Social work numbers up in Scotland but concerns over widening mental health officer shortages

Full-time equivalent posts in Scottish councils rose by 4% last year but workforce body says councils collectively short of 80 MHOs

Jigsaw puzzle showing supply demand gap
Photo: IQoncept/Adobe Stock

Council social worker numbers have increased in Scotland but there are concerns over rising shortages of mental health officers.

There were 5,666 full-time equivalent (FTE) practitioners working for Scottish authorities as of the end of 2021, a rise of 200 (3.7%) on the previous year, according to the Scottish Social Services Council’s (SSSC) annual workforce data report published this week.

By headcount, authorities employed 6,235 social workers as of the end of last year, up from 6,049 the previous year.

The increases were mostly driven by rising numbers of practitioners working in social work’s biggest sector, children’s services, where FTE numbers rose from 2,537 to 2,650 (FTE). There were also increases in the size of the adults’ (1,790 to 1,851)  and criminal justice workforces (858 to 914), though the number in generic roles dropped from 281 to 252.

Growing mental health officer shortage

However, despite the increase in social worker numbers, the shortage of mental health officers has grown, revealed a separate SSSC report last week.

Mental health officers assess people who are mentally unwell and may need compulsory care or treatment. They may consent to short-term or emergency hospital admissions for people who are unable to consent, and may also apply to Scotland’s Mental Health Tribunal Service for compulsory treatment orders, allowing up to six months’ detention in hospital. They also write social circumstances reports about people subject to compulsory powers.

As of the end of 2021, the sector was short of 79 full-time equivalent MHOs, up from 53 the previous year, estimated the SSSC.

It found that 26 of Scotland’s 32 councils were reporting a shortfall in MHOs, up from 23 in 2020, with authorities saying they were short of 2,840 hours per week in officer capacity, up from 1,911 the previous year.

Overall, the number of MHOs has fallen 677 to 660 from 2020-21, with the workforce having shrunk from 709 in 2017. Between them, these MHOs were covering 694 posts, down from 704 in 2020 and 743 in 2017.

Some councils ‘well short of required provision’

“This report shows local authorities are facing significant challenges in providing the number of MHO hours needed to meet demand,” said SSSC acting chief executive Maree Allison.

“While some local authorities report no shortfall, others are well short of the provision required.”

The fall was driven by a drop in the number of staff who carry out MHO work alongside other roles (395 down from 419 posts), with the number employed exclusively as MHOs remaining stable (233 posts compared with 232 in 2020) and an increase in those providing cover for MHOs, from 53 to 66 posts.

Despite the increasing workforce shortage, SSSC estimated that MHOs worked more hours between them in 2021 (11,677) than in 2020 (11,617).

However, the Scottish Association of Social Workers (SASW) said MHOs were “under extreme pressure to meet rising demands, made harder by a lack of capacity and resources”.

The Scottish Government has provided councils with £2.5m in 2021-22 and is allocating £3.4m in each of 2022-23 and 2023-24 to support the creation of new MHO posts. It also provided a grant from 2019-22 to help councils train new MHOs.

Caseload limit call

However, SASW director Alison Bavidge said the shortage of MHOs was a reflection of the lack of social workers across Scotland, referencing a Social Work Scotland-commissioned study this year which raised concerns about the impact of high caseloads on practitioners. The Setting the Bar report called for indicative caseload limits of 15 for children’s practitioners and 20-25 for adults’ practitioners.

The Scottish Government has proposed to establish a National Social Work Agency – as part of its planned National Care Service (NCS) – oversee social work qualifications, workforce planning, improvement, training, professional development and pay and grading within a national framework.

Legislation has been introduced to introduce the NCS – though this will only apply to adults’ services initially.

But Bavidge added: “We cannot afford to wait until a National Care Service is established to address staffing challenges. Scottish ministers must take heed of the warnings in this report and act without delay.”

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One Response to Social work numbers up in Scotland but concerns over widening mental health officer shortages

  1. Anne-Marie September 2, 2022 at 5:51 pm #

    It’s my experience that there is a similar situation with AMHP’s in England.

    There is a bizarre situation where social workers who are prepared to train but just happen to work directly for many an NHS Trust’s mental health team’s are denied the opportunity to do the training whilst colleagues who work for LA’s (sometimes not even in mental health related positions) are pressurised into doing AMHP training that isn’t really much use to them.

    Perhaps if the way training and warranting was changed, this perennial problem would be more likely to be sorted.