Social work diary: ‘I wonder how much longer I can go on like this’

A practitioner on recovering from Covid, while trying to squeeze family life in around her work as the struggles her clients face mount ever higher

Photo: WavebreakMediaMicro/Fotolia

It’s Sunday mid-morning and I can already feel the anxiety rising in my chest.”

What is waiting for me in the morning? Who is annoyed I didn’t have time to see them or respond to them last week? What task from my to-do list have I gone another week without doing?

I wake early, the anxiety now fully formed dread, it surrounds me and filters all my thoughts. My legs are stiff as they have been every morning since I had Covid, which I caught at work, a few months ago. I turn on my work mobile to let the inevitable messages from the weekend begin to filter through and go about getting my family ready to go off to nursery, school and childcare.

Mercifully, my partner agrees to do the drop-off, giving me a few minutes to skull down a coffee before I go through the messages.

Some angry, some demanding, some desperate, some pleading, all urgent.”

I look through my diary. It’s an hour until I officially start my day, but I start going through emails and see that in my diary I have a children’s hearing this morning, two planned looked-after reviews this afternoon and two visits to get done after school time.

I phone the family about the hearing to make sure they will attend. They are upset. They don’t want to attend and it’s causing stress for them. I can’t support them more than trying to reassure them, but I know what I have to say will be tricky.

Meanwhile, my phone buzzes and pings through the call with other messages: “Call me now, it’s urgent”; “I’ve left you two voicemails, call me back today.”

‘Need feels like it’s at all-time high’

A lot of my clients are struggling. Family conflict, substance misuse, mental health issues feel like they’re at an all time high. I can’t respond to everyone immediately as my supervisor calls to let me know one of my allocated teenagers went missing at the weekend. I know I need to go and speak with her and her family today.

A colleague calls to say he was due to transport a child this morning and can’t do it. It is my case and he was helping me out, so I need to go and do that too. I jump in the car without responding to the messages waiting, I don’t have time.

From my car phone I call my errant client, check she is back safe and tell her I’ll see her later this morning. She asks me to bring money as she has none and she stole all her carer’s money and spent it over the weekend. I speak with the carer who apologetically confirms this. Ideally I’d go and buy them food but, short of time, I’ll need to request money from the petty cash and collect it.

I transport the other child as needed. The carer isn’t happy as I am later than was planned. I realise I won’t be back in time for the hearing so I go to the office base and put in the cash request form. I wait for the cash and then participate in the hearing by video from my laptop, after tethering it to my work phone as there’s no wifi.

After the hearing I drive out to give the cash and talk about going missing and the dangers.

We have a really good relationship but the carer is at a loss and so am I.”

I need to get back to the office to do my two reviews. It is already 12noon and the first is at 12.30pm. I make it but tech issues mean I don’t get logged on until 12.40pm and feel rushed.

‘There’s no time during the day’

The reviews go as planned. I knew they would as I spent a lot of time on the reports and prep, in the evening as there’s no time during the day.

I have two after-school visits to get done. It’s now almost 3pm, I haven’t eaten lunch and still haven’t returned those calls from this morning. I do the “easier” one first. It’s good to see the child and carer, but it’s really just a check-in as there isn’t much moving forward for this child, due to the current situation.

The other is more tense. There are family members there I don’t expect who have a lot to say. I have one eye on the time as it’s now 4.30pm and I have still to finish the visit, drive to the office first and then home, and pick up my children by 5.30pm. It’s going to be tight. Once again I call my partner to ask if he can do it, as I’m not going to make it.

I stay and resolve the issues at the visit as best I can. I find myself playing the role of family mediator more often than I remember doing before. I don’t really know why.

I finally get away about 5.20pm. I’ve not written a case note, returned a call or done any report writing.

Also I haven’t used the toilet or eaten all day.”

I use the loo at the office before racing home to see my kids before bedtime. On the way home, I return a couple of the calls from this morning. I explain I can’t respond today and try to say there hasn’t been time. Some clients get it but it’s still not fair on them.

An evening of case notes

I get home about 6.30pm and thank my partner for, once again, doing all the heavy lifting of keeping the kids’ schedule.

We eat dinner, put the kids to bed and I settle in for an evening of writing case notes and trying to make a start on the reports that are always waiting in the wings.

I wonder how much longer I can go on like this.

The writer is a children’s social worker practising in Scotland.

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33 Responses to Social work diary: ‘I wonder how much longer I can go on like this’

  1. TiredSocialWorker February 14, 2022 at 10:58 am #

    Exactly how I feel except I feel insanely jealous, as you have an office base and petty cash. What a luxury. How long can social workers carry on like this?

