Can social work be done effectively on a part-time basis?
- Yes, employers should be offering more part-time roles. (66%, 176 Votes)
- Depends on the sector of social work. (17%, 46 Votes)
- No, the social worker will end up with a full-time caseload. (17%, 44 Votes)
Total Voters: 266
Over three-quarters of social work roles are not being advertised on a part-time or flexible-hours basis, despite a rise in their proportion since last year.
Twenty three per cent of online adverts studied by the Social Workers Union (SWU) on two dates earlier this year offered part-time or flexible hours, up from 18.7% in a similar exercise last year.
The SWU is campaigning for employers to increase the number of part-time roles to enable social workers who cannot work full-time to re-enter practice, and help tackle mounting staff shortages.
The SWU’s findings on part-time roles
The union studied 4,694 UK social work adverts on Community Care, Total Jobs and The Guardian on 20 April and 18 May. It found:
- 77.4% (3,635) were available only on a full-time basis.
- 20.1% (942) were available only on a part-time basis.
- 1.6% (76) were for full- or part-time roles and 0.9% (41) on a flexible-hours basis.
- Scotland had the highest proportion of part-time/flexible roles, 29.8% (273 out of 944 roles), slightly down on the 2022 rate (30.5%).
- Wales saw the biggest rise in the proportion of part-time/flexible roles, from 14.6% in 2022 to 27% (144 out of 534).
- England’s proportion of part-time/flexible roles rose slightly, from 18.7% to 19.5% (624 out of 3,208).
- Of the relatively few Northern Ireland roles, 48.7% were available on a part-time/flexible basis, up from 37.3%.
‘Limited progress’ on part-time hours
SWU national organiser Carol Reid said it was “encouraging to start to see some green shoots of progress in some areas of the country”.
“However, with recruitment for social workers still proving challenging for employers, we now need to see this support for the aims of the campaign translate into more concerted action and more roles offered on part-time or flexible hours contracts,” she added.
“The growth we have seen is sluggish at best and we’re also hearing worrying reports that not all roles advertised as part-time are really suitable to part-time applicants.”
The last point was highlighted by social worker from the North West, who was interviewed for role which was advertised as being open to part-time hours.
“I put in a lot of hard work for the interview and it went really well. However, one of the managers said, ‘ideally we want someone full time’ and I did not get the job,” they said.
“I just feel like part-time workers are at the bottom of the pecking order and brought in ‘just in case’ there was nobody suitable from the full-time applicants.”
Impact on social workers with protected characteristics
The union also raised concerns about social workers having difficulty when requesting to switch from full- to part-time hours.
“We must move away from the idea that social workers going part time is a negative development or an accommodation for someone who isn’t coping,” said Derbyshire social worker Deb Solomon, who is also chair of the British Association of Social Workers’ Neurodivergent Social Workers Special Interest Group.
“Flexibility is essential to retain staff with protected characteristics and boost workforce opportunities for development. For example, some neurodivergent staff can really benefit from part-time working, and the positives can be seen in productivity, retention and wellbeing.”
She added: “We also need to ensure that when part-time roles are offered, this is not just a full-time role squashed into fewer days, which is impossible for the post-holder to manage.”
SWU sees an increase in part-time roles as a way of tackling mounting workforce churn and shortages in social work.
In England, the number of council children’s services social workers leaving their jobs annually has risen by 40% over the past five years, while one in five posts lay vacant, as of September 2022. Meanwhile, in adults’ services, 17.1% of social workers left their posts in the year to September 2022, up from 13.6% in 2019-20, while the vacancy rate rose from 9.5% to 11.6%.
In response to SWU’s research, social work leaders said they recognised the value of giving practitioners the opportunity to work part-time but struggled to do so because of service pressures.
The Association of Directors of Adult Social Services said it recognised that “social work and social care has in some cases been slow to develop in this area for its professionally qualified workers”.
“This is an opportunity and challenge for councils,” said ADASS joint chief executive Sheila Norris.
“This type of structural change could make a huge difference to social workers and occupational therapists, too many of whom who we know are exhausted and leaving their roles. Faced with an ongoing recruitment challenge, employers need to as flexible as possible if they are to attract and retain their experienced, professionally qualified workforce.
Barriers to more flexible roles
“Our members tell us that maintaining service continuity, increasing supervision time when everyone is stretched, managing increasing levels of need and complexity, and providing cover across all hours are some of the blockers to offering flexible roles.”
The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) acknowledged that “many people in our workforce would prefer not to work full-time but are keen to remain in the profession and it is important we can accommodate their preferences where possible”.
Workforce policy committee chair Rachael Wardell added: “As employers we are absolutely committed to creating the conditions where great social work can flourish, including by ensuring social workers are well supported, have manageable workloads and safe and appropriate places to work.
“However, we struggle to recruit and retain enough social workers nationally, especially after a decade of year-on-year cuts to local authority budgets which makes it harder to reliably sustain the ideal conditions.
“We need government to provide a strong, national voice that promotes the value of this transformative profession and the lasting positive impact social work can have on children and families.”