‘I’ve had two heart attacks from the pressure to keep children safe’

Social workers say increasing and more complex workloads are undermining their quality of practice, health and work-life balance, leaving some contemplating leaving their jobs

Photo: blacksalmon/Adobe Stock

Community Care’s annual caseloads survey found that social workers’ workloads were increasing, becoming more complex and growing less manageable. In comments accompanying their responses, respondents set out what this meant for them, the children and families they work with– and their future in the profession.

Quality undermined

Several social workers said their caseloads undermined the quality of the service they gave children and families.

“There is not sufficient time to produce work of a quality we would like to achieve. This is demoralising. We often find ourselves subject to criticism, which can be difficult when working so hard and for so many hours to the detriment of our home lives, health, and social lives.”  (senior social worker, safeguarding team, North West).

“I feel like some families get forgotten about and I deal with whichever family is in need most on each day. It feels more like firefighting rather than prevention.” (social worker, safeguarding team, West Midlands).

“Children are seen as a tick-box exercise sometimes as we do not have time to do the direct work that is needed to make real change.” (social worker, referral and assessment team, North East).

Worsening health

Respondents also commented on the negative impact of their workloads on their mental and physical health.

“After eight years of practice, I have had two heart attacks caused by the ongoing stress and pressure that is endured by keeping children safe.” (agency social worker, referral and assessment team, East Midlands).

“I almost think I’m depressed but then I continue to work and fight because I don’t want the children I work with to suffer more or to let them down. It feels unsafe. I can’t progress with plans. Generally, I feel rubbish at the job, rubbish as a mother, and have hardly any time to keep myself healthy. I know I need to do more but I’m shattered.” (senior social worker, children in care team, West Midlands).

“I have been newly diagnosed with hypertension and this is because of the constant stress of work.” (social worker on ASYE, safeguarding team, East Midlands).

Disrupted lives

For some, work pressures were disrupting their family and personal life, while others feared taking time off work.

“I get exhausted and struggle to feel any sense of being able to enjoy life, family, my partner and friends because I feel I should be doing more work. I wake up at 4am to do reports and fall asleep at 8:30pm, when I’m exhausted.” (senior social worker, children in care team, West Midlands).

“If I take annual leave, the work will still be there and increase in my absence. It’s the same thing if I call in sick. My doctor gave me a 10-day sick note for work-related anxiety, but l didn’t collect it because l was too scared of the work I would still have to do.” (social worker, fostering team, East Midlands).

Unpaid hours

Several said they were working well over their contracted hours.

“I work 60 hours a week just to keep on top of things. My cases are all complex. Most are in public law outline (PLO) or court.” (social worker, safeguarding team, South East).

“I work at least 50 hours a week when paid to work 37.”  (senior social worker, safeguarding team, South East).

“Even if I worked 24 hours a day, I don’t think I could get everything done.” (senior social worker, children in care, London).

Contemplating quitting

These effects left some social workers contemplating leaving their jobs.

“My workload is affecting my wellbeing. I get so tired and feel like I spend the weekend recovering. I have thought about leaving as I am fed up with being part of a broken system. The children deserve so much better.” (social worker, children in care team, South West).

“I am not motivated to stay with authorities due to low pay. There is a lack of care for staff morale, and aspirations are pushed to the bottom of the pile.” (senior social worker, fostering team, West Midlands).

“I am planning to leave children in care work within the next three months as I cannot forget my health and family life any further.” (senior social worker, children in care, East Midlands).

Increased complexity

The majority of practitioners said their cases had become more complex over the past year, and respondents said this was to do with factors including the severity of children’s needs, the impact of the pandemic and the absence of other services.

“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 are struggling, residential homes are closing due to staffing issues, there is a young person with psychosis and a young person with a deprivation of liberty order. It’s too much to manage and it impacts my son as I’m always doing late visits or crisis visits.” (senior social worker, children in care team, West Midlands).

“Cases have become more and more complex since the pandemic due to increased mental health issues among children and young people. This has had a huge impact on our mental health – vicarious trauma.” (senior social worker, children in care team, East Midlands).