  2. Frances Grant February 14, 2022 at 10:58 am #

    Please, for your own sake, find another role or leave the profession before the physical and mental exhaustion wipes you out. The demands made of you and your colleagues are not sustainable.

    We are all propping up a broken system at the expense of our own health, wellbeing and relationships, and employers know full well that we do it because we feel guilty or inadequate if we don’t.

    • Miles Payne February 14, 2022 at 4:25 pm #

      10 years of childrens service as described in the diary article, then adults LD for 10 years ; whilst additionally on the main adult social care MCA rota for the last 4 years, which was then demonstrably entirely unmanageable , of course supervisors hierachy denied this . The conclusion in the reply is entirly acurate , took some power back via process and payout as my 2nd burnout was manifesting , all concluded x2 months before the pandemic hit and lockdown, I am in no hurry to go back

    • Mo February 22, 2022 at 4:13 pm #

      Well said!

  3. kellyann February 14, 2022 at 7:19 pm #

    thank you for this, it’s just insane what is asked of us and the job is relentless. i feel like i’m sinking and that even if i worked 24 hours a day, i still wouldn’t fit it all in, so many people are going off sick at the moment and they’re trying to find agency workers. Im a single mum with little support and i’m often stressing because i can’t get to my child in time. i wish the system would change somehow.

  4. Sally Groutage February 15, 2022 at 5:53 am #

    This is ridiculous and awful. I feel your pain. Youre damned if you do and damned if you dont. There needs to be a FSW attached to every SW to work as a team, so that some tasks can be delegated. This should be an Ofsted requirement. It makes my blood boil that this basic need is overlooked.
    Im so sorry for all the SWs feeling like this. Retrain if you can, many of ypur skills are transferable, and get the hell out of dodge

  5. Andy February 15, 2022 at 7:49 am #

    This article reflects the experience of many social workers including myself. The problem is not just that the resultant stress stops you from being able to see a horizon of alternative possibilities for your working life, it’s more that you have no idea the horizon exists AND you lose the ability to raise your head. With the many additional hours I was regularly working to try to cover my responsibilities, my effective hourly pay rate dropped well below the recognised level for the job and I began to consider the damaging effects of constant stress, poor sleep and unhealthy dietary habits on my physical and mental well-being (anybody in their fifties will understand the very obvious negative health implications of such concerns). Since leaving my SW post for an unrelated and lower paid role just over a couple of years ago, I’ve adjusted my lifestyle accordingly which has been tough but it no longer includes any regular late (and early) working and my overall health is much improved. I remain in admiration of social work colleagues who continue successfully to deliver a service which should be more widely recognised and indeed celebrated (as we saw during the recent lockdowns) in the same way as the emergency response services.

  6. Smilerjr February 15, 2022 at 8:19 am #

    I can totally resonate with this , hence why I finally took the plunge and resigned from front line child protection social work. Although it took a long time to make such a decision as somehow you feel like you have failed. The impact on my personal life and health was extreme. In a new social work position now, not frontline , and although there are still demands etc I have work life balance. Take care of yourselves out there x

  7. ExhaustedSw February 15, 2022 at 2:43 pm #

    This is exactly what the day to day is like. At my LA, we don’t have petty cash (we need yet another form filled out and authorised by managers) and have been kicked out of our office base due to covid.

    I don’t know how much longer we can go on like this either. And then on top if you have a safeguarding incident that has to take precedence, and you’re not able to devote enough time or focus, this is where dangerous practice begins. I’m not willing to be put in that position.

    We shoulder the responsibility for working in a broken system while trying our absolute best and devoting all the time we physically can. When will things change?

    • johnstephenson February 18, 2022 at 6:18 pm #

      Never until people stand up and refuse to be abused,in my opinion both Unison, and B.A.S.W. DO NOT WISH TO GET INVOLVED.

  8. Maria February 15, 2022 at 9:15 pm #

    And they wonder why we have a national crisis with the recruitment & retention of LA SW’s & they are heavily reliant on agency SW’s who come & go as the please! I put my job before my own children for many years! Glad I got out when I did otherwise I would have had a breakdown after suffering from chronic work related stress which manifested into depression & anxiety!

