By Nicole Weinstein
Independent and agency social workers are more satisfied at work on average than permanently employed staff, a survey of almost 8,000 practitioners working in statutory services has found.
Temporary staff were significantly more positive than permanent colleagues about their workloads, supervision, employer, the resources they were given and their ability to manage their role, found the Local Government Association’s (LGA) latest social work health check.
Plan to restrict agency use
The findings come with the Department for Education set to introduce rules next year restricting councils’ use of agency staff in children’s services in England, in order to control costs and enhance workforce stability.
While welcomed by directors – who want it implemented more quickly – the move has sparked warnings from social workers and agencies that it will lead to an exodus of locums unprepared to take up permanent roles.
The LGA survey, which ran from October 2022 to January 2023, was designed to gauge social workers’ views on how their organisations measured up against the standards employers for social workers in England. These set expectations for employers around areas including wellbeing, workloads, supervision, continuing professional development and effective workforce planning.
In addition, respondents were quizzed on their experiences of the workplace. The report on the findings provided average scores, out of 100, for each of the standards and workplace experience questions, with differences between groups of at least five percentage points being statistically significant.
Agency staff more satisfied
The 7% of respondents who were agency or independent social workers were more satisfied in relation to seven of the eight standards – CPD being the exception – with statistically significant differences in three.
In relation to having a strong and clear social work framework (standard 1), including the extent to which social workers are supported to exercise their professional judgment and creativity, permanent social workers averaged 80% satisfaction, compared with 85% for agency/independent staff.
On satisfaction with supervision (standard 5), including its frequency and quality, agency/independent staff scored 81% against 76% for employed social workers.
They were also happier with their caseloads, scoring 82%, compared with 77% for permanent social workers, on the safe workloads and case allocation standard (3).
These findings on workloads and support were reflected more starkly in responses to the questions on workplace experience.
Permanent staff struggling with resources
Permanent social workers were much more likely to feel required “to do more with less”, with a score of 81%, compared with 69% for agency/independent staff.
They were also significantly less likely to feel “positive and able to cope with work most of the time” (74% as against 81% score for agency/independent staff).
Agency/independent staff were much more likely to feel valued by the senior leadership team (78% versus 67% for permanent social workers) and be happy to recommend their employer to a friend as a place to work (83% as against 74%).
They were also much more satisfied with their employment package – the balance between what they received from their employer and what they were expected to provide in return – with a score of 80% compared with 70% for permanent social workers.
BASW: findings ‘disappointing’
The findings were described as “disappointing and yet unsurprising” by the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) England.
“The complexity of reasons why people chose to work within agency roles, is not just limited to pay, with some members citing the need to move to more flexible working arrangements, due to caring commitments,” said BASW England professional officer Denise Monks.
“These findings could be interpreted as indicating that for many agency workers, the ability to change employers, if they are experiencing a poor working environment, leads to them securing roles in more supportive organisations.”
Compared with the last health check, from November to December 2021, satisfaction overall grew in relation to three standards (effective workforce planning, wellbeing and CPD) and in two (strong and clear framework and strategic partnerships). It was stable for the supervision, professional registration and workloads standards.
In relation to the latter, researchers raised concerns about practitioners’ response to the question around their ability to “balance the demands of case work and the resources needed to fulfil my responsibilities”. This received one of the lowest average scores in the survey, 67.
“It is important to ensure that social workers feel satisfied that they have enough time, resources, and opportunities to undertake CPD, and that they are able to balance the demands of their casework, in order to enable social workers to reflect and demonstrate their skills and knowledge throughout their careers and not experience excessive caseloads,” researchers said.
Three drivers of social workers’ contributions
The report said analysis of the survey results showed this was one of three “drivers” of social workers’ contribution to the workplace, which employers should concentrate on boosting.
The others were:
- The organisation promoting an environment that upholds ethical practice and quality standards (within standard 7, professional registration). This received an average score of 82.
- The organisation recognises the emotional demands of social work and provides the necessary supervision, support and to deal with this (within standard 4, wellbeing). This had an average score of 72.
Monks pointed to the results of BASW’s latest survey of social workers and students, carried out from December 2022 to January 2023, which suggested practitioners generally were struggling more with their workloads compared with the previous year.
“We would like all social workers to feel they had manageable caseloads, were receiving the right level of support and supervision and were employed in organisations with strong anti-oppressive and anti-racist cultures,” she added. “However, we know that sadly that is not the case right now.”
The 2022-23 health check also received responses from around 1,600 occupational therapists and 6,500 non-registered social care practitioners, the results for whom are covered in separate reports. Respondents across all three staff groups came from 140 organisations delivering statutory social work, the vast majority of them councils.