Readers’ Take: are bonuses the answer for social work roles that are hard to recruit or retain?

With adults’ practitioners recently going on strike over children's colleagues receiving market supplements that they did not, we take a look at what social workers think about using bonsues to recruit and retain staff

Photo by Community Care

Earlier this month, 60 adults’ social workers and occupational therapists (OTs) from South Gloucestershire Council went on strike over recruitment and retention payments received by children’s colleagues.

The payments comprise a £3,000 lump sum for recruits who have already passed their assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE), on successful completion of their probation, and an equivalent annual payment for those with two years’ service with the council.

In response, UNISON said that the payments should have also been offered to adults’ practitioners and OTs, as the driving factors behind them – recruitment and retention pressures – applied equally to both services.

Social work councils’ biggest workforce headache

The two services appear to be posing councils their biggest workforce headaches, but with children’s social work the more painful, according to a Local Government Association survey carried out last spring.

This found that 71% of councils found it difficult to recruit adults’ practitioners, compared to 83% for children’s. However, only 25% used market supplements to attract adults’ staff, as against 48% for children’s services.

Market supplements and bonuses have long been a handy strategy for businesses to fill hard-to-recruit or retain roles. But are they a good fit for social work?

A Community Care poll, which amassed 443 responses, showed strong support for this approach: almost two-thirds of respondents (64%) said market supplements could “effectively tackle workforce shortages”, while 22% argued that they created “unwarranted inequalities in pay”.

The rest (14%) said they were sometimes justifiable measure – but only within strict limits.

However, comments under our article on the South Gloucestershire strikes painted a more divided picture on the merits of market supplements, with some readers expressing concern about the practice of paying them to children’s social workers, but not adults’ colleagues.

“Watching social worker after social worker leave the team because of the real-terms pay cut that we are living with is so soul destroying, particularly when the complexity and volume of workloads and the technical bureaucracy involved in the job just keep growing,” one social worker working in adults’ services said.

“To then have children’s teams being awarded large cash lump sums to stop their staff leaving is just a level of disrespect too far.”

However, George, a practitioner from South Gloucestershire, felt differently, calling the retention bonus “justified”.

Children’s services pressures are ‘ridiculous’

“Perhaps the reason recruitment and retention figures between adults and children’s services in South Gloucestershire are close is due to these payments,” they said. “Never worked in children’s services myself, however, it looks to be a very challenging area of practice. That said, I respect the right of colleagues to strike for better pay and conditions.”

Amy, who previously worked as both a children’s practitioner and in an adults’ hospital discharge team, shared a similar view, calling the pressure in children’s services “just ridiculous”.

However, a social worker who used to work in children’s services argued that improving working conditions, and not paying market supplements, was the key to retention.

“The retention pay isn’t enough of an incentive to keep children’s social workers. I was awarded the retention pay but, after nearly eight years of working evenings, weekends and my annual leave, I had had enough and wanted a work-life balance,” they said.

“I now work in adults’ services. I don’t work weekends or my annual leave anymore and I can switch off from my work.”

My wellbeing is much improved and I wouldn’t go back to child protection if I was paid a £30,000 bonus with the current working conditions.”

Another reader urged fellow practitioners to focus on “the bigger picture” of uniting in support of the profession.

“I do not think it is helpful to have infighting between adults’ and children’s social workers,” said Amie.

“There is a bigger picture here – it is not just about the money. It is time that we stood up and made our stance, otherwise, things will only get worse.”

Do you think bonuses could help ease the current retention and recruitment issues in adults’ and children’s services? Tell us in the comments below!

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6 Responses to Readers’ Take: are bonuses the answer for social work roles that are hard to recruit or retain?

  1. Badger April 21, 2023 at 9:39 am #

    I also moved from Children’s to Adults. The inequality between the two areas is stark. Children’s safeguarding has a unhealthy, ‘macho’ culture of working ridiculously long hours – workers are institutionalised to believe that it ‘goes with the job’. I have heard managers boasting of it as a badge of honour. There is not even a desire from leadership to improve staff working conditions – they openly state that ‘if people can’t take it they should just leave’. But in Adult Services managers pay attention to staff wellbeing and work-life balance.

    Children’s Services need to re-align with Adults (and with all other departments in the local authority where I work) and start treating their staff as human beings. Until they do they will never be able to retain staff. It’s not rocket science.

    • Tom J April 21, 2023 at 10:09 am #

      Well said

    • MaxP April 23, 2023 at 6:55 am #

      It typically just boils down to the manager setting the team culture. If retention is such an issue, and the stereotype is that senior pracs are barely 1yr qualified and managers only a little more, then is the issue exacerbated by inexperienced senior and managers not being appropriately skilled to manage a team?
      The lure of promotion and the perceived importance and power attracts a certain type of social worker. Once in place, a blind eye is given to their less than ideal approach because of their position – the problem of retention continues.

  2. Julia April 21, 2023 at 7:53 pm #

    The answer surely is for the basic salaries of all social worker to be commensurate to the level of responsibility and stress inherent in the role. LAs should not resort to tinkering around the edges with smoke and mirrors.

  3. Liam April 21, 2023 at 7:58 pm #

    The way to recruit is to make it easier for employees

    It’s not really an academic job but it requires a 3/4 year degree which costs too much money for the average person

    Make entry easier and you won’t find these problems

  4. Anna Spencer April 22, 2023 at 11:32 am #

    Very well said, this has also been my experience. I left childrens and moved to adults 8 years ago and I kept saying that I would not go back, even if I am paid £50/hour. You have no life, expected to work long hours and people used to go sick to keep up with case recording.