Agile working failing to meet social workers’ needs in Scotland, finds study

Practitioners consistently negative about practices such as hotdesking that reduce opportunity for peer support, take time and increase stress, finds five-year study that calls for employes to review approach

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Agile working practices such as hotdesking are failing to meet social workers’ needs in Scotland and employers should review them, a study has concluded.

Approaches in which people are not allocated a fixed desk and work at different times and locations depending on need have become increasingly common, but practitioners are consistently negative about them, found a five-year study into newly qualified social workers published by the Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC). 

Early career practitioners surveyed for the study highlighted agile working’s adverse impact on their access to peer support – for example, on returning to the office after a home visit – and the stress and time wasted looking for a workspace each day.

While agile working was received positively when it involved adequate desk space, spaces for quite and concentrated work and good access to peer support, this was rare, found the research by social work academics at the University of Dundee and Glasgow Caledonian University.

Stress and lack of peer support

“The majority of participants over the last five years have consistently described ‘agile working’ in negative terms,” the report said. “Many referred to the added ‘stress’ of trying to locate and secure a desk or workspace each day. Many commented on the distance between themselves and team members, highlighting the absence of opportunities for informal ‘debriefs’ (eg after home visits and meetings) and to have quick chats or
discussions about cases.”

Half of practitioners surveyed in the first year of the study said that agile working was in place in their organisation, rising to almost two-thirds (65%) in year five.

Citing the wider body of research into the practice, it said local authorities had generally adopted agile working to make efficiency savings, not in response to social workers’ needs.

Urging employers to review their approaches, the report said: “Social workers need opportunities to communicate with team members; they need ready access to managers and technology, as well as quiet places for concentrated work. Our findings (consistent over the last five years) indicate that agile working models in Scotland are failing to meet the needs of social workers.”

Peer support valued more than managerial

The impact of peer support was highlighted by findings indicating that practitioners valued it more than managerial support. The study found that, on average, across the five annual surveys:

  • 93% of participants agreed their colleagues gave them good advice compared with 78% who said the same about their manager.
  • 85% said their colleagues were good at explaining complex information compared with 68% who had the same view of their manager.
  • 84% said they could express their emotions to colleagues compared with 66% who felt that supervision was a safe space in which to do so.

As they grew more experienced, practitioners sought their colleagues’ advice less and less often, with those who reported doing so frequently falling from 75% in year one to 36% in year five.

Despite this, researchers said that peer support appeared to “buttress the capacity of formal supervision to meet the diverse needs of practitioners and should be recognised for the value it brings to the profession – particularly if we continue to adopt limiting forms of agile working practices in future”.

In relation to supervision, two-thirds of participants, on average, said they were happy with the quality of what they received, 61% said they received it monthly and 60% said sessions typically lasted 60-90 minutes. However, researchers said their ability to explore the content of supervision was limited, in common with many previous studies, and suggested there was a need for deeper research in this area.

Workload stress greatest in year 2

Across the five years, just over half of participants reported working unpaid hours, either to complete tasks or for learning, though this peaked in year two (61%) before falling to 42% in year five. Year two was also the time when workloads were felt to be least manageable, with under half (48%) finding their responsibilities to be manageable, compared with an average of 59% across the five years and a high of 68% in year 5.

Workload stress also peaked in year two, when 49% reported feeling anxious at times about their caseloads, though this also fell to 38% in year five.

Drawing on other research, the report suggested practitioners in year two were likely to be encountering new types of case, requiring additional skills and knowledge, which may require more time, either for tasks or learning.

The report added that “a significant proportion of newly qualified staff may begin to feel pressure and expectations by year 2 as they emerge from induction periods and initial core training”.

Researchers urged employers to be aware of these pressures and the risk of burnout, though they did not find significant evidence of negative outcomes for participants and stressed the that issues seemed to resolve as social workers grew in experience.

The study said that other research had shown that levels of anxiety were not just related to workload alone, but to this in combination with organisational context and a lack of support from peers or managers.

