Most social workers happy in role despite unpaid overtime, cuts and Covid mental health toll

UK practitioners find the impact they have on people's wellbeing most rewarding but are struggling with administrative burdens, inadequate staffing and workloads, finds first annual BASW membership survey

social worker reading report
Social worker reading a report (posed by model). Photo: fotolia/sodawhiskey

Story updated

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.

“I love my job regardless of its challenges and the impact to my own emotional wellbeing. Limited resources, reduced funding, increased caseloads and lack of multi-agency working during covid has placed increasing pressures to protect the most vulnerable in society.” (social worker respondent, BASW membership survey, 2022).

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.

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26 Responses to Most social workers happy in role despite unpaid overtime, cuts and Covid mental health toll

  1. Paul March 9, 2022 at 8:53 am #

    But I thought they were all leaving in their multitudes because it’s so awful and oppressive?

  2. Claire Henderson March 9, 2022 at 11:49 am #

    They need to ask more social workers, our team alone has lost 6 sw in the past year putting more pressure on those left behind, there is a struggle to recruit and this leaves sw with high case loads, more pressure to cover duties and deal with challenges on the front line, the pandemic and now no carers impacts on packages of care. I love my job and cant see me doing anything else but we need more representation, a clearer view of what the reality of social care is and have our voices heard. Local authorities are struggling to encourage those to come into roles especially in Adult Social work, that is a concern, this starts at university, why do students want to become sw.. its time for change.

    • ruth allen March 9, 2022 at 4:20 pm #

      Yes this is a really familiar picture. It came through strongly. Being happy to be a social worker may be an article of hope but workloads can be unfeasible, Covid has rendered so many exhausted and people rightly want better quality of life. That is what we must strive for and get employers to respect.

  3. Anon March 9, 2022 at 12:18 pm #

    61% were happy to be working in the social work profession…… so does this mean 39% are unhappy?!

    59% were happy in their current role….. so 41% are unhappy in their current role.

    That’s a lot of unhappiness.

    • ruth allen March 9, 2022 at 4:08 pm #

      No about 20% we unhappy and 20% non committal. A fifth unhappy is too many but 60% positive is also important to hear.

  4. Peter Edgar March 9, 2022 at 1:53 pm #

    As a non-social worker I was pleasantly surprised with the positivity in these survey results. It would be good to know the turnover rates in the profession to see if they reflect such positivity. I read a few years ago in the BASW magazine that about a third of social workers left the profession within five years (or something like that). Has this issue been resolved/improved? Thanks very much.

    • ruth allen March 9, 2022 at 4:14 pm #

      Latest figs from DfE and other stats show raised vacancies, agency staff, intention to leave. There is def a problem with departure of experienced staff. People like being social workers overall. But they also feel exploited in many places and esp exhausted after Covid.

  5. Mark Keeley March 9, 2022 at 1:59 pm #

    LOL – agree with Anon above – I’d love to see the survey questions

    • ruth allen March 9, 2022 at 4:09 pm #

      The question was are you happy in your role and are you happy in social work. 20% were ‘unhappy’

      • Ted Debear March 18, 2022 at 1:42 am #

        20% is a lot if people

  6. Alison March 9, 2022 at 11:48 pm #

    The happiness index. How wonderful.

  7. Frida K March 10, 2022 at 10:41 am #

    It may be worth local authorities considering other ways of working rather than focussing on full-time only. Many social workers have home-caring and family commitments and cannot balance this with a full-time job. They need to work part-time but want to stay in the profession they love and spent several years training to do. As we know, the majority of social workers are women, and employers should welcome their knowledge and experience as qualified social workers rather than putting them in a position of having to look for part-time work elsewhere. If local authorities and social work managers are not prepared to recruit full-time staff they must explain why. If on the other hand they are willing to offer flexible alternatives, this should be reflected in ‘real life’ job opportunities.

    • Frida K March 10, 2022 at 10:57 am #

      Amendment – This should read as follows:

      If local authorities and social work managers are not prepared to recruit PART-TIME staff they must explain why.

