Caseload limits proposed to ease burnout and support effective social work

Social Work Scotland research recommends 'indicative' maximum of 15 cases for children's social workers and 25 for adults' practitioners

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Photo: Balint Radu/Adobe Stock

How far would you support national caseload limits for social workers?

  • Strongly agree (86%, 609 Votes)
  • Slightly agree (7%, 49 Votes)
  • Strongly disagree (3%, 24 Votes)
  • Slightly disagree (3%, 22 Votes)
  • Don't know (0%, 2 Votes)

Total Voters: 706

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A report for social work leaders has proposed specific caseload limits for practitioners to help mitigate the mounting workload burdens many face.

The Setting the Bar study, which surveyed more than 1,500 social workers in Scotland – about a quarter of the public-sector workforce – recommended ‘indicative’ limits of 15 cases for children’s social workers and 20 to 25 for peers carrying out adults’ and criminal justice work.

The report, commissioned by leadership body Social Work Scotland, said such limits could empower practitioners to support people more effectively, against a backdrop of rising workloads and burnout.

Social workers expressed “weariness but not cynicism” in their responses to the survey, the report observed, adding that the findings offer “important handles” to hold onto as Scotland develops plans for a National Care Service, assuming responsibility for social work from councils.

As part of those plans, the Scottish Government has been consulting on proposals to introduce a National Social Work Agency to oversee the profession, including a national pay and grading framework.

‘Internal waiting lists’

While the study was carried out north of the border, its findings around work pressures and their impact on attitudes to the job echo many other pieces of research, including recent surveys by Community Care.

The Setting the Bar report warned that ‘moral distress’ experienced by some social workers – in which they identify ethical courses of action but are unable to pursue them because of resource constraints – was fuelling decisions to leave the profession.

The report cited a stark example given by a survey respondent of “‘internal waiting lists’ operated by workers who have no choice but to leave people allocated to them to reach crisis point before they are responded to”.

Some social workers responding to the survey said they were carrying more than 50 cases.

The study found a clear upward shift in the percentage of respondents who found their workload ‘hard to manage’ when caseloads exceeded 15, with a much larger rise apparent when they rose above 25. Caseloads above 30 were associated with a near-threefold increase, from 9% to 25%, in perceptions that workloads were ‘completely unmanageable’, leading to severe negative impacts on work-life balance.

Even so, this was not a universal pattern, with some practitioners successfully managing caseloads of 50 or more while others struggled with 10.

Push and pull factors

Asked their opinions on setting caseload limits (see box), while two-thirds of respondents suggested a figure “without the need for qualification”, the remainder did not – with many being “unwilling and unable” to do so.

Some pushed back forcefully on the notion as being too simplistic or reductive. The report cautioned that limits should be considered as a step in the right direction rather than a panacea, given the huge variation in case complexity and the additional impact of administrative pressures on practitioners’ wellbeing.

How proposed caseload limits were reached

The indicative caseload limits were arrived at by separately surveying the general workforce and chief social work officers (CSWOs), after a literature review concluded that case complexity and other factors made quantifying a figure difficult.

“CSWOs emphasised that operationally, caseload considerations must always attend to the complexity and demands of individual cases, worker capacity and geography,” the report said.

Bearing these qualifications in mind, across all three categories of social work, answers from chiefs ranged from 10 to 30, with maximum numbers of 15 identified for children and families social workers, and between 20 and 25 for adults’ and criminal justice practitioners.

Social workers, meanwhile, were asked to consider what they felt was the maximum number of cases a full-time practitioner could carry while “safely and effectively [delivering] on the aims, aspirations, core values and principles that underpin social work practice”.

Although the range of responses was “vast”, the mean average result for children’s practice was 14.5 cases, adults’ 19.5 and criminal justice 24.6. While broadly lining up with the CSWOs’ responses, these also corresponded with the survey results relating to how manageable social workers felt different caseloads were.

While almost half (47%) of respondents selected high caseloads as one of the least satisfying things about their work, high administrative workloads (78%) and lack of time for preventative work (65%) were greater sources of dissatisfaction. The report noted that while social worker numbers had remained mostly static in recent years, administrative staff had reduced by about a third across all social work team types.

Unpaid overtime the norm

More than 70% of respondents said they worked extra, mostly unpaid, hours, while 81% said they spent less than 10% of their time on training and development.

Unmanageable overall workload (59%), poor work-life balance (51%) and high administrative workload (49%) were the factors most commonly cited by social workers as push factors that might cause them to leave the profession.

By contrast, the pull factors that did most to keep people in social work were a sense that they were able to make a difference to people’s lives (69%), and their commitment to the profession (67%). In comments, many stated that they only stayed in their jobs because of their colleagues.

