Caseloads bigger, more complex and harder to manage, say children’s social workers

More than a third say caseloads “completely unmanageable” as court pressures, Covid impact and lack of other services increase complexity, taking toll on mental health and leaving some contemplating exit

Image of stack of files (credit StockPhotoPro / Adobe Stock)
(credit StockPhotoPro / Adobe Stock)

Children’s social workers’ caseloads are getting bigger, more complex and harder to manage, taking a toll on their mental health and family life and leaving some contemplating quitting.

That was the message from Community Care’s annual caseloads survey, whose respondents painted a picture of severe pressures – arising from Covid, staffing shortages, court requirements and a lack of other services – that undermined practice quality.

More than a third of the 506 respondents – all of whom work for English councils or children’s trusts –  said their caseloads were “completely unmanageable”, up from 23% the previous year. A further 52% said their cases were “hard to manage”.

Caseloads rising in number and complexity

Full-time case-holding practitioners reported an average caseload of 25.6, compared with 23.9 last year, and well above the 16.3 given last month by the Department for Education as the average for full-time equivalent practitioners, as of September 2021.

A third of social workers said their caseloads had increased “a lot” over the past year, while a further 36% said they had risen “slightly”. Just 11% reported having lower caseloads.

However, respondents stressed that the number of cases was only part of the story, with 58% saying their cases had become “much more complex” in the past year, and a further 28% saying they had become “slightly more” complex.

Key drivers of complexity included a lack of early help, less support for children and families from other agencies, the impact of Covid on needs such as mental health and children’s histories of trauma.

And respondents said the increased complexity – combined with the sheer number of cases – was impacting on the quality of their practice.

Quality undermined

A children in care practitioner from the East of England said: “Cases have become more complex due to lack of services or early interventions not being put in place. It has become increasingly hard to access mental health services, until at crisis point.

“My current caseload is making it hard to plan or do any in-depth pieces of work. This leads to things like life story work not being completed appropriately, which can really impact on children and young people.”

Another children in care practitioner, from the West Midlands, said: “I have so many placement breakdowns to manage every month, children who are suicidal, children who do not have the right psychological support in place, families and foster carers struggling, residential homes closing due to staffing issues, a young person with psychosis, a young person with [a deprivation of liberty order] etc.

It’s too much to manage and it impacts on my son as I’m always doing late visits or crisis visits.”

‘Deflated, burnt out and extremely tired’

The impact of workloads on family life was a recurring theme in responses, as was the toll it was taking on practitioners’ mental health.

“On a personal note, I feel deflated; burnt out and extremely tired physically and mentally,” said a referral and assessment social worker from Yorkshire and Humberside, whose caseload had reduced in the past year but become much more complex. “I’ve always been good at taking the right steps to be mentally and emotionally healthy. However, since starting this career three years ago, my mental health has been an issue.

I’m stressed everyday. I struggle with sleep and constantly feel anxious.”

The impact was making some contemplate leaving their roles or, potentially, the profession as a whole.

A safeguarding social worker in the North West, who said their cases had increased in number and become more complex, said: “It is unmanageable and causes a great deal of anxiety and depression. I am looking for jobs away from local authority social work.”

Each closed case replaced by another

“I love my job, but for the first time I am considering leaving,” said a referral and assessment social worker in the South West of England.

Since returning from maternity leave last year, their caseloads had risen to “consistently mid-30s” from mid-20s previously, they said.

“As soon as I close a case it is replaced the same day,” they added.

Among other pressures mentioned were those arising from family court requirements and timescales, in the context of significant backlogs on the back of the pandemic.

“The amount of care proceedings I hold is completely unmanageable, it is impossible to meet any deadlines,” said an advanced social worker in a safeguarding team, who was carrying a caseload of 28.

Long hours

“The expectations from court have increased, the detail and level of work they expect has increased. There is always a request for an updated statement or risk assessment to be completed, which takes time and therefore takes you away from completing any actual interventions.”

This practitioner was one of many to highlight how much they were working over and above their contracted hours.

“My days are spent doing visits and answering emails. My evenings are spent writing reports and recording visits and case notes. Whilst I am contracted 37 hours per week, I am working on average until 9pm each night. I also do a few hours every Saturday too. Sometimes I offer to work at the emergency duty service so I can get some of my work done when it’s quiet.”

As last year, the survey revealed relatively little difference between the average caseloads of social workers who had completed their assessed and supported year in employment (27) and senior social workers (26.3), despite the latter’s additional responsibilities.

Both groups had seen caseloads rise since last year, from 24.7 for social workers and 24.2 for seniors.

Advanced or consultant practitioners had lower caseloads (24.3 on average), but some said this was still too high, given their wider responsibilities.

“I have been an AP since October 21 but have not seen a decrease in my caseload despite agreement by senior management that APs caseloads should be less to enable support to the team and facilitate the complexity of work allocated to APs. I have a court-heavy caseload and cases that carry a high level of risk,” said one.

