Most social workers report rise in number of experienced colleagues quitting jobs

Loss of experienced practitioners having negative impact, with adequacy of staffing social workers' biggest current workplace challenge, finds BASW survey

Picture with a postit note that reads 'I quit!'
Picture: photoprodra/fotolia

Most social workers have seen an increase in the number of experienced colleagues quitting their jobs in the past year, according to the British Association of Social Workers’ (BASW) annual survey.

For the vast majority of these practitioners, the loss of social workers with at least five years’ experience has had a negative impact on practice, found the association’s research, published yesterday.

Also, adequacy of staffing levels has risen to being social workers’ biggest challenge in the workplace, cited by almost half of respondents, up from a third in BASW’s previous survey.

There has also been a significant jump in the proportion of respondents citing cuts to local services as among the three biggest challenges facing the profession now and in the immediate future.

In addition, social workers have also seen an increase in need, with almost two-thirds saying they were now working with more people in poverty than before the cost-of-living crisis.

Social workers ‘frustrated by inadequate staffing’

At the same time, just under a quarter of practitioners had personally experienced bullying, harassment and/or discrimination in their place of work or study in the previous year.

Image of Ruth Allen, the Bristish Association of Social Workers chief executive (credit: BASW)

Ruth Allen, the BASW chief executive (credit: BASW)

“In large numbers, social workers continue to tell us in our annual survey that their working lives are at least frequently frustrated by lack of resources and inadequate staffing and are too often downright hostile making it impossible to do what social workers know is right to serve their communities,” said BASW chief executive Ruth Allen.

The survey, carried out from December 2023 to January 2024, received 1,215 responses, 92% from qualified social workers and 7% from social work students.

Latest official data on social work workforce

BASW’s findings about a rise in attrition of experienced staff come despite a drop in social worker turnover in English local authority children’s and adults’ services in 2022-23, compared with the previous year.

At the same time, both workforces have been a significant growth in the number of new recruits, year on year.

However, the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS) has warned that councils have struggled to attract experienced staff, with many of those newly recruited being newly qualified.

At the same time, the proportion of children’s social workers with less than two years’ service with their employer rose from 29.6% to 30.9% in the year to September 2023, suggesting a shift to a relatively less experienced workforce.

Loss of experienced staff having negative impact

BASW found that 65.3% of respondents had noticed an increase in the turnover of experienced staff in their organisations in the previous 12 months. Of this group, 92.1% said this trend had had a negative impact on the workplace and practice.

When asked for the three biggest challenges in their workplaces, the most common answer was ‘adequacy of staffing levels’, cited by 46.9% of respondents, up from 34.9% in the 2022 survey.

Relatedly, half of respondents (50.2%) disagreed that they felt able to manage their current workloads, a slight fall on the previous survey’s 52.2%.

As in the 2022 survey, roughly two-thirds of practitioners (64.6%, compared with 68.2% in 2022) were unable to complete their work within their contracted hours. Four in ten said they were working at least an additional five hours a week on average, with two-thirds of all respondents saying any overtime worked was unpaid.

Increasing need and inadequate resource

The backdrop to social workers’ workload pressures was a context of increasing need and inadequate resource.

Just over half of respondents (51.2%) said they were working with more people as the cost of living has increased, while almost two-thirds (63.8%) said they were working with more people in poverty than was the case before the cost-of-living crisis.

At the same time, 67.5% of practitioners included ‘cuts to local services’ among the three biggest challenges facing the profession now and in the immediate future, with 62.2% citing a ‘failure to adequately fund social care’.

This is despite councils having budgeted to increase children’s social care spending by 11% in real terms (£1.2bn), and adult social care expenditure by 10% in real terms (£2bn), in 2023-24.

While the government is increasing grant funding for social care by £1.9bn (27%) in 2024-25, while also allowing authorities to raise council tax by up to 5% without a referendum, social care leaders have warned this was inadequate to meet rising need.

Levels of bullying and harassment

Almost a quarter of respondents (24%) said they had personally been a victim of bullying, harassment and/or discrimination in their place of work or study in the previous 12 months, up from 20% in the previous survey.