“My cases have become more complex due to health and social care services not being available or being oversubscribed. It’s difficult to get services for families.” (social worker, safeguarding, North West).

Excessive paperwork

Social workers said that large amounts of paperwork made their workloads more stressful and time consuming.

“Very few authorities have social work assistants or someone to support with paperwork. There isn’t enough time in the day to write everything up.” (agency social worker, referral and assessment team, Yorkshire and Humberside).

“My caseload could potentially be manageable if there wasn’t so much paperwork to complete and panels to attend.” (social worker, children in care, North East).

Staffing gaps

Respondents said that ongoing recruitment and retention issues within the profession also added to the pressure.

“The local authority cannot recruit as they have gone through a transformation and wrecked the whole service. Everyone is leaving and no one wants to come and work for us. When they do recruit, they leave quickly as it is such a bad place to work.”(social worker, safeguarding team, West Midlands).

“Increased staff turnover, sickness and low team numbers have resulted in us picking up a lot of proceedings from staff that are off or that have left.” (senior social worker, safeguarding team, North East).

Feeling unsupported

And some social workers felt unsupported by their managers or employers, which caused further stress.

“I feel I’m not good enough partly because I struggle to meet the local authority’s demands, and management strategies are more psychologically abusive and coercive rather than supportive.” (agency social worker, referral and assessment team, Yorkshire and Humberside).

“By the time l open my emails on a Monday morning, l will have a dozen emails sent from my manager over the weekend. This gives me pressure to work at odd times that l don’t get paid for.” (social worker, fostering team, East Midlands).

“I’ve found my manager hasn’t been particularly forthcoming with keeping the team connected, and the majority of this has been down to us.” (senior social worker, adoption team, North West).

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

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20 Responses to ‘I’ve had two heart attacks from the pressure to keep children safe’

  1. Jazz March 29, 2022 at 2:52 pm #

    Blood pressure medication and antidepressants after 25 years of Social work…. Working 7am till late daily, and not getting paid for overtime, weekends my lap top comes out as I fear for the week ahead….Question ? should Social work be treated like Teachers and Nurses , Police? and have the same pay scales and rights all over the UK ? I think local authorities are unable to retain and support due to the lack of understanding and experience from local government.

  2. Julia March 29, 2022 at 3:16 pm #

    All the above comments are so familiar and so demoralising.

    I am sad for the ASYE, just starting out and already diagnosed with high blood pressure due to the stress of the job.

    When will it change and who has the courage to say this is not working and we need to rethink along systemic lines to include the basics such as proper funding for early help that may assist in preventing the cases we are now seeing with such high and complex thresholds.

    If I worked to rule, there would be so many reports, assessments and statements that just would not get done if I want to focus on the work with children and families. I agree with the comment: even if I worked 24 hours each day, I still would not get to the end of the to do list, as I am firefighting each day and this takes over everything else.

    HELP!!

  3. Lauren March 29, 2022 at 7:40 pm #

    Did 8 years front line and made me ill. The stress was overwhelming. I was fortunate to be able to access a full time secondment to my trade union from 2018 which is still busy but not nearly as stressful. It breaks my heart when I see my old colleagues burnt out trying to do their best.

  4. Jane March 29, 2022 at 10:37 pm #

    I have just resigned as my MH and physical health was suffering. High caseload, worked way over my hours each week, no real time to work with families just a tick box exercise. Gutted but no work /home life balance made me feel rubbish and eventually knocked my confidence feeling not good enough as I couldn’t keep up.

  5. Karen March 29, 2022 at 11:46 pm #

    Maybe we need to stop being the victim in all this and practice what we preach!?
    If our local authorities were abusive partners what would be saying to the people we work with. Maybe we need to take a stance?

    • Elaine April 1, 2022 at 7:10 pm #

      The local authority is an abusive partner. They expect perfection just because they said so. No additional support or resources are provided. When perfection cannot be produced due to the lack of resources, time, pressure and the fact that workers are completely burnt out. You are blamed, put down and threatened.