Among teams, cases were highest on average among referral and assessment teams (30.6, up from 26.3 last year), with practitioners in safeguarding teams holding 24.6 (up from 23.6) cases on average and those in children in care teams 21.4 (up from 20.7).

‘Crisis turned to calamity’

The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) said the survey showed that “for many social workers crisis has turned to calamity”.

“Hidden harms endured over the pandemic are now coming to light, meaning the time and resources needed by each individual family are greater than ever before. Yet resources, funding and investment in the sector are, in real terms, at an all-time low,” a BASW spokesperson said.

“BASW demands that the government steps up and delivers, which means prioritising children’s social care and putting their money where their mouth is,” they added.

UNISON head of local government Mike Short said the survey results were “worrying” and similarly called for interventions from the government and councils.

“Social workers have been dealing with an increasing number of complex cases without any additional resources or support. The rise in referrals during the pandemic has made a bad situation even worse,” said Short.

“Staff are exhausted and the pressure is becoming unbearable. Social work teams are so stretched that another child protection tragedy could easily happen again.

“There is an urgent need to improve pay rates and increase staffing levels. This would help ease the strain on social workers and keep communities safe.”

Mounting pressures

Our survey is the latest in a string of reports in recent months to highlight the pressures on the workforce, including because of the impact of the pandemic:

The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) said social workers had “worked tirelessly in the most difficult of circumstances” since the pandemic started, with lockdowns exacerbating pre-existing challenges such as poverty and domestic abuse.

“This latest survey highlights the pressures under which social workers operate with increasing caseloads and children and families presenting more complex needs,” said ADCS president Charlotte Ramsden.

“While it is obviously preferable for social workers to have smaller caseloads, enabling them to work more intensively with children and families, a range of factors must also be considered during the allocation process from complexity, risk and the experience of the social worker.”

Directors urge national recruitment campaign

Ramsden reiterated ADCS’s call for the government to launch a national recruitment campaign for social workers to help ease staffing pressures.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “There are now more social workers than ever in the profession, and they play a vital role in protecting and supporting vulnerable children. We are supporting councils to recruit and retrain by funding fast track training and supporting new social workers to make a great start in the profession.

“We recognise the pressure on children’s services, which is why we are providing councils with £4.8bn in new grant funding to help maintain vital frontline services, including children’s social care. There are also peer-to-peer support sessions available to social workers to help them share best practice and discuss any challenges they face.”


Community Care asked social workers from England to respond to its online survey from 28 February to 11 March and received 506 valid responses, which were used to calculate the figures for manageability and complexity of caseloads.

The mean average caseloads figures were calculated from the 452 full-time respondents, excluding independent reviewing officers because of their much higher numbers.

The difference with the DfE’s average caseload number reflects the fact that our survey was based on a self-selecting sample representing about 1.5% of the workforce, whereas the department’s figures are based on the whole statutory workforce in England.

Also, the DfE’s number is not based on local authorities’ reports of their social workers’ caseloads, but calculated by dividing the number of cases by the number of case-holding social workers reported nationally.

While social workers have often questioned the DfE statistic for underestimating caseload levels, the department itself has said it should be treated with caution. This is because councils have indicated difficulties linking individual cases to specific practitioners, and the total number of reported cases the DfE relies on is typically lower than the number of children in need recorded in official figures for the same year.

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9 Responses to Caseloads bigger, more complex and harder to manage, say children’s social workers

  1. Mark March 26, 2022 at 6:54 am #

    Added to all that the continual KPI’s, the poor culture in a lot of places and the constant threat of performance management. A recipe for disaster, workers not being supported by senior managers. The feeling of going home after 8-10 hours work not having achieved anything…. I fear for the profession I once loved. Me, I cant wait to get out of practice, it fills me with dread everytime I return to it. The pressure to take more work, people not being able to take leave or toil and so it continues.

    I feel sorry for the children and families we try and work with.

    Mark ( nearly 20 years qualified).

  2. TiredSocialWorker March 26, 2022 at 8:33 am #

    The answer is not training more social workers. Just so that they can also burn out within three years like everyone else? We need better working conditions for social workers, to keep them in the profession. These surveys say the same thing over and nothing ever changes. Unless social workers start standing up for themselves, it will just carry on.

  3. Anon March 26, 2022 at 8:59 am #

    To me as a non children’s social worker this has to be the most stressful job in society. Even W/ out recent 2 yrs events. Failing to go see families f2f and appalling Court delays has now piled on even more pressure. You are also dealing with the wide held perception that local authority workers failed throughout the pandemic to do their jobs and still refuse f2f .

    But recruiting more social workers simply is too narrow a solution. And re working hrs no one in high pressure public sector jobs is going to give nod to this as we all do it. It is the grass roots community glue of Sure Start ctes and all that hangs on those that is missing, where support for so many came in so many ways.

