Social workers are regularly working unpaid overtime amid inadequate staffing, high administrative burdens and the mental health toll from Covid, but most remain happy to be in the profession and their current roles.
Those were among the findings from the British Association of Social Workers’ first annual membership survey, answered by over 2,000 social workers, students, academics, retired practitioners and others from across the UK.
Association chief executive Ruth Allen said there it was “no surprise” that social workers “continue[d] to deliver in their role with a genuine enthusiasm and drive to support people and to have a positive impact on their lives”.
However, she said this could only be sustained if practitioners have adequate resources and the right working conditions to do their jobs.
Findings from the survey included that:
- 72% were unable to complete their workload within their contracted hours.
- Among this group, 24% were working at least 10 hours extra per week on average.
- The three biggest challenges in their roles that respondents cited were administrative demands and adequacey of staffing levels (both 51%) and workload demand (47%).
- The three biggest challenges for the profession were a failure to fund social care adequately (67%), cuts to local services (61%) and having not enough time with people who use services (35%).
- The three things respondents felt were most rewarding about their role were having a positive impact on people’s wellbeing (50%), enabling them to have more choice and control (44%) and promoting social justice and anti-oppressive practice.
- 61% were happy to be working in the social work profession and 19% said they were not.
- 59% were happy in their current role and 18% were not.
- Almost a quarter (23%) said they intended to continue in their role for the next three years, 18% said they wanted to change their area of practice and 17% apply for promotion.
- 15% said they planned to leave social work for another profession, 16% said they intended to work fewer hours and 11% to become an independent or locum social worker.
- On the back of the pandemic, 12% are working or studying exclusively from home, 34% doing so predominantly from home and 31% dividing their time between the office and home.
- Over a fifth (22%) said that working during the peak of Covid-19 had negatively affected their mental health and continued to do so, while 28% said their mental health had been negatively affected but had since improved.
Need to tackle ‘unfeasibly high workloads’
BASW’s survey, carried out online from December 2021 to January 2022, is the latest research published recently illustrating the pressures on the profession.
While the Department for Education’s annual workforce figures for children and families social workers showed caseloads holding steady and increases in practitioner numbers, it also highlighted rising vacancies and a significant spike in staff turnover.
Meanwhile, official figures for adults’ social workers also showed rising vacancies and turnover, but falling numbers of employed practitioners.
On the back of the survey, BASW called for investment in social work education, recruitment, retention and professional development, including more flexible working, encompassing increased part-time opportunities.
It also said there needed to be action to tackle “poor working conditions and unfeasibly high workloads”, which were a “a major source of stress”, and needed to be addressed through more support, resources and opportunities for reflective practice.
Relatedly, it called for practitioners to have more time for direct work and relationship-based practice through a reduction in their administrative burdens, including through investment in administrative staff.
This is a longstanding demand of BASW England’s 80/20 campaign, launched in 2018 to reverse the 20% of working time children and families social workers spent on direct work, as revealed by a survey of members carried out that year.
Covid mental health impact
BASW’s survey is also the latest to highlight the mental health impact on the profession of working through Covid-19, with just over a fifth saying that the negative impact of working through the peak of the pandemic on their mental health had continued. A further 28% said their mental health had improved after being negatively affected by the pandemic.
On the surface, this appears a more positive finding than other findings on Covid’s impact carried out in recent months.
A Social Workers Union survey carried out at the start of the year found that two-thirds of respondents had seen their mental health deteriorate recently because of work.
Meanwhile, the third phase of research tracking the experiences of health and social care staff of working through Covid, carried out last summer, found that social workers’ mental wellbeing and quality of working life had decreased over the course of the pandemic.
Sixty nine percent of social worker respondents to the latest round of the Health and Social Care Workforce Study reported feeling overwhelmed by the increased pressures they were facing.
The BASW survey also highlighted the extent of the shift towards home-based working initiated by the pandemic, with 12% working or studying exclusively from home, 34% doing so predominantly from home and 31% dividing their time between the office or campus and home.
About the survey
The survey was answered by a self-selecting sample of social workers, students and others – mostly BASW members – through the association’s website from December 2021 to January 2022.
BASW has reported the findings as a proportion of the people who answered each question.
The vast majority (84%) of respondents worked in England, almost two-thirds (65%) qualified as a social worker over 10 years ago and half worked in children’s services, with a 24% practising in adult social care. Sixty nine per cent were employed, 16% self-employed and 12% working as a locum.