Value of caseload limits

In a statement following the report, by academics Emma Miller (University of Strathclyde) and Karen Barrie (University of Edinburgh), Social Work Scotland explicitly backed caseload limits.

“Having indicative maximum caseloads can…help empower social work leaders set a bar, and establish a line beyond which we know social work no longer supports people as it’s supposed to,” it said. “That line can help better articulate the conditions and workforce necessary to do what social work is entrusted and required to do.”

With the Scottish Government not only planning to develop a National Care Service but also implementing “The Promise” – its commitments arising from the 2017-20 children’s care review – Social Work Scotland said its report illustrated a gap between aspirations and reality.

It added: “There are opportunities to make the changes needed, but we need to act now; we’re at a crucial tipping point.

“If we are to address the current challenges faced by social work, we must be bold. Articulating an indicative maximum caseload for social workers is no different than specifying classroom numbers for teachers. We all know that not every class is the same, but we also understand that teachers can only do their job well if they have the time and opportunity to do so.”

‘Wide-ranging and deep-seated problems’

Responding to the report, Alison Bavidge, the national director of the Scottish Association of Social Workers, said it had “outlined the wide-ranging and deep-seated problems facing social workers in Scotland”.

She said it showed that the workforce should be “swiftly and effectively” increased to meet demand.

“Unmanageable caseloads are just the tip of the iceberg, with little career progression and structured personal development, lack of preventative work, unpaid overtime and excessive paperwork also prevalent,” Bavidge added.

“It all combines to create a perfect storm which is putting social workers under severe pressure, is damaging their mental health and risks crippling the profession as more people leave.”

Social workers having to ‘deliver more with less’

A spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) said the report “rightfully spotlights the significant challenges that social work professionals have been faced with for some time”, blaming underinvestment by the Scottish Government for forcing the workforce to “deliver more with less”.

“We cannot wait for the creation of a National Care Service to drive the improvements that are needed across the social care sector and social work profession,” the spokesperson said.

“COSLA is committed at a national level to improving the working experience, development opportunities and wellbeing of our social work workforce so they feel enabled and empowered to improve the lives of our communities,” they added. “We will continue to work in partnership with Social Work Scotland and the Scottish Government to address these challenges urgently and meaningfully.”

Minister for social care Kevin Stewart said he understood and acknowledged “the significant pressures social workers face, with increasing workloads, staff shortages and the more complex needs of those they support – all exacerbated by Covid”.

The Scottish Government is having ongoing discussion with COSLA and other stakeholders on social work workforce policy, including recruitment and retention, learning and development, pay, leadership and workforce planning, he said.

2 Responses to Caseload limits proposed to ease burnout and support effective social work

  1. Alec Fraher June 7, 2022 at 1:25 pm #

    Eugene Litvak, a Harvard Professor comes to mind when I read about internal waiting lists and pull and push factors

    As does the work of my name’s sakes, Erin and Amy Fraher, both are concerned respectively with the integration of health and social care and decision making in high risk teams.

    I do though wonder about the theoretical flirtation with such thinking, driven and based on the US models and experiences and not the EU. I wonder what if any influence Westminster had in these experiments.

    Earlier attempts with systems dynamics and lean systems thinking did little but create confusion amongst some of the most competent people I have ever worked with.

    The geography of Scotland alongside a culture of openness and a piblic sector leadership determination to stand1up against bullies provides fantastic opportunity for English authorities to learn from, let’s hope that the psychobabble of management metrics doesn’t shift the focus from structural inequalities created by the legacy of Margaret Thatcher.

    for cpd see The Great Moving Right Show by the late Stuart Hall. Andrew Gamble is good for an examine of how Education has shifted to the right too.

    As trade agreements are fought over between the Brussels and Westminster the adoption of US models is timely, but let’s not forget that the maritime boundary runs up to the Straights of Moyle.

  2. Abdul June 11, 2022 at 12:58 pm #

    I support capped caseloads, where once a social worker has the maximum number of cases, the rest get put on a waiting list, or low risk or support cases are closed. Urgents can be handled on a duty system, or we close less risky cases, to support the most needy and vulnerable.

    It does not bother me anymore. I have been a CP SW for almost 25 years, and have heard ‘all the talk’ and no action for yeas, so I am leaving the profession permanently in Sept.

    My plan is I would rather have two part-time jobs (i.e. Starbucks or stacking shelves) and work 60 hours a week (and be paid for all of those hours) than work 70 + in CP, but only get paid for 35, and also be expected all the risk and weight of the organisation on me. No more.

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