Social workers’ guilt over unmet needs

How often do social workers feel guilty when unable to meet people's needs for reasons beyond practitioners' control?

Photo by Community Care

How does your employer manage excess workloads among social workers?

  • They see excess workloads as part of social work. (55%, 323 Votes)
  • They are sympathetic but don't do enough to change things. (28%, 165 Votes)
  • They are doing their best to reduce workloads within resources. (16%, 96 Votes)

Total Voters: 584

Loading ... Loading ...

Good social work practice heavily depends both on practitioners’ skills and knowledge and the support and resources available to them.

But the latter is often severely lacking.

In a recent Community Care article, a mental health social worker wrote about the guilt she felt from being unable to deliver person-centred care to people on her caseload while addressing an “unmanageable” waiting list of those needing support.

She wrote of experiencing resistance from her management when attempting to complete assertive outreach work with an adult who was “both very averse to support and at high risk of harm”.

“This involved conversations about how the time taken working with this adult could have been spent supporting many more service users who ‘wanted to engage’,” she said.

“I started to wonder whether I was erroneously prioritising individual interventions over offering support to the greatest number of people possible. I doubt I am alone in feeling pressure to close cases early because of my caseload.”

Practitioners’ guilt

A subsequent Community Care poll, amassing 544 votes, found that most practitioners (93%) also experienced guilt over not meeting people’s needs due to factors beyond their control, such as resource shortfalls.

Over two-thirds (74%) said they felt guilty “very often”, while 19% said they did “sometimes”. Only 4% said they didn’t feel guilt “at all as it’s out of my control”.

Social work ‘is just crisis management’

Image: 5second

Comments under the practitioner’s article expressed frustration over a “crisis management style” adopted by social work services because of inadequate funding.

“Social work is just crisis management now. We support people short-term, complete assessments and paperwork, offer a package of care, and move on to the next one,” said Anna B.

“I have often wondered why we are taught relationship-based social work in uni and then in the workplace asked to complete everything in as few visits as possible.”

Like others, Anna called for more funding to support social workers and their teams.

Do you have any stories, reflections or experiences from working in social work that you would like to write about for Community Care? Email your idea to our community journalist, Anastasia Koutsounia, at

“I find it hard to blame managers when they are under [so much] pressure to address the longest waiting lists we’ve ever had. Exactly how are they supposed to address that? Not possible without wider investment and funding to bring in significantly more social workers.”

C. Willis added that underfunded services struggled to show good practice “whilst juggling which case can be closed or moved on to another team or service”.

“Sometimes extremely risky decisions are having to be made to try to balance the need against the lack of services,” added the practitioner.

“Until the government agrees to adequately fund social work, there will always be a shortfall of practitioners. Therefore [there will be] high caseloads and, possibly, a low standard of intervention.”

Ruth Cartwright advised that “when lack of resources could mean a service user is in danger or could put others in danger, this should be flagged up”.

She urged practitioners to join a union or professional association to push for change.

Leaving the profession for ‘self-preservation’

On some occasions, social workers said the guilt of failing to meet people’s needs pushed them to quit the sector.

Former social worker Elizabeth left the profession for a job in the aviation sector for “self-preservation”. She wasn’t the only one to do so.

Gerard left social work two years ago because of burnout.

Want to celebrate a colleague you think does not get enough credit? Take part in our new series, My Brilliant Colleague, and tell us about their excellent practice. Find more information on how to nominate them on our nominations form.

“I have had no support. I was impacted by guilt and a sense of powerlessness in the face of mounting workloads. There is no compassion or support in social work as a profession.”

Becky also reported receiving little compassion when confiding in her team manager about her frustration over inadequate budgets and the deleterious impact of these on the people she supported. She was told “not to think about it”.

“Our public services have been hollowed out, and we are shouting into the void,” she said. “Individuals working on the ground are invariably left carrying the cognitive dissonance. The mental and emotional load is unbearable. A structural overhaul is needed or maybe I’ll need to go work in retail.”

How do you deal with guilt when unable to meet the needs of those you support?


One Response to Social workers’ guilt over unmet needs

  1. Pete Feldon February 15, 2024 at 12:16 pm #

    BASW England has produced some guidance that can help to address some of the issues described in this article, set out in in “An Ethical Approach to Meeting Needs in Adult Social Care”

    Much of this guidance focuses on the formulation of a personal budget and “the decisions that determine how agreed care and support needs will be met, where this results in needs being unmet and under-met”.

    The BASW guidance is about where the Care Act “is sometimes applied in ways that are of concern”, which “gives rise to ethical concerns because of unjust policies and practices and constraints on social workers professional judgements, and this can be compounded by practices that discourage transparency making it difficult for social workers to justify the decisions of the local authority to people who use services”.

    BASW recognises that in “there is a tension to be managed between professional judgements that incur expenditure and ensuring that the public body in question keeps within its budget”, and notes that although the legal framework “aims to manage this tension in a fair and balanced way” there is a widespread view that it is not always working well. To address this, it has set out how the BASW Code of Ethics can applied to enhance transparency and articulate professional judgement. It recommends that “social workers should be expected as a matter of ethical practice to clearly state their professional judgements when contributing to the local authority decision about how individual needs will be met, and to identify where there is under-met need and potential unmet need”.