    Am I as a single parent going to ever approach a social worker for help – hell no. Am I going to talk about feeding plans with a nursery worker and maybe go to the odd support group not linked to child abuse , maybe. Likewise I might choose meet up with other parents after drop off. I might accept that support worker who comes in to assist with practical matters for 6 weeks when a new baby is born.These are the things that protect children- the eyes and ears on the ground.

    Throughout these debates for ions now the role of the health visitor is totally absent. Someone who straddles LA and health ( check history for that reference) . Who can legitimately access a child and physically and developmentally check them over. Who is NHS so always safer than a social worker in the public eye.

    Older children are less likely to be referred to social services if parental support from a wide base is in place from young. Older children get a degree of protection when their younger siblings are in Sure Start.

    If you asked me the one emergency action would want in place immediately it is day fostering which used to be that bridge that respite and that chance to get balance. Here this part London disappeared. So stop trying to recruit new social workers when can’t retain and put resources in to the broken infrastructure

  4. Chris March 26, 2022 at 9:31 am #

    Whilst I appreciate the dire situation in children’s services, the situation is the same in Adults but does not get the same recognition. I think it’s worth highlighting both adults and children’s campaigning on both for better funding & recruitment.

  5. Dave Sleet March 26, 2022 at 1:01 pm #

    When a service system is no longer fit for purpose, because the system has become focused on defending itself, rather than the people it is meant to serve, the stain on those tasked with delivery is inevitable.
    Children’s Social Care is such an example.
    The professionals that are striving to achieve for those in need are systematically being failed. The system needs to be rebooted and the structural integrity rebuilt.
    Psychological awareness being put at the core of that is a fundamental requirement for positive evolution of the service experience.

  6. Julia March 27, 2022 at 8:07 am #

    I feel like crying right now. It is Sunday and I am behind with Court reports needed for tomorrow. There was just no time in the working week which was needed to fight a crisis, gather information, visit, answer emails and take phone calls in order to organise meetings and contain families in distress.
    I would like to point out that the report writing is not an academic exercise either, one that can just be bashed out. Recommendations being made to the court take an emotional toll, as they significantly impact on the lives of children and their families.

  7. AnnieMcLaw March 27, 2022 at 7:59 pm #

    Time to disrupt. disband re-BRAND childrens’ social they can deliver what policy intended – that children can be better serviced.

    I wonder how many well-intentioned, enthusiastic new social workers entering the profession have become jaded and resignate and beaten into submission when the harsh reality kicks in that they are like salmon swimming up stream against the elements to lay their eggs of new beginnings and full of hope – only to be eaten by a big grizzly bear for all their efforts! Only most people actually like salmon!

    Why isn’t there more investment into ’cause’ rather than ‘effect’? fostering good relationships with children’s natural families or extended families and networks. Surely every kid in care could have been less failed by the great british system who papers over cracks and incrementally changes laws “in hindsight and tragedy” Did anyone in politics ever plan for the future or learn from the past, or failing that, focus on “family values” as much as “british values”? Hypocritic irony? The sheer volumes of kids needed to be “looked after”…or “protected: doesn’t show much adherence to the ratio of Sir James Mumby (previous President of the Family Court) “when nothing else will do”…surely, as he says…there are alternatives? Either that or blinkered foresight….the system is self-perptuating supply and demand., focussed on fixing bolts on doors; mopping up the the spilled milk and using and abusing the staff they recruit.

    Where is the service?

    It is a crying shame for a nation to have to admit crisis levels of broken homes and families, searching for better, loving “unnatural”families to care for the abandoned and abused…can you see the irony? Time and resources would be better spent on investment into prevention..oh, and I’d like to see the stats on how well the “state” parent these kids?? ….it’s embarrassing to say I’m from a civilised nation….who cannot even get their own “houses” in order!” In every sense of the word!

    I know change is not always easy BUT when an organisation is badly perceived not only by the public but now by the staff then it doesn’t take a genius to know that the CURRENT SYSTEM IS NOT WORKING…throwing good money and people after bad. Demonstrably delinquent!

    I would love to be a social.worker but until that institution of wildebeest’ mentally evolves ….then what’s the point?

  8. Jenni Barnett March 28, 2022 at 2:32 am #

    Despite all of this …there’s still plebty time for colleagues black racism. Its never too busy for that.


  1. Caseloads bigger, more complex and harder to manage, say children’s social workers - Vulnerability360 - March 28, 2022

    […] Children’s social workers’ caseloads are getting bigger, more complex and harder to manage, taking a toll on their mental health and family life and leaving some contemplating quitting. That was the message from Community Care’s annual caseloads survey, whose respondents painted a picture of severe pressures – arising from Covid, staffing shortages, court requirements and a lack of other services – that undermined practice quality. More than a third of the 506 respondents – all of whom work for English councils or children’s trusts –  said their caseloads were “completely unmanageable”, up from 23% the previous year. A further 52% said their cases were “hard to manage”. Read more. […]