“To avoid unnecessary anxiety and stress, attention must be paid to organisational contexts and support given to social workers in their everyday work,” it said. “This includes availability of managers, proximity to colleagues, dedicated admin support and progressive organisational cultures.”

About the study

The longitudinal study was designed to track how social workers who qualified in 2016 in Scotland experienced their first five years in practice, including how they were supported, their development as practitioners and how far their ongoing developmental needs were met.

It involved five annual online surveys, which were answered by between 78 and 157 of the 404 practitioners who qualified in 2016, interviews with a sample of participants in years one, three and five and focus groups in years two, three and four. The final year’s survey included questions on the impact of Covid-19.

In a foreword to the report, the Scottish Social Services Council’s (SSSC) acting chief executive, Maree Allison, said it would be “invaluable for strategic managers with responsibility for the recruitment and retention of social workers and for others whose focus is the design, development and oversight of pre and post qualification social work education”.

She said it had informed SSSC’s work to develop a supported first year in practice for NQSWs in Scotland, similar to the assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE) in England and the consolidation programme in Wales. The year is currently being trialled by a number of early implementers and encompasses protected caseloads, protected learning time, peer support and learning, regular supervision and structured professional development.

The report also urged a nationally agreed approach to workload allocation and management that addressed both case numbers and complexity. The recommendation follows a call for indicative caseload limits to be set for practitioners across Scotland, from a report commissioned by leadership body Social Work Scotland on practitioners’ workloads.

Social work agency concerns

Scottish Association of Social Work (SASW) director Alison Bavidge said the current situation around workloads was “untenable”.

The issue would to be considered by the National Social Work Agency that the Scottish Government intends to set up as part of its National Care Service, under which ministers would take direct responsibility for adult social care – and potentially children’s and criminal justice social work, subsequently – from councils.

The agency would be responsible for social work qualifications, workforce planning, improvement, training, professional development and pay and grading and, under current plans, would be a part of the Scottish Government, not an independent entity. As a result, it is not referenced in the National Care Service (Scotland) Bill, which is currently before Scottish Parliament and would enact the reforms, a move criticised by both SASW and Social Work Scotland.

In a submission to the Scottish Parliament’s health, social care and sport committee, which is considering the bill, SASW said that social workers broadly supported the establishment of the NSWA, but omitting it from the face of the bill was a missed opportunity.

The association said this meant that the profession was “not being directly consulted on the structure or function of the agency that will have such significant authority over it” and gave them no certainty an NSWA would be delivered, while making the agency part of government raised questions about its credibility.

Pause National Care Service legislation, urge leaders

Social Work Scotland made similar criticisms in its evidence to the committee, saying the agency’s omission from the bill did not provide any certainty it would be delivered, while making it part of the Scottish Government left it “open to rapid change (even deletion) without any reference to the profession or other stakeholders” and lacking in credibility with the profession.

More fundamentally, the leadership body called for the bill to be paused because of concerns about its financial impact at a time of high levels of social work vacancies and increasing waits for assessment and support, and the risk that it will add to the stress faced by the workforce.

Convenor Alison White said: “Based on the information that’s been published, we can’t say if a National Care Service is really going to address the systematic underfunding of social work and social care. Nor can we say whether the aims the bill sets out are actually deliverable, from the perspective of the public finances.

“We agree with the aims the Scottish Government is working towards, and putting social justice and human rights at the centre of social work and social care is critical. But we need this pause for more work to be done, so we can understand in much more detail how a National Care Service would work, and how it will funded, so that we can make sure we secure the best outcomes for the people we support.”

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2 Responses to Agile working failing to meet social workers’ needs in Scotland, finds study

  1. Yoda September 17, 2022 at 10:11 am #

    This type of working is generally fatal for neurodivergent social workers. Try getting reasonable adjustments when this is what they think is acceptable.

    • Clare September 22, 2022 at 4:40 pm #

      I agree completely- I was too I’ll to return to work, and part of that reason, I put down to not having a designated work space. I also found the process of having to return to a large building, and not knowing where I was going to be sitting, extremely anxiety provoking. I needed some certainty, and my colleagues around me.