‘Pandemic, pay cuts and poor press: is it worth staying in social work?’

A children's practitioner who, in 2019, wrote about how a career break kept her in social work reflects on four years that have left her disillusioned but with a determination to champion fellow professionals

Social worker making notes
Photo posed by model: Valerii Honcharuk/Adobe Stock

By a children’s social worker

Almost four years ago, I wrote an article to talk about how a three-month career break reignited my passion for social work and kept me in the job. After seeing my article recirculated a few times, I felt it right to follow up.

Ironically, I left the local authority six months after returning from my travels and went agency after missing out on  the promotion I had applied for.

I never thought I would do this but, luckily, I quickly secured a role in an assessment team not far from where I lived in and knew instantly I had made the right decision. I become part of an amazing tight-knit team and started to feel valued again for the experience, knowledge and competence I brought to the local authority. I was also being paid a significant amount of money in comparison to my previous permanent salary.

‘No PPE, apart from a flask, bar of soap and some paper towels’

Image of an N95 respirator face mask (credit: dontree / Adobe Stock)

(credit: dontree / Adobe Stock)

It wasn’t long before the pandemic hit and I found myself in a very strange situation. With no PPE, apart from a flask, bar of soap and some paper towels, we were expected to carry on as normal. As a result, I almost felt exempt from what was going on in the world, apart from the isolation I started to feel as a single person, spending nights and weekends alone under tight government restrictions.

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Slowly, a rota was implemented, strict PPE guidance came into play and the reality of the pandemic hit. I remember the conversations between staff in relation to the worry and anxiety building for the most at risk children – those now trapped at home with their abusers and no school to report their concerns. I shared my thoughts with Newsnight back in April 2020 and the matter was discussed during one of the late-night shows. I remember thinking; who will be up and watching this?

As predicted, referrals soared when children went back to school. Stressed, isolated and feeling completely burnt out, an opportunity was placed at my feet to apply for a post in adoption. I had always thought social workers go to adoption to retire but the prospect of getting out of the pressured role I was in became more and more appealing. Despite the huge drop in pay from moving from agency to permanent again, I decided to take the role and planned a start date for early 2021.

No return to normality

Like most, I thought Covid would be a thing of the past but I started my new job as we were locked down again. The prospect scared me and I was soon to realise how hard it was to learn a new job remotely in my spare room! I wondered how students were now learning to be social workers.

I kept telling myself that things would go back to normal but they haven’t. Whilst local authorities benefit from sending their staff home and closing down buildings, social workers everywhere become more and more isolated. Working at home, laptops on laps, we hold the secondary trauma of social work inside the walls of spaces which once were a safe haven, a place of sanctuary, what used to be home.

Young social worker working remotely

Credit: Anton/Adobe Stock

Meanwhile, Ofsted and others have raised concerns about social workers being able to work fully remotely. There are significant risks from this to children and their families, as more complex cases are worked by social workers not even living in the same communities or by newly qualified staff who do not have the peer support they need from office culture.

Furthermore, the latest government data shows there has been a 40% rise in social workers quitting children’s services posts in the past five years and I can really see why. I mean, where is the support for such an important social facing role?

Where was the thanks for the efforts to continuously keep children safe during the pandemic?”

Pay cuts and negative press

Surely pay rises of 1.75% in 2021-22 and £1,925 in 2022-23 – much less than the rate of inflation – were not it? Why do we pay for our degrees? Like most I have an incredible amount of debt after choosing my career as a mature student and needing a maximum maintenance loan to pay my mortgage and bills. My student debt seems to constantly increase with interest, and I just get penalised with any pay increase by the monthly reduction.

I mean what is actually attracting anyone to social work these days? Before Christmas 2021 we were ripped apart for the deaths of Arthur and Star and in 2022 critiqued for wrongly taking children into care in a BBC Panorama programme.

We are constantly stuck between a rock and a hard place, and it is no wonder that the president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services has said that “press and public disapproval are driving people away from the profession”.

‘Would I go back and do social work again?’

I’ve recently side-stepped from regular social work and am trying a different area of practice that focuses on the care provided to society’s most vulnerable children. A bonus is the pay increase, which has become an essential part of job hunting amid the rising cost of living. This no doubt contributes to the falling numbers of permanent staff and the rising number of agency staff.

An article from Community Care by a social worker who had a three-month career breakIt got me thinking about my previous article and how I spoke about the need to look at recruitment and retention. I waffled on about how forced career breaks might help but now I wonder if we are getting it wrong from the start? How about the government reduce or scrap the study fees for the social work degree? What if the monthly repayment was capped?

Nearly seven years into my career and more disillusioned than ever, I ask myself whether it was really worth it. Would I go back and do social work again? Despite these questions, I still have a passion to make a difference and maybe even more of a passion to stand up for social workers who, more than ever, deserve thanks and praise for their hard work and the contribution they make to society.