The news follows separate findings that black, Asian and minority ethnic staff in a sample of 23 English local authorities were 30% more likely to experience harassment, bullying or abuse from a colleague and 90% more likely to have experienced this from a manager in the previous year, compared with white colleagues.

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30 Responses to Most social workers report rise in number of experienced colleagues quitting jobs

  1. David March 20, 2024 at 12:11 pm #

    Again continued lack of support for social workers. This has been happening for years.After 18 years as a children’s Social Worker I became alienated by management’s expectation that you work 50 plus hours per week in order to keep to task, to unrealistic targets and timescales. I became exhausted. I became blamed and scapegoated for not being adequately organised to work within my contracted 37 weekly hours. There was no consideration to caseloads being too high, nor to insufficient Social Workers on the front line

    • Abdul March 21, 2024 at 9:01 am #

      Hi David, I am a statutory children’s social worker with the local authority and I previously worked over a 75 hour week (i e until midnight, 7 days a week, except for about 2-3 hours off on a Sunday afternoon) and I had no time for myself, family or friends. I became depressed and isolated, and started vomiting and not sleeping from stress. The job was making me ill, but the cases just kept coming. I realised I had to leave when I was not keeping up with my caseload, and I was working 36 hours for free (i.e. an unpaid second position), with no extra pay, acknowledgement, or thanks. I realised I had to leave my 12 month post when my manager said I ‘Use to be so quick, but now I was so slow’ and I looked at her gobsmacked and said I was working over 70 hours a week as it was, and I could not do anymore, as it would mean I would be going to bed at 1am or 2am! I was in a R&A Team andy manager had been giving me all single children cases, which meant double the work, and at one point I had 36 single assessments on the go and totally unmanageable. I realised I was a commodity and not a person, and so glad I left. No other profession would put up with these toxic, unlawful, and exploitative conditions, but we need to stop allowing them too.

    • Sharon March 21, 2024 at 3:27 pm #

      The targets , timescales & deadline are impossible task due to staff shortages, budgets constantly being cut. Social care deal with people and forever untimely changes. Senior management forget that when setting targets.
      It would also help if LA invested in the staff who are not qualified workers by giving secondment opportunities, then they would have well experienced staff.

    • Sara March 21, 2024 at 10:22 pm #

      Targets and performance indicators are killing the profession and unrealistic expectations from higher management which decrease social workers autonomy causes stress.
      I have been a social worker for 25 yrs …. We can do our job if the management culture changes. The system burns us out not the families we work with.

  2. Trish March 20, 2024 at 3:03 pm #

    Until work places take seriously that social workers should have basic employment rights honoured , – e.g not being expected to continually work excessive unpaid hours, to the detriement of their health and life expectancy – then this will be a continued trend.

    No amount of “health and wellbeing” buzz talk can undo the impact of chronic overwork.

    • Caroline March 22, 2024 at 10:32 am #

      Well said Trish, I think organisations champion well being, but do not understand what that really means. I know friends who have had strokes and heart attacks through stress of the work and trying to stay on top of everything.

  3. David March 20, 2024 at 6:32 pm #

    Well stated Trish. To me this is an issue of employers exploiting Social Worker’s commitment and especially their goodwill. Thankfully exploitation of others does not fit with the values of the profession.

    • Maddie March 21, 2024 at 10:45 am #

      I want to go to uni and get a degree in social work to become a social worker once I finish college but my parents are worried about the impact it will have on me. How can we sort out the shortage of social workers when it’s underpaid, they are overworked and everyone’s aware which is why people dont want to go into the profession.

  4. Matt March 20, 2024 at 7:09 pm #

    100% agree with the comments. The workloads and pressure are unreasonable and excessive. Given the complexity of the work and tasks involved, caseloads should not exceed double digits (at least within Children & Families where I can speak too). We all need to speak out and highlight this, advocating for ourselves and fighting for change!