    • Ward February 19, 2022 at 1:37 pm #

      agree totally apart from comment about agency social workers – if they do come and go as they please, it is possibly another outcome of the pressures, stress and un workable work loads.
      I was an agency worker for 5 years and did not come and go, but stayed even when I knew my mental and emotional health was at risk – when my managers were case holding also, when I wanted to show commitment to my team as well as my families, but where I burnt out.
      The outcome was that didn’t get a reference because I burnt out when I couldn’t go on and when the team were so busy. Consequently, I’ve felt punished for being committed but at same time, I now know as agency worker or not, I have to prioritise me in order to survive as a social worker – not sure how we can do that sometimes, when we don’t even get the time or remember to go to the toilet during the course of a working day
      There are good and the lesser in agency and permanent – please do not dismiss agency workers – all social workers should be on agency rates of pay!! And actually the agency pay rate reflects that no holiday or sick pay is given – as well as the fact that I as an agency worker have been given the worst/most complex and higher work loads that my permanent counterparts. In my view, social work is social work whether you’re agency or permanent – both (I can only speak for children’s services) I have seen to have in certain Locial Authorities being treated in an appalling way as workers – as the social work diary suggests in this instance.
      It continues to confound me as to how we as social workers allow ourselves to work with such high stress when we would positively discourage those we hold dear to bear that of a social worker.

  9. frustrated February 15, 2022 at 10:36 pm #

    You can’t go on like this something will give maybe your partner; your children; you.
    I can tell you from experience it will take years to over come the affects this rent less pressure has on you without you realising it. For example having to relearn that not everything needs doing now. learning that the the rest of the world does not work with the dedication and commitment and that you can not expect the same respect and long hours etc that you gave to your role.

  10. Vera February 18, 2022 at 3:52 pm #

    I remember feeling this way so well. You think if you can’t achieve it all you’re a failure. Truth is no-one can manage it all
    something has to give. I remember one typical day after dashing around like a idiot running from meeting to meeting and then driving up the A1 for a LAC review with a sandwich in my mouth. I was five minutes late and the IRO had a go at me, it wasn’t a major deal but enough for me to fill up due to the work pressure. I stayed in the job 16 years and work in a IFA part time now, much better for my sanity. I think we all know when it’s time to call it a day.

  11. Linda February 18, 2022 at 4:11 pm #

    I remember having the same daily pressures back in the day, when I qualified in 1993. Clearly not much as changed. You have captured the experience so well, for what it feels like to be a social worker in a statutory role – especially pressured in the field of children and families – where as we know all too well the stakes are so high. I got out of that field due to burn out and the realisation that the job itself was a form of abuse for the worker, unsafe professionally, a discredit to the legal framework and organisation and worse still a failing, too much of the time for the people we are employed to support and safeguard. 5 years was more than enough for me, before I moved onto to working with adults with LD, hospital services and now as a BIA for DoLS. Social workers will continue to leave statutory work, this area of work especially, regardless of the skills and expertise they could offer if permitted to – what a waste – and leaving a poorer environment for those who have yet to realise or burn out – or find it too difficult to find an alternative . I cannot envisage a time when the resources will genuinely increase to enable better outcomes for everyone and so I say when you ask a question like how much longer can you go on like this? Then describe demands which are off the scale in terms of a reasonable expectation of an employee – maybe a more appropriate question is why you stay ? And maybe conclude you really do not deserve this – you deserve a job that usually allows you to balance home and work and one where you are not using private time to fit in what has been impossible to fit in during work hours – that evidences you have been given too much work – the fact that everyone else is in the same situation in your service does not make it somehow acceptable. It is not OK. I hope you find your own way forward and take the time to take stock of all. Just spreading the word as you have may be just the thing that spurs others to do the same. Good luck all !

  12. Bell February 18, 2022 at 4:21 pm #

    I completely understand, I am front line SW and I will now bow out gracefully of this madness.
    Not prepared to consider other peoples MH, life challenges and leave mine in the trash.
    This profession will have SW leaving in droves if things do not change. I mean REALLY change not just to pacify the public or government when unfortunate things happen to children or some new buzz word or training starts floating about.
    The foundation of social work has long gone and the people who make the rules have no clue what it is like in the field. So it will not change, well not for now anyway.
    So with no sadness at all I’m leaving this year and my only regret is that I did not believe I could have done it sooner.
    Take care of yourselves, your important too

  13. Reflective February 18, 2022 at 4:31 pm #

    I can identify so much with this diary. I worked in Child Protection for eight years then transferred to Adults for one year. Sadly during that time I was diagnosed with M.E. and subsequently ill health retired. I returned back to work after nearly two and a half years, this time with another more caring local authority. My M.E. has flared again and my new managers are doing everything they can to support me by lowering my hours and my caseload. The Occupational Health GP I saw at the time said that all those years of high stress/pressure working in Child Protection contributed to my M.E. coming out. All I will say to anyone who is in the same situation at the diary writer is don’t let it ruin your health like it did mine. All of us who work in a caring capacity, in this case social work, go above and beyond the call of duty. But we need to have a work/life balance and if this means switching off our laptops at the end of the work day, not working evenings or weekends, then so be it. It takes a lot of courage to do this but in the end your clients, family and employer will be much happier than if you go off sick or burnt out.

