Agency social workers more satisfied than permanent staff, finds survey

Annual social work health check finds temporary staff are more positive about workloads, supervision, senior leaders and their ability to manage their role than permanent employees

Social worker making notes looking satisfied
Photo: Valerii Honcharuk /AdobeStock

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.”

Caseload concerns

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.

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10 Responses to Agency social workers more satisfied than permanent staff, finds survey

  1. Genevieve June 23, 2023 at 2:01 pm #

    And in other news…locum social workers in the same post 2+ years earning double their perm colleagues salary and a third more than their manager! What incentive is there to go permanent?

    • Sian June 24, 2023 at 8:33 am #

      Indeed some I worked with would leave drop of a hat after permanent staff invested time and effort training them often refuse work knowing they can get another job agencies keep offering more money to them too to do this. Terrible for permanent staff moral.

    • Nicky June 24, 2023 at 11:54 am #

      Locum don’t earn as much as you think, when you take into account no sick pay or holiday pay and no training, it works out probably 25% more take home.

  2. Sarah June 23, 2023 at 3:58 pm #

    These findings are not a surprise. Social workers and the people they work with are treated simply as numbers and stats, there is zero acknowledgement of the pressure within the role. The organisations we work for have little to no respect for the work we do and so it is under resourced and we are provided with no support or even dignity with the workplace. As an agency worker you can move quickly if you experience adverse working conditions, as permanent you get the sense of being trapped. I have recently moved to a permanent position in an attempt to have some more financial stability and over a year I have been used and abused by the organisation. When I have needed to seek support recently due to personal circumstances, I have been ignored and discriminated against. Once I am in a position to do so I will be leaving the profession and won’t look back. Without access to agency roles, there will be few social workers left to choose from. These workers are not the issue, it’s the poor attitude of the organisations and the multiple layers of management who are disconnected from the front line work.

  3. Ms Me June 23, 2023 at 8:48 pm #

    People forget that Agency workers have less rights zero holiday pay zero pension zero sick pay zero maternity pay and People are still complaining about what permanent staff get paid? It’s a choice and Agency allows for a lot of flexibility career wise that staying permanent doesn’t offer. Being permanent if you are a career ambitious person does not work.

  4. Chiko June 23, 2023 at 11:25 pm #

    It’s sad social workers are not valued worse when in permanent positions and when recruited from abroad.They are traped in work visas and given high caseloads without given time to understand the system.They are abused by clients who clearly see they lack the know how of how the system works This leads to a lot of frustration and makes one question if they are in the right profession. Social workers are burnt out and have sleepness nights as they try to beat deadlines.The real work of helping families help themselves in overshadowed by spending hours on end doing writing endless reports and attending never ending meetings. With low salaries as permanent employees, it makes everything worse

  5. Yvonne T June 23, 2023 at 11:26 pm #

    Say it again please…I don’t think they can hear you. And this also does no good to the service that social workers are trying to provide as ppl an leave at a drop of a hat sometimes not even finishing off their cases or handing them over properly

  6. Roryboy June 24, 2023 at 6:55 am #


    I could not agree more! Trapped, controlled, bullied, need I go on.

  7. Jiggy June 28, 2023 at 11:47 am #

    They could sort this once & for all by paying a wage that reflects education, responsibility & complexity of work. No one works agency because they want to, I’m my case I have to because I can’t live on what I’d be paid as permanent staff (lone parent of 4, no child maintenance).


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