Councils lost over 500,000 working days to mental ill-health and stress among social care staff last year

Poor mental health and wellbeing accounted for 30% of staff sickness absence among council social care staff, finds research by British Psychological Society and BASW

Overworked and frustrated young business woman in front of computer in office

Have you taken sick leave for stress or mental health-related reasons in the last year?

  • No (41%, 78 Votes)
  • Yes, I've taken sick leave for stress. (36%, 68 Votes)
  • Yes, for mental health issues worsened by work. (18%, 34 Votes)
  • Yes, but for mental health reasons not related to work. (4%, 8 Votes)

Total Voters: 188

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Councils in England lost over 500,000 working days to mental ill-health and stress among their social care staff last year, research has found.

Poor mental health and stress accounted for 30% of sickness absence among local authority adults’ and children’s services staff in 2021-22, councils disclosed.

The findings came from a freedom of information request sent to all English councils with social services responsibilities by the British Psychological Society (BPS) and British Association of Social Workers (BASW).

BPS and BASW received usable responses from 114 councils, three-quarters of the total. They found that:

  • Adults’ and children’s services staff took 1,653,117 full-time equivalent (FTE) days of sickness absence during 2022-23.
  • Mental health issues accounted for 406,796 of these days, 25% of the total.
  • Stress, including work-related stress, accounted for a further 93,225 FTE days (6%).
  • Mental health issues and stress, combined, was the most common reason for sickness absence among adults’ and children’s services staff in 76 of the 98 councils who provided responses to this question.

Rising levels of social worker sickness

While the specific dataset obtained by the BPS and BASW is not publicly available, official data shows sickness absence rates rising among local authority social workers in England.

Department for Education figures showed 3.5% of children’s social workers’ working days were lost to sickness absence in the year to September 2022, up from 3.1% the previous year and the highest figure since records began in 2017.

Meanwhile, council adults’ services social workers took an average of 12.1 days of sickness absence in the year to September 2022, up from 10.3 the previous year and also the highest since records began, in 2012.

The rising levels of sickness absence comes against a backdrop of increasing social worker vacancy rates, in both children’s and adults’ services, and increasing proportions of children’s services practitioners reporting that their workloads were too high and they felt stressed by their job.

‘High caseloads, chronic stress, and insufficient resources’

Commenting on the figures released today, a BASW England spokesperson said: “These shocking figures highlight the urgent need for action to address the wellbeing of our social care workforce. It’s crucial that the government not only acknowledge this issue but also takes proactive steps to support dedicated social care professionals.

“To gain a clearer understanding of the reasons behind these absences, BASW urges for monthly reporting of staff absences to identify common themes. Feedback from BASW social workers consistently underscores the challenges faced by social care workers, including high caseloads, chronic stress, and insufficient resources.

“The wellbeing of our social care workforce should be a top priority, and we call upon healthcare leaders and policymakers to allocate the necessary resources and funding to address these issues and provide much-needed support to those who care for our most vulnerable in our society.”

Cuts to mental health support criticised

On the back of its findings, the BPS criticised the government’s decision to end funding for NHS staff mental health and wellbeing hubs in March of this year. The hubs were set up in February 2021 to provide health and social care staff with fast access to free and confidential mental health support.

Though NHS England has provided £2.3m in funding for the hubs in 2023-24, the BPS said it estimated their annual running cost as £40m, and that 15 of the 42 hubs had closed or were pending closure.

“These troubling figures are yet more evidence of the staffing crisis and working conditions within social care, and the deeply concerning toll it is taking on the mental health of a demoralised and burnt out workforce,” said the society’s president-elect, Dr Roman Raczka.

“Despite this, funding for the NHS staff mental health and wellbeing hubs was cut just as many had started to make inroads into reaching social care staff who needed help, leaving significant unmet need.

Leaders ‘can’t afford not to invest in wellbeing’

“Health and social care leaders simply can’t afford not to invest in staff wellbeing if they wish to retain staff, recruit new talent, and provide the effective, safe services people deserve.

“We urge them to commit to long-term ring-fenced funding for dedicated mental health and wellbeing support for health and care staff, including through the remaining [hubs].

Giving the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services’ response to the findings, joint chief executive Sheila Norris said: “Social care work can be incredibly rewarding – but also challenging, and it is one of the lowest paid jobs, with poor working conditions. ADASS continues to make the case to improve pay and conditions for social care workers, and to achieve greater recognition for the vital work they do.  We need to value and support all those who do this caring, compassionate and skilled work.”

The Department of Health and Social Care has been approached for comment.


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5 Responses to Councils lost over 500,000 working days to mental ill-health and stress among social care staff last year

  1. Reality September 20, 2023 at 11:30 pm #

    Doing agency work has kept me going, psychologically getting paid weekly and knowing that you don’t have to be stuck serving three months notice when you have had enough goes a long way. The job is stressful, complex and the stats in social work is a ‘thing’. There’s too much pressure and unrealistic expectations from all angles at times. We are only human beings.

  2. Clara September 21, 2023 at 12:59 pm #

    The rule book on what constitutes safe working conditons has been ripped up by some public sector employers .
    There is now an industry emerging around “wellbeing washing”. Wellbeing washing is when employers use the language of staff “wellbeing” and initiate a few tokenistic resources geared towards it- whilst the overall working conditons promote nothing of the sort. Change needs to occur on a structural and systemic level and someone needs to ask what is the end result of all the layers of non case holding management and certain process driven approaches.

  3. Louise September 21, 2023 at 8:41 pm #

    I have been within child protection teams for over a decade, and it has always been tough, but over the last 12-18 months I honestly feel for the first time ever, that the expectations of my job is bringing me to my knees! Everyone seems to think that we have a magic wand that can fix absolutely everything all within unrealisitc time scales whilst working double our hours (unpaid), and we are regularly told “it is the nature of the job”….. neglecting ourselves, our friends, our families, and working 24-36 hours straight (without sleep) to even try to stay afloat is not “just the nature of the job!”…. it is a clear sign that something is not working and that workers are overwhlemed… this is NOT the intervention families need or deserve, and cannot be sustained by social workers….We are not super human, and the longer this continues, the more social workers leave the profession or end up ill. I will always give my all, but it is so disheartening to feel every day that even my all is now even barely enough!

  4. Not My Real Name September 22, 2023 at 9:13 am #

    Took time off sick. Came back. Didn’t have a back to work interview. Didn’t get supervision. Referred myself to counselling. Funding has been pulled and it has to finish early. Stressed staff being managed by stressed managers being managed by even more stressed senior managers. Perfect storm for stress and PTSD.

  5. Ryan Simonet September 22, 2023 at 9:40 am #

    I took 2 day’s Leave this year, for the first time ever in my career, having been a social worker for 16 years. I was extremely worried that it would become a longer term situation, as it was debilitating. This was clearly exacerbated by increased caseload and staff shortages.