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.
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-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).
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.
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.”