  6. Ann March 30, 2022 at 7:31 am #

    I left front line practice when I started to challenge unpaid hours and the impact it was having on my health. I was told by my manager that maybe social work was not for me ( I was a senior practitioner working for the same LA for 6 years) when I did start to challenge. I resigned the following day however I felt saddened about the amount of hours I had worked to safeguard children with no recognition from management. Children ate slipping though the net , services need to he more preventative than reactive . When I think of all the years I studied for this role. Broken system 💔

    • Jeanette March 30, 2022 at 3:47 pm #

      Totally agree after 22years no changes have been made and has deteriorated despite the hard work that is done by worker’s. Every single comments read is true and is significantly affecting worker’s health & well-being ,the infrastructure not caring at all about worker’s just statistics & data. and has a very abusive dreconian way of being unsupportive of workers views about high case loads which all the time is ignored at the detriment o SW’s trying to affect change & keep children & families safe. It is so unrealistic to expect worker’s to manage caseloads up to & over 20 and realistically expect 1 person to complete all tasks satisfactory not to mention the administrative tasks also expected to be done. The role of social work assistants is much valued & needed however is generally not available? cost cutting.Totally agree with the comment about management being unsympathetic and unsupportive in trying to affect change in addressing the issues worker’s experience on a daily basis and challenge the higher forces to acknowledge the problems. Even when justified worker’s are not able to claim toil or get fair leave due to their diaries being constantly booked with meetings unnesssary ones due to poor communication and overall case management. .,……. I could go on and on!!!!!!! We are all sick & tired of managers ignoring and dismissing the problems that are known & so obvious, worker’s are not respected and are being treated like slaves without respect.

  7. Miserable March 30, 2022 at 8:16 am #

    I found my colleague crying and was trying to comfort her when our manager saw us. We told her we were feeling overwhelmed. She said “we are all stressed you need to cope or move on.” That’s how toxic social work is now. At least in our service. Zero empathy, no compassion, robotic.

  8. Anton March 30, 2022 at 5:29 pm #

    Would be interested to know if CC has approached the Children’s Commissioner and Chief Social Worker on this and if so what they said. And also SWE who tell us wellbeing of our profession is something they value. Thank you CC for giving us this forum that our bossess won’t to discuss our experiences.

  9. Anonymous March 30, 2022 at 9:34 pm #

    Reading this and the comments has just made me reflect how undervalued our profession. Although, this is focusing in the children it is the same situation in adults. As an ASYE I am contemplating of leaving, I love my job but the constant battle with those on the higher positions just made me feel that I am on my own and no support with your assessor but just being told that I have to toughen up and be strong.

    • Andy March 31, 2022 at 12:29 pm #

      It’s incredibly sad to read what you’ve written. This is such a vital profession and it should be treating its new entrants like the precious vibrant resource that they are.

  10. keithbc6472 March 31, 2022 at 11:50 am #

    I have been a social worker over 25 years and, though different initiatives, ways of working and review of case loads with the plan to change – NOTHING has materialised.

    I am luck as I retired in just over a year but i really feel for my colleagues who have another 10+ years of all this. he stress on both staff and clients means that something will give it it has not already

  11. Jean April 2, 2022 at 9:14 am #

    JB
    I agree with person’s who have already commented and can say from experience that Safeguarding services has become a ” white wash” for the cleaver and hidden agenda of the management of the different teams within the same service. Children’s Social Workers are used as administrative staff for Virtual School, Fostering and Adoption Services, The placement team, Independent Reviewing Officers. This is alongside the day job as sets out in the Local Authority’s contract. The suttle bullying tactics is “You are the child’s Social Worker” so you need to do it., or there is a grey area meaning they have not got the staff so it becomes the child’s Social workers role. These odd jobs takes up most of the work day leaving court work until night when Social workers should be resting to get up fresh and ready for the following but every day remains the same. The few dedicated Social workers are struggling with various illnesses so have to off on sick leave no more frequent than ever and the few staff that are able to stand strong has to cover the absentees case loads on top of their heavy case loads,
    Social Work has no protection for it staff therefore the children and their social workers remain “at risk”