  14. Julia February 18, 2022 at 5:06 pm #

    Whereas this is a really dreaded reality for most of us, please remember that when you get to the point of making yourself sick for caring for strangers, it is YOUR family who suffers.And YOU.
    Nothing is worth getting to that point, because we are people and we get replaced, by agency, by new recruits… To families we work with we are a social worker, yes we build relationships, but often we do change over time. To our families we are the one mum, dad, partner.
    I was there last year… Not sleeping, exhausted and crying for no reason, then ill with COVID.
    No more skipping lunch, i plan diary carefully. I drop kids off or pick up. Yes, i have to still catch up on reports, but hell no to another burnout.
    if You go, the world will not stop for others, but You may not recover that fast, so bare that in mind…

  15. johnstephenson February 18, 2022 at 6:14 pm #

    Why is whenever you read about a Conduct and Capability Hearing where a Social Worker has not completed visits or paperwork is the manager never subject to the same procedure.As a Complaints Manager for 12 years I often dealt with cases where s/w’s were faced with intolerable case loads but threatened with capability proceedings if they complained

  16. Abdul February 18, 2022 at 6:54 pm #

    I have been a frontline child protection worker since 1998, and I cannot do it anymore. I have never had a break, and worked mainly in long-term intervention. There is too many cases, too much paperwork, too many processes, too many meetings; and not enough support, management oversight, nor enough workers to do the job. Everything is on the Social Worker, nothing is on management or the organisation. I once sat on the train at 5pm on a work-day, and was amazed at how many businessmen in suits there were, all heading home from work – on the dot, whilst I was on my way to an (unpaid) home visit. These men likely earn double or triple what I earn, and yet the level of work and responsibility does not compare. The amount of hours, stress, and workload we have as Social Workers, you think we were all CEO’s of large corporations, and not one under-valued, unpaid, and overwhelmed Social Worker at the bottom of the organisational food change. This is my last role in CP, as I re-trained (as a SIA Security Guard) where I plan on working in corporate security. I am glad I am leaving a broken system, not fit for purpose. Our Social Workers and Kids deserve than what they are getting.

  17. Alison February 18, 2022 at 7:19 pm #

    So sorry to hear that things are so hard for everyone. Almost impossible expectations today, don’t burn yourself out, the job will be there long after you m

  18. Wonderer February 18, 2022 at 7:20 pm #

    I have indeed experienced such unrelenting demands and constant stress. You want to do a great job and are forever cutting corners missing meals, missing home life missing sleep. Then you get bullying by managers why did you not reply to the email I sent. I wanted that reply by close of play. Pathologist practitioners, burn them out then do capability or disciplinary because your not super social worker, after all who needs sleep. Seriously no job is worth missing parent time with your own children. Its not fair nor realistic expectations.

  19. Anon February 18, 2022 at 9:53 pm #

    Seriously people what are we doing? This situation is desperate, and is not just reflected in childrens social work, it’s across the board…in adults and mental health.
    We are doing our level best every single day to try and keep up with the work expected of us at the expense of our own emotional well-being and that of our families.
    Someone, somewhere needs to start fighting for the social workers because without that we can’t support the vulnerable adults and children we are trying to help…

  20. Don Quixote February 18, 2022 at 10:29 pm #

    Totally support and identify with the concerns of the writer Please do look after yourself and your family. Returned to front line social work 6 months ago. I’m a state pensioner, by age. 43 years of working in health and social care. from numerous posts in social work and senior management etc etc… as the CV now runs into several volumes. I love being a social worker though. Now it’s really scary. I don’t feel safe!

    Service users and colleagues are fantastic and the challenges – well bring it on!
    Defeated by the attitudes of management – reactive, burnt out, don’t consult as to practical solutions, dictates by email, text etc. Sixty percent of team members now off sick! Raises concerns as to the safety of the service with a senior manager – no reply. Do I remain ‘feeding the beast with endless forms completion most of which just require good admin support to undertake, or do I go out to visit the backlog of service users in desperate and life threatening situations! I am an agency worker – not by choice, or for financial reasons [I put away a sum of money each week to fund service users’ gas and electric, and so they can purchase some food. Such to prevent them becoming so desperate that they go into melt down to require the blue light services having to respond – situations preventable! Not rocket or any other science to resolve.

