASYE and those with two-to-three years’ experience, for whom 82% and 81% respectively said Covid had increased work-related stress.

The findings on anxiety and case complexity were reflected in the qualitative interviews. Some interviewees said it took more time for referrals to come through so the risk was higher by the time they reached them. And respondents said it was taking longer to progress and close cases, as support services were less accessible and risk assessment was more challenging under the Covid-19 restrictions.

Four-fifths of respondents reported that Covid-19 had led to increased flexible working. While many social workers welcomed the opportunity to work from home and found this helpful in terms of reducing travel time, some found the removal of boundaries between their work and home lives difficult given the stressful nature of their work.

In addition, most respondents (59%) felt that relationships with colleagues had worsened as a result of Covid-19.

Researchers also said that the pandemic was likely to have contributed to a drop in practitioners’ sense of achievement from work, to 77% in wave three, from 79% in wave two and 83% in wave one.

Most social workers, 62%, thought the Covid-19 pandemic had limited the resources available to support children and families. But 76% agreed they had the right tools to do their jobs effectively compared to 73% at wave two, and 57% said that the IT systems and software supported them to do their jobs, compared to 49% a year earlier.

Despite Covid, respondents reported feeling more valued by their employer at wave three (61%, up from 59% at wave two and 56% at wave one).

Retention impact

The study found 11% of wave three respondents had left statutory children’ social work since wave one, with half of this group remaining within the profession, either in adults’ services or outside the statutory sector. However, researchers said this may be an underestimate, as those who did not respond to the survey may have been disproportionately likely to have left practice.

Of those remaining in statutory children’s practice, including agency workers, 84% anticipated doing so in 12 months’ time, while 9% planned to quit child and family social work altogether.

Of those considering leaving, the most commonly cited reason was a dislike of the culture of local authority social work, which was also the factor most often raised to explain moves between local authorities.

Qualitative interviews found that key features of working culture that could improve retention were a supportive working environment, feeling valued by your line manager, being trusted to make professional judgments and scope for development and reflective practice.

‘Inadequate support’

John McGowan, general secretary of the Social Workers Union, said employers did not provide his organisation’s members with the support they needed during Covid-19’s second wave, when the wave three survey was carried out, as caseloads rose in number and complexity

“Even more of our members were saying they were looking to change their career. There was more local authorities recruiting non-permanent staff,” he said.

“There continued in the second wave, and up until recently, inadequate support for social workers who are dealing with grief and personal situations. The counselling services to workers were just overwhelmed. Local authorities could not get them appointments to deal with their own grief.”

In its response to the report, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) reiterated its longstanding calls for a national social work recruitment and retention campaign, to tackle pre-Covid challenges in holding onto staff and the “fatigue” felt by the workforce as a result of the pandemic.

“The whole workforce has been under immense pressure since the outbreak of the pandemic,” said Rachael Wardell, chair of ADCS’ workforce development policy committee.

“For some, the transition to remote working has been difficult as well as the long-term impact of being away from friends and colleagues but we know it has been particularly challenging for new people entering the workforce.”

She added: “Councils are doing all they can to put in place the necessary support to make this easier to ensure that staff receive the support they need. As the report notes, we are seeing more complex cases as the real impact of Covid-19 on vulnerable children is starting to become increasingly apparent. We anticipate that the number of children and families requiring our support will significantly increase over the next year and beyond, with a greater complexity of need.”

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12 Responses to Growing majority of children’s social workers feeling stressed and overworked, finds DfE study

  1. Marrian Pattinson Vaughan July 26, 2021 at 9:13 pm #

    How have you only just realised this, it’s a lived experience for most social workers, and has been for the last 15 years if not more. The lack of insight into front line social work astounds me, and never ceases to amaze.
    What are you expecting this survey to achieve?

    • Susan Hughes July 30, 2021 at 6:40 pm #

      Absolutely agree
      Well said but we not listened

  2. Carlton July 28, 2021 at 7:48 am #

    Social work bureaucracy is in perpetual disarray and social workers are worn down by it. Nothing new here. Starting with detached from the realities of practice academia to budget driven decisions to an incompetent and bullying management culture infatuated by fads, not the obvious, the whole ‘profession’ is rotten. Socialworkawards21 just in time to do the Establishments work and pretend the roses are blooming, the garden teeming with butterflies and bumblebees just waiting for us to enjoy the cucumber sandwiches. Pitiful.

