Social workers are seeing more poverty and greater need for their support on the back of the cost of living crisis, with some resorting to supporting people from their own resources.
Those were among the findings of British Association of Social Workers’ (BASW) second annual survey, issued this week
Most of its 1,602 respondents – social workers and students who were both members and non-members of the association – also reported struggling with their workloads with a greater proportion working beyond their contracted hours – mostly unpaid – than in last year’s survey.
However, as with its first survey, the majority of practitioners also expressed their happiness to be in the profession, as well as in their current roles, while BASW found that they were increasingly benefiting from peer support.
Growing poverty and need
Social workers reported that the cost of living crisis – driven by inflation rates that have stayed above 9% since April 2022 – had increased demand and the level of need experienced by those they worked with. BASW found that:
- Over half of respondents (54.8%) said they were working with more people due to the cost of living crisis.
- Three-quarters (75.4%) said they were working with more people in poverty now than before the cost of living crisis.
- More than four in five (83.2%) said the crisis had driven the people they worked with into greater poverty.
The association’s findings came as government data showed that child poverty had worsened in the year to April 2022, prior to the onset of high inflation. Overall, 29% of children (4.2m) were living in relative poverty in 2021-22 – meaning they lived in a household on 60% of median average income after housing costs were taken into account – up from 27% the year before.
There had also been a reduction, from 83% to 79%, in the proportion of children in relative poverty who lived in a food secure household, meaning they were considered to have “sufficient, varied food to facilitate an active and healthy lifestyle”, found the annual households below average income analysis.
More practitioners struggling with workloads
BASW’s survey, conducted between December 2022 and January 2023, also suggested that practitioners were struggling increasingly with their workloads.
The last survey, carried out from December 2021 to January 2022, found that 37.8% of respondents disagreed that they could manage their current workloads, however, that figure rose to 57.8% in the latest one. In part, this is likely to be because this year’s survey did not provide respondents with a ‘neither agree nor disagree’ option, which last year accounted for 16.2% of responses.
There was also a rise in the proportion who reported being unable to complete their work during their contracted hours, from 71.9% to 74.9%, though a lower percentage reported working at least an extra five hours a week on average (51% compared with 57.9% in the 2021-22 survey).
As last year, the vast majority (90.3%) were not paid for any overtime they did.
The UK-wide survey comes against the backdrop of deepening workforce challenges for the profession. Figures for England show that:
- One in five (20%) full-time equivalent children’s services posts were vacant as of September 2022, up from 16.7% in September 2021.
- At the same time, 17.6% of FTE children’s services posts were held by agency workers, up from 15.5% as of September 2021.
- The number of frontline “case holding” social workers working in children’s services fell by 8%, from September 2020 to September 2022.
- There was a 40% rise in the number of social workers quitting their posts in children’s services, from 2016-17 to 2021-22.
- 11.6% of social work posts in council adults’ services were vacant as of September 2022, up from 9.5% a year earlier.
- Turnover has also increased in adults’ services, from 15% in the year to September 2021, to 17.1% in the year to 2022.
Happy to be in profession
However, despite the challenges, BASW found, as last year, that most social workers were positive about the profession. Almost two-thirds (65%) said they were happy to be in the social work, up from 60.6% last year, while 67.9% said they were happy in their role, compared with 58.5% in the 2021-22 survey.
As last year, respondents selected peer support as the factor that had the most positive impact on their workplace experience, but the proportion saying this was up by 10 percentage points, from 46.8% to 57.2%. This was far ahead of the next most popular option, appropriate management and supervision (32.3%).
BASW suggested that the increasing value placed on peer support may reflect a shift towards more office working over the past year.
Commenting on the results, BASW chief executive Ruth Allen: “Social work remains a strong professional community but is under great pressure. Social workers remain deeply committed to the people they work with and value the privileged, values-based work they do to promote wellbeing, social justice, empowerment and choice.
“The repeat reporting of poor experiences at work are unacceptable. This is underpinned by too high work demands and too few resources which are governmental and funding failures. But we can also do more through collaboration across the sector and with others to improve working conditions. There are great efforts being made across some employers to change this.”
BASW is part of a working group looking at how to tackle workforce issues in England, convened by Social Work England and also including UNISON, director and principal social worker bodies, as well as people with lived experience of the the profession. They will look at issues including recruitment, retention and the use of agency staff.