    Familiar with the situation? I am not sure that COVID is entirely the issue or root cause here! Acknowledging the enormous impact and tragedy it has caused/continues to, to so many individuals and their families] Was the system broke even before COVID such that we are experiencing the continuation of our organisations [in]ability just to keep digging a bigger hole which will unfortunately lead to… ! Well readers you must think about what that may be! [Think the unthinkable] For you, your family and for persons who require our professionalism, our humanity to protect them and/or others.

  21. TheunemployedSW February 19, 2022 at 11:05 am #

    This diary totally helped me realize I am not alone and that I did the right thing leaving the profession. The Job alongside other issues in my own life made me feel suicidal and I was practically useless to my own family and thanks to getting CBT, I made a decision to leave the profession. 3 weeks out of the profession and I am not fully recovered from the stress, the anxiety, compassion fatigue, depression etc, still having the thoughts of things I could not finish before I left.

    I hope things get better for you but my advice, choose you and your family. We love to make a difference but we need to ask if this is at the expense of our own sanity and our family.

  22. D. White February 19, 2022 at 12:08 pm #

    I left social work 10 years ago because of pressures from the sheer volume of work. I never looked back when I got out. Please look after yourself. The system is broke and needs to change; I don’t see that happening in the near future.

  23. Suzanne February 19, 2022 at 6:40 pm #

    Just reading it makes me feel so anxious. I will never go back into frontline social work again we are treated like work dogs and nobody cares about the carers.

  24. Andrew Thomas February 20, 2022 at 11:32 am #

    Unfortunately this is becoming all too common. As social workers we seem to hold all the worries and issues of the families we work with and question our abilities when we cannot do the impossible. No other profession works like this. The pandemic has shown the levels of stress people are working under yet those in Government and higher management are doing nothing to relive the pressures. No job is worth your physical and mental health.

  25. Julia February 20, 2022 at 9:06 pm #

    This has made me so sad. I was recently off for weeks with a stress related illness and during that time I experienced anxiety and depression for the first time in my life. What does Social Work England do for us as a profession? This is not a rhetorical question. I feel that we pay the salaries of a lot of people whose sole job is to collect the subscriptions and hound us at renewal time. When are they going to properly campaign for Social Workers?

  26. Aziz February 20, 2022 at 11:50 pm #

    Yet we do it. Why? We can’t all be closeted masochist surely. Let’s hear from “social work is a privilege nobody forces you to do it” brigade who apparently have done so much for morale in Bradford. If it really is all about the “peeps” energise us now, don’t leave it for your next podcast. Bated breath not withstanding, solidarity to colleagues in all the nations.

  27. Lindy February 21, 2022 at 1:25 pm #

    I simply could not read all the responses to this article that resonated so clearly with me too. It is so disheartening.

    I don’t know what the answers are but I do know that we cannot carry on like this.

    Our profession is broken our social workers are breaking, we are not adequately resourced, valued or recognised. This is nothing new. One survey after another comes out with the same old news.

    Our voices are not heard. It’s about time that those that can represent us in government made the powers that be listen.

    Come on BASW, SWE, SWU where are you? Why are the people that pay you to represent them feeling abandoned?

    Police have a strong voice and political support.
    Health have a strong voice and political support.
    Education have a strong voice and political support.
    Social Workers have no strong voice or political support.

    Cinderella comes to mind working in isolation mopping up. When are we going to be invited to the ball on an equal footing with other professions.

    Sadly I see no fairy-tale ending for us.

  28. Sandy February 22, 2022 at 5:39 pm #

    I know I am being facetious but there is a fairytale about social work, it’s called Social Work Week 2022. Tune in to hear how great it all is.

  29. Mark February 27, 2022 at 9:41 am #

    I really feel you pain. I am just finishing a role after only 4 weeks as it is completely unmanageable. Neither Social Work England, nor BASW or their puppet SWU truly care to the point of doing anything.

    I’ve been a social worker gif nearly twenty years, undoubtedly it is a lot worse. I feel bad for the children and families I cannot build relationships with. I feel just as bad for the colleagues I cannot assist and wonder what the future holds for those coming into our profession.

    Only amongst ourselves we will hear our weary cries, no one cares, which I find remarkable in such a ‘caring profession’.

    Take the best of care that you can and look to exit to save your health and emotional well bring.

    Best of luck!