    • Susan Hughes July 30, 2021 at 6:44 pm #

      Absolutely agree
      The social work experience
      More burocracy stress etc
      Changes constantly
      Wales legislative changes are nightmare
      Focussing on adults -child’s voice lost
      Courts a joke -now state SSD not issue unless have worked with parents pre birth even if no engagement
      The job is thankless task with children more at risk than ever in wales -led by no money/ budget
      And apparently another pay freeze

  3. Alec Fraher July 28, 2021 at 9:54 am #

    the numbers using drugs, both prescribed and illicit, to Co with depression is scary. a soon to retire team manager and friend told me that most if not all her staff, including her, have been prescribed any-depressants. she can’t wait to go and is saddened that she’ll have to go quietly too. She added “I spent 28 years a of my life as a social worker and what good has it really done?”

    • Tom J July 29, 2021 at 9:52 am #

      Whilst not being naïve I do feel that ‘The Case for Change’ (The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, Josh MacAlister June 2021) has sounded the alarm on what modern children’s social work has become. Three of the biggest points being:

      – 25% of children will have had a social worker before their 16th birthday (Jay et al., 2020).

      – In the majority of cases, families become involved with children’s social care because they are parenting in conditions of adversity, rather than because they have caused or are likely to cause significant harm to their children.

      – When the state steps in, too often the focus is on assessment and investigation not support.

      • Melanie Hamilton-Smith July 29, 2021 at 9:41 pm #

        The independent review lead by a headteacher? Something very wrong here. Maybe a social work service delivery manager could lead an independent review on teaching….

        • Arthur July 31, 2021 at 9:12 am #

          If social workers were less obsessed with “rescuing” and more committed to engaging with the adversities people struggle with they might feel they were doing something positive with their skills. Get over the heroic battling bit and you will discover your inner solace.

  4. Carrie July 29, 2021 at 7:10 am #

    Those of us who have long given up beleiving that there is such a thing as ethical practice based on values and respect and reconciled ourselves to a career as bureaucrats and functionaries grapple with complexity but don’t suffer the angst described here. What stresses me is the constant guff from ‘leaders’, self defined experts, detached from reality academics, assorted for profit training consultants guilt tripping gullible and weak directors and indeed the pretence that a new statement, memorandum, tweet and blog from BASW will make any positive difference to my work experiences, erode racism, tackle age discrimination and so on. SWE, what is that?

    • Johnny Walker August 2, 2021 at 9:13 am #

      Well said Carrie. All these reports, regulators, bodies are making no difference whatsoever.

  5. John Snow July 30, 2021 at 1:34 pm #

    Nevermind folks, feel good times just round the corner. Not long now before socialworkawards21 celebrates, in their words, “the social work industry”. Thank you Carrie for summing up so clearly the pretences we navigate daily.

  6. Kenny July 30, 2021 at 2:27 pm #

    I can’t disagree with any of the comments above and the issues, of which there are many, are not new issues. These are long standing endemic problems with the structure and function to Children’s Social Care across the board. There is a huge disconnect between many senior managers and those in the front line. I have seen numerous articles and postings that services listen to families and our children but I do wonder if this is true and how selective such focus groups are with the reality and the stress placed in social workers managing this . Many families disagree with what we do provide and it seems there is a constant disconnect and conflict with this .

    Sadly I have little faith that the Review will achieve anything new but it’s about reducing costs all the time rather than what actually works for children and young people. If this is not addressed properly you will be left with the majority of a workforce who are inexperienced and burning out faster due to the large demands and large workloads placed upon them too soon. This again has been happening for the last 20 years I know of and seems to continue .

    I would love to see the recruitment and retention issues addressed properly but it’s soul destroying as you work in a good, supportive and stable team and either you have to help out a struggling team or people start to leave and your team becomes the struggling one that is over loaded and not coping. On top of the heavy focussed management culture that exists in many LA’s where a lot of those managers are promoted quickly and early, and whilst they are bright people, they often don’t cope with the challenge of the task in hand and are used to achieve a better outcome for the Ofsted Inspection and rating. Austerity and the competitive nature of the market forces between public/private services have eroded the quality aspects to providing good social work services for families and it’s a sad state to be in. Not a new state but it’s becomes the status quo but will Josh review the whole system and then implement this successfully .
    There are also so many unhelpful cultures within a lot of LA’s too by senior managers and nothing is addressed about those inadequate places with high staff turnover . Thankfully there are places where this is different and better but this is also the norm for many social workers and it is wrong, unfair and unjust .