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9 Responses to ‘Pandemic, pay cuts and poor press: is it worth staying in social work?’

  1. Lisa March 24, 2023 at 12:34 am #

    In social work, they need to look at how we are paid and the toil system is unfair and we should be paid overtime. We are just expected to still deal with a crisis outside office hours and to not get paid for it. Or undertake statutory visits outside office hours because this is the only time the family is available to see you or it’s the only time you are available.

    When I was in the office I used to hate watching the other council workers going home at 5pm and in the SW floor you would see plenty of SWs at their desk or just leaving to go to a visit.

    It is not fair for SWs to feel that they should put up with this and understand why so many have left the profession.

    • Orla March 24, 2023 at 9:49 pm #

      I 100% agree with this. The TOIL system does not work.

    • Bear March 29, 2023 at 6:58 pm #

      Totally agree! Pay overtime for every minute worked over the contracted hours is a must. When will we be striking?

      • MB April 17, 2023 at 9:29 pm #

        Working to rule would be the better response. It would show exactly how much extra is worked outside of ‘normal’ hours. It would alert all to how many extra people were needed to cover the work that we are expected to pick up and just get in with.

        It is sooo demoralising to be criticised from outside and within, it is a miracle that there are any of us still wanting to put children and families first

        What I would also like to know is what happens to those ‘social workers’ who gradually climb the career ladder and become ‘managers’ (which they have no idea how to do and have had NO training!) And forget that they are actually social workers first and foremost. This baffles me. A previous manager actually told me during a conversation that she was ‘NOT a social worker’. She had worked as a sw and worked her way up over 12 years. Unbelievable.

  2. Chris March 24, 2023 at 2:12 pm #

    Reduce the paperwork, social workers shouldn’t be expensive admin officers their skills must be with people not deciding where to put a capital letter!

  3. Mel March 24, 2023 at 4:00 pm #

    I left social work a year ago and will never go back. There is too much responsibility for not enough reward and recognition.

  4. Oratorio March 24, 2023 at 11:02 pm #

    Apologies, I got the years wrong! 0% in 21/22 and 2% last year. Not looking likely I’ll get much if anything this year.

  5. Alison A March 26, 2023 at 10:46 am #

    I rarely comment on anything online but felt compelled to add my views to this perspective. My view may be considered controversial while we are campaigning for a pay increase but it is another perspective and that is all.
    I think the author says it all when they described the feeling of being in a supportive team. In my view this is key for social workers. Let’s be honest, yes the pay has taken a real terms decrease and may not reflect the significance of the responsibility held by social workers or our alternately qualified colleagues but, how many of us went into the role for the money? In times when we are working with families living in extreme poverty where the benefit cap, housing costs and scarcity and utility and food costs rising is creating real destitution I cannot help but reflect upon how lucky I am to be in a career where it is highly unlikely I will be unemployed and where the salary is adequate but where we also know where to access support for ourselves if it is needed. I wholeheartedly agree that the fees for the degree course should be either subsidised or scrapped, not least to encourage people into the profession. There are other routes into SW that may be more affordable and not result in a huge debt at the end.
    We have long been a target for criticism from the media and the public and the work definitely needs you to have resilience. Likewise we are responsible for our own boundaries in regard to working out of hours, while we definitely need to meet the needs of our service user group and to respond to crises but, my view is that if you are consistently working on paperwork outside of hours you are being given too much work and this is masking a much bigger issue within your team/organisation which we exacerbate if we are not boundaried about this. I am fortunate to work in an authority where staff wellbeing is taken very seriously and that has just been rated as Outstanding by OFSTED. They do exist! But we do need to take responsibility to speak up too. The culture of being the tireless social worker giving up our vital free time to the organisation needs to stop.
    Finally I want to say how very proud I am to be part of the profession, albeit challenging and sometimes it feels thankless but I can guarantee there is a child or adult somewhere who is very thankful that you have entered their life and supported change so please don’t be disheartened. Keep on keeping on.

  6. MB April 17, 2023 at 10:40 pm #

    Well said Alison.
    I totally agree, it would be really great to be paid more and to get increases in line with inflation or bringing us up to a level that matches our professionalism and the importance of our job for children and adults of the future. However, as you do eloquently put it the focus is really about acknowledgement and wellbeing not just for the children young people and families we work with and for but for us too. Feeling valued and safe is actually more important to me and I imagine a lot of us. I can’t agree more about our safe spaces being eroded and feeling isolated.

    I have already referred to working boundaries and the damage this causes in terms of working into our own yime on paperwork tasks ‘just to get them done’ which gives a false understanding of resource requirements and an illusion that the team is ‘coping’ with caseloads.

    Case loads should be capped; teams should be well resourced and admin tasks supported by business support teams who know ehat they are doing. Management need to be carefully selected to understand their staff needs and wellbeing and not just management career paths and ‘yes wo/man’ mentality towards senior management they should be social workers through and through and fight for their staff as well as the needs of the families we serve.