      • Les Mis March 10, 2022 at 1:29 pm #

        …Here! Here! Frida K

        I made a comment last week in CC article:

        ‘Drop in adult social workers employed by councils as vacancies and turnover mount’

        which I urge you to read:

        https://www.communitycare.co.uk/2022/03/03/drop-in-adult-social-workers-employed-by-councils-as-vacancies-and-turnover-mount/#comment-281241

        …and yet David Fothergill chair of LGA wellbeing board is quoted in yesterdays article “Temporary registered social workers urged to restore registration to remain in practice’,

        saying “We would encourage anyone considering a career in social work, or who has previously worked in this role, to put themselves forward and help make a real difference in improving people’s lives.”

        He must be out of touch with the reality as my experience is that unless you’re available to work Full Time you might as well leave the profession.

        Ruth Allen, for your stats:

        I am frustrated, sad and unhappy to probably have to leave the profession I love due to the inflexibility of LA’s to offer Part Time roles.

        BASW needs to listen to what SW’s are saying re Part Time roles and to help facilitate change.

      • frustrated March 10, 2022 at 3:21 pm #

        But I doubt this is the answer as many part-time staff will likely end up working full time and more for part time ages but not part time workload.

        • Les Mis March 11, 2022 at 7:13 am #

          I know its not THE answer, however it is most definitely part of the solution.

  8. Ftogboy March 11, 2022 at 12:35 am #

    Think the survey is like an MOT only appropriate on the day of the test!

  9. Les Mis March 11, 2022 at 9:11 am #

    There is so much evidence that LA’s are struggling to recuit and retain Social Workers,

    Offering Part Time roles to SW’s who have family caring commitments and no choice but to work Part Time is one immediate way of addressing the issue.

    We are many, not few, and if the situation doesn’t change we will be lost to the SW profession forever.

  10. Philip Williams March 11, 2022 at 11:00 am #

    This is fake news. Please follow up on this research and ask frontline children social workers if they are happy to not get paid overtime for working late into the evenings or weekends in order to complete reports etc for deadline. Obviously, this article is political spin doctoring if that is a word in order to pacify higher line managers and local authority give that everything is just fine on the front line when it is not.

  11. Ed March 11, 2022 at 1:45 pm #

    Ed Balls .……….. Never read such rubbish in my life …

  12. Teri March 11, 2022 at 1:48 pm #

    Fake news? BASW tells us this is a survey, for social workers by social workers. You are not suggesting that BASW have a vested interest in buffing up the narrative of directors and politicians are you? Aren’t they “the independent professional membership organisation for social workers committed to the highest standards of practice and ethics”?

  13. Tom March 11, 2022 at 1:55 pm #

    Respondents were: “Social workers, students, academics, retired practitioners and others.” I’ll just leave it there.

  14. Gazza March 11, 2022 at 5:55 pm #

    Stressed, burnt out, low morale, can’t switch off, otherwise I’m fine .
    Cant wait to retire.

  15. john stephenson March 11, 2022 at 7:08 pm #

    Propaganda pure propaganda.

  16. Chloe March 12, 2022 at 9:55 am #

    Given that most BASW members are independent social workers and academics with a smattering of students, the correct headline would be most BASW members are happy doing whatever it is they are doing. There isn’t a great deal to extrapolate for across the profession from how “retired practitioners” feel about their lot really is there? I have a grudging admiration for how BASW constantly spin the narrative to place itself in seemingly the driving seat in social work but this one is a step too far. They do not speak for me. They don’t represent bread and butter social workers. A simple journalistic curiosity, how many of the purported 22,000 members are in practice and of those how many are managers? A day out for a photo opportunity with Nadhim Zahawi? Doesn’t mean much to most of us but is the perfect example of a seemingly engaged and leading “professional association” posturing without real influence. Telling that all he offered them was a plastic cup of water. Perhaps there is self reflection setting in though given that they just retweeted Cat Smith MP on this rather than blaze about it as they usually would.

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  1. Most social workers happy in role despite unpaid overtime, cuts and Covid mental health toll - Vulnerability360 - March 11, 2022

    […] 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. Read more. […]