  5. Maureen March 21, 2024 at 8:00 am #

    I used to be a newly qualified social worker. I was bullied by one of the managers and the top manager, did nothing. After I left, I her black African social workers left too. When I had told to top dog manager the service manager was bullying me, he just brushed it aside. Other. Than that, the whole social work way of work needs to change. I am not saying give them small caseload, but the way they work with people. Perhaps realistic systems and work shared. Work up to to certain level and another person to take over on the same child or adult to increase productivity in a different way. But of course, it will take years before eyes are open


  6. Paul Phillips March 21, 2024 at 8:13 am #

    I am leaving socialwork this year after 20 years dedecated work as a n AMHP and taking an LA to a tribunial for discrimination and subversive working g practices. I will never work for an LA again as a perminante worker or an AMHP .

  7. Pete March 21, 2024 at 9:24 am #

    I got out recently. As worker with years experience, is expectation take high caseloads, complex stuff as over 50% team less than 2 yrs qualified. Add average 50 hour week, imposdible take time off in lieu, govt cutbacks to voluntary support groups, lack decent housing for our clients live in, social fund and grants removed from benefits agency (leaving victims of DV trapped), poor tabloid media view of profession, management locked in blame down culture, why would anyone enter social work?

  8. Lucia March 21, 2024 at 9:38 am #

    A change won’t happen until an evaluation of the role within specific services/teams is completed. Senior managers don’t even understand what is involved in our jobs as they are so detached from practice. Their only focus is on performance indicators, which compromise the quality of the work and we are blamed when something goes wrong. This is the sad reality.

  9. Sabine Ebert-Forbes March 21, 2024 at 9:57 am #

    ItS the usual game of “blame the social worker”. When will those in charge finally understand that you can’t run services successfully on good will alone. Even social workers – or should that read – especially social workers need a healthy work-life balance unless you want people to go off ill because of burn out. Or feel guilty for potentially emotionally neglecting our own off-spring in the line of duty.

  10. Kim March 21, 2024 at 11:24 am #

    I also agree with the comments made. However, having been on the receiving end of Managers telling me that I am the only one not keeping up, and working double my contracted hours every week, with a caseload of 30 plus, then being threatened with capabilities, it just makes the whole workplace toxic. I have never in my working career experienced such a difficult and unrewarding area in which to work. It is not the service users, and it is because of my empathy towards them that I continue to want to do the job, but it is Management. When are all Social Workers going to stand up and state that were are employed to work 37 hours a week not double, or triple, to hold cases double / triple what should be allocated because there are no resources. There are no resources (Social Workers), because of this bullying toxic environment of Management and seniour Management. I have found that Agency workers are the ones who have caused the most toxic environment, but this is across the board. Something must be done about this because eventually no one will want to work in this environment and children and families will suffer because of it.

    • Paul March 21, 2024 at 7:44 pm #

      Please expand upon this, what types of behaviours or practices are agency staff as opposed to permanent staff engaging in?

  11. Julie March 21, 2024 at 12:36 pm #

    Well said it an oppressive profession whereby you are expected to work all hours and are met with hostility if unrealistic targets are not met but this is not new there is always research talk but nothing changes as they swy talk is cheap

  12. Jacob Daly March 21, 2024 at 2:28 pm #

    When I began my social work career many moons ago, employment rights existed. Over the years I have seen these to be eroded. Add to this the marketisation of Health and Social Care alongside neoliberalism and we are left with a flawed system. We then have a system of regulation which has the potential if misused to be another form of micro oppression, I.e., fitness to practice and capabilities vi’s a vi’s huge caseloads and unpaid overtime. There is also a degree of emotional manipulation. If you are a caring social worker you will do it. Think of the client…..and most of us do. For a profession that promotes human rights, it is always amazing when I encounter social workers at all levels who can be unkind to other social workers and dare I say it even abusive. The starting point for me is if I don’t respect myself how can I expect others to do so. There is nothing in the Human Rights Act that says social workers have less human rights and our rights to private and family life are real. I think that many employers of social workers often breach social workers rights to private and family life by imposing excessive workloads, limited support. All the expectations of the market place with conveniently few of the incentives. Add to this micro surveillance of practice and you have a despondent workforce, Something has got to give. The change begins within each of us personally.

