‘We are just working to live at the moment’ – social workers on the cost of living crisis

Practitioners say they are having to cut down on leisure activities or even essentials, take on debt or, in a few cases, use food banks, with some reporting worsening mental health as a result

stressed social worker
Photo credit: adam121/ Adobe Stock

Are you currently in debt because of the cost of living crisis?

  • Yes (70%, 400 Votes)
  • No (30%, 175 Votes)

Total Voters: 575

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Community Care’s survey on the cost of living crisis found that a majority of social workers were struggling, with 94% receiving no additional help from employers.

Some were going into debt to manage rising costs, whether through credit cards, overdrafts or borrowing from friends and family. One said:

Our bills now cost more than my wife’s and my monthly income each month, meaning we are just getting into more debt each month with no chance to change that.”

“I struggle to pay my own bills and pay for fuel,” said another. “For a few months I have lived on my credit card.”

Cuts to essentials

To manage budgets, some social workers had stopped using their car for personal purposes, cut down on groceries, heating or electricity use or, in a few cases, pulled out of their pension scheme.

“Working in a county LA, travel is now unaffordable. I am unable to use things like the dryer, and  reluctant to put heating on; I’m worried about getting into debt as I’m having to use credit on occasions.”

“I now have to watch what I buy. I try not to use the car due to the cost of petrol. I’ve stopped paying my pension to have more income each month, which just goes on all the extra costs of living.”

“Cost of fuel when needing to travel means the car is used only for work and I am not able to go out with children. I need to use a food bank personally.”

“Having to reduce my travel because I cannot afford the petrol and I need to save my money for my work car journeys. I am having to make adjustments to my food shopping and leisure opportunities to ensure I have enough money to pay for electricity and gas.”

No money for leisure

Many said they had cut down on leisure expenses, like subscriptions, holidays or outings with families and friends.

“The rising cost of food and petrol has left us withdrawn every month, so I’m having to say no to days out etc. Spending quality time with my own children at weekends is where the cuts are being made. I’m considering moving to agency work (which I said I never would) so we can stop going into the overdraft every month and worrying about paying the bills.”

“Petrol prices when out on visits, cost of food/bills, having to be mindful of my spending, not going out as much and children not being able to participate in activities due to rising costs. Cutbacks [are] being made in daily living.”

As a result, some social workers admitted feeling isolated, with one respondent now “constantly having to avoid doing anything social as I cannot afford it”.

It feels like there is very little balance with work and personal life. It feels like we are just working to live at the moment.”

Mental health impact

For some, the crisis was hurting their mental health.

“Struggling with petrol, budgeting, outgoings, food, and bills makes me have anxiety. I can’t even do extra hours as the extra hours I do are just to keep up with demand of the job. I’m exhausted.”

“Can’t afford to get to place of work 40 miles away, so I need to consider leaving my job for a closer to home role and more money. I am not able to provide for my own family and pet care adequately, which results in higher stress levels and lesser ability to care for others or undertake duties and responsibilities to the best of my ability.”

“The complexity of family circumstances has increased, and caseloads have significantly increased to near unmanageable level. This impacts on work-life balance, and our emotional wellbeing. We are being told continuously to ensure we become resilient and increase our self-care, but you need space, time and resources to this, none of which are provided. Further to that, my cost of living has significantly increased and I’m struggling from month to month.”

Image of wooden blocks spelling out 'stress' (credit: Andrey Popov / Adobe Stock)

(credit: Andrey Popov / Adobe Stock)

According to Sass Boucher, research director at SelfCare Psychology, which supports practitioners at risk of professional trauma and fatigue, ‘work stress’ and ‘home stress’ often build on each other.

“Let’s just remember that roles within health and social care regularly show up in research as the most stressful jobs without a cost of living crisis,” she said.

“If our personal stress increases – the absolute fear of not being able to eat, keep ourselves warm, or put petrol into our car – we are at risk of an anxiety paralysis. The acute issue then is how do we support others if we are trying to survive and stay on top of our own lives?”

This could bring long-term effects of “professional trauma and fatigue, including stress, compassion fatigue, burnout, vicarious and secondary trauma and moral distress”,” Boucher added.

“We’re adding [to that], the fear of letting those that we work with down, as we struggle to stay afloat in our own lives.”

Single parent and sole earners often hit hardest

The issues above were particularly acute for single parents and those who were the sole earners in their families.

These respondents spoke of going into debt to afford their children’s essentials, including uniforms, and in some circumstances using food banks or leaving heating or lights off to save money.

“I am a lone parent so finances are always tight. Increased cost of food and petrol in addition to normal living costs, utilities, clothing, school uniform, child’s hobbies mean I am always using my overdraft and credit card for monthly expenses, whereas previously I could use them for emergencies only.”

“I am a single parent working full-time as a social worker. These last two months I have had to use food banks to feed me and my son. The cost of living has risen so rapidly that I cannot sustain living like this. I do not spend any money on luxuries, I cannot afford to spend my weekends with my son doing nice things. The financial strain is having an impact on my emotional wellbeing as I’m in such a stressful role. I can no longer afford small luxuries such as a trip to the park with an ice cream on a weekend. I am in debt with bills as I have had to prioritise the essentials and I now have to shop the Asda Smart Price Range. It’s a very, very, very sad state of affairs. And in all honesty, I would be better off working part time on benefits – which I am seriously considering at the moment.”

“I am spending so much more on shopping. We are a single income household and bills have rapidly risen, so we are now leaving lights off and straining eyes, and buying hot water bottles and extra blankets in preparation for winter. I am struggling to save money as wages haven’t risen, and I have a child to support, but I’m not qualifying for any additional support.”

“We are a one income family and the rising food, energy and petrol  result in me just breaking even every month with no scope to save.”

“My husband lost his job and my eldest moved back home after university, so money is very difficult in our house. The use of food and energy and petrol are having to be considered every day.”

Are you struggling financially? Here are some links you may find helpful

BASW’s Professional Support Service: offers free and confidential peer-to-peer support to all social workers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and BASW members in England.

Social Workers’ Benevolent Trust: provides grants of up to £450 and help and advice to social workers in financial distress.

Social Workers’ Educational Trust: provides learning grants of up to £500 for social workers and £1,000 for teams.

Step Change: offers debt advice.

Turn2Us: provides practical help and advice for people in financial hardship.

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