  12. GM April 4, 2022 at 9:19 am #

    all the above and mirrored in adult social work, high rates of staff leaving, ill-health, pressure and demoralised workforce … even worse now as remote working increasing poor physical and mental health, isolation, disjoined remote style of training, no team cohesion, minimal per support with ever increasing legal complexities to manage. I don’t use the word crisis much but this what you get when you don’t invest, you are only as good as your staff and i do wonder where the voice of social workers is within all this? Sadly, i’d never want my children to ever consider the role or to go through what i have gone through

  13. ETFM66 April 5, 2022 at 11:53 am #

    This is wrong. I trashed my health working frontline but loved it and valued work we did, the young people and colleagues. I continued to work face to face throughout COVID in a CAMHS role. End result my birth family have cut me and my family off stating I always put work first. Not them (also small matter of mastectomy and treatment with Ill health, bereavement and COVID but because I threw myself into work again) Luckily my real family understand and I have been lucky enough to rebuild time with them. Health and family are so important. I was lucky I lost people not worth my love..but please remember who is important. As employers despite all platitudes never do.

  14. Greg W April 6, 2022 at 5:43 pm #

    As a student who has recently graduated from a university in the North Lancashire area
    ..the whole system is broken, underfunded with mountains of pointless policy paperwork that doesn’t help families, just covers the back of the LA. Toxic management who squeeze you for everything you have. Awful, unlawful practices, bullying of students both from uni and placement. I saw social workers working from 7am until 11pm, no lunch break, feeling sick and anxious. Management expect absolute perfection at all times, a minor oversight becomes blown out of proportions. Hugh staff turn over and sickness. Barely any time with families or children. Stuck behind a computer typing up notes. Poor leadership, training, management. It’s not worth the stress, hassle and impact it has on your life. When I brought issues up, I was disregarded, ignored,. silenced. LAs can dress things up they want, the truth is they don’t care about practioners it’s like battery farming…just keep churning the work out. My advice is leave, find a new job and set boundaries. Say no, walk away and enjoy your life. It’s not worth the stress. My advice to AYSW, leave as soon as you can, it will not get any better. You have your whole life in front of you, your whole future career, don’t waste precious time on this toxic profession. It’s the only way LAs will learn to improve working conditions if everyone refuses to put up with them.

    • Anonymous April 9, 2022 at 7:05 am #

      I think it has been said for all of us what it is, should be and can be. However when we co spider the fact that our children and nation is failing as a result of apathy from our leaders, is disappointing and makes me feel sick.
      How is anyone able to break the cycle of abusive leadership, discrimination of staff, oppression of power!!

      It brings into question our values and morals as human beings and social Work profession altogether. And we have to face families while being hypocritical asking them to make changes they cannot make as we have nothing to offer them in return!

  15. Anon April 16, 2022 at 8:29 am #

    After 22 years in social work and having worked extra hours daily. I can only say we as social workers in whatever area of social work we work in need to agree to actually stand together and say enough is enough and work to rule. Our employers would need to employ more relevant staff or not however that would be there decision and any affects would be the employers responsibility and not the social workers who have worked the hours they are contracted to do. We do not get paid overtime. Sadly social workers do not stick together on these matters then experience ill health, burnout, stress etc. Also Social Work England and BASW are not supportive or helpful.

  16. Anon April 27, 2022 at 11:44 am #

    All of the above comments are sadly true. I left social work after 6 years. I had numerous roles across a variety of teams and hoped each time that things would be better. They never did. Working ridiculous hours and constant pressure to solve everyone’s problems (including that of the other professionals) really took any enjoyment out of life. Sadly I wouldn’t recommend this profession to anyone currently. Being beside yourself with worry, stress, pressure, and red tape requirements is not healthy and only leads to burnout. Also attending panels and having your work critiqued by a panel who have never worked directly with a child or family is pretty demoralising. It doesn’t help that nearly all social workers work 50/60 hours a week when only getting paid for 37. If SW’s continue to this for free nothing will change. However, when you try not to do this your demonised and looked down upon by colleagues and managers alike.

    The culture and ways of working are so entrenched now I really have no idea how the system is going to change!? However, I really hope it does!!!