  13. David March 21, 2024 at 4:27 pm #

    Sadly, things are not going to get any better unless Social Workers are prepared to take industrial action. Health professionals, teachers, colleagues in the rail industry have had to take this route as a result of an inadequate government response to requests for reasonable conditions of service

  14. Brianne March 21, 2024 at 5:21 pm #

    Not just local authorities unfortunately other big agencies involved with children and families are exactly the same. tasks that take people way over the contracted hours to the point of no return and the work load just keeps increasing. 50+ hours of work will not squeeze into a 37 hour working week and if it does it’s dangerous in my eyes. But as has been mentioned it’s made out to be an individual worker issue and when people burn out or something goes wrong no back up or support. Gotta love the caring profession

  15. Kelly March 21, 2024 at 7:17 pm #

    Last year we lost 16 SW and TM colleagues from our children’s CIN and CP team. It was really tough to say goodbye to so many colleagues and the impact on both families and workers is both significant and long lasting.
    In 20 years of frontline practice I have yet to see a retention policy that has anything meaningful to offer.

  16. Bernadette Mccamley March 21, 2024 at 8:20 pm #

    Thank you to all the social workers for their bravery in speaking out I know no I am not alone. With over 15 years experience as a social worker I have one foot in the carpark of no return after another day of unrealistic deadlines, high and complex case loads and juggling to many roles. Social Work now operates under a business model that is devoid of vaules, patient care and safety or the wellbeing of staff. The drive is target performance, toxic micro management who have fostered a blame game culture . I am weary of watching good social workers being berated and undervalued and reduced to burnout. Unless we are heard social workers will continue to leave

    • David March 22, 2024 at 9:30 am #

      Too true Bernadette

  17. Not My Real Name March 22, 2024 at 12:49 pm #

    I’m 25 years into my career. The highlight was watching the BBC coverage of the budget as seeing the figure for the ‘average’ workers pay was considerably more than mine. I reached top of scale years ago so I guess I’m now never going to make it to ‘average’ pay.

  18. Sheebegone March 23, 2024 at 8:44 am #

    Dear All

    This is a matter very close to my heart.

    I have left the profession after a 20+ year career in frontline child protection.
    It has been both rewarding and punishing for many reasons.

    I could list chapters of events both positive and negative.

    I have decided to do exactly that, by writing a book.
    This week I committed to a publisher, so here the journey begins.

    It is not a book of academia, complaints or grumbling.

    It is a book of learning for the benefit of the readers and social work community, also for those involved with Children’s Services.

    There is truth, disclosures and revelations which will be concerning for some institutions (shall we say).

    I will speak openly and frankly about the toxic, bullying and abusive culture that exists today, that is rife throughout social work and destroying people’s livelihood, emotional and psychological wellbeing.

    It is my view that if you shine a light and expose the truth, there is hope for change.

    I have no fear speaking out for Truth and Justice for the greater good.

    As Arni says “I’ll be back” sooner rather then later !!!

  19. Lisa March 23, 2024 at 9:51 pm #

    Managerialism, lack of understanding that practice wisdom matters a lot in organisations. Lack of experience by managers.
    Lack of knowledge by managers.
    Lack of understanding of what social Work is. Lack of regard for experienced social workers because the focus is on Managerialism.
    Poor leadership in social work ..Lack of leadership in social work. Tick box situations as senior managers don’t really care about social work.

  20. CC March 23, 2024 at 11:21 pm #

    I think. its worth looking at tbe experience of Social work assistants, family support workers and Care leavers advisers etc. Those who have significantexperience. An option to fast track to social work for more experienced workers!

  21. Pauline O'Reggio March 24, 2024 at 2:47 pm #

    In my opinion there is an increasing lack of support to enable social workers to complete a demanding and stressful role.

    There is no admin support, no guidance and emotional support to help achieve the principals and dutys of the role, stipulated by the govering bodies to safeguard those who are vulnerable in society.There are no longer any working as a team, everyone works in isolation , in my opinion this must increase the feeling of isolation for the praticisioners who are faced with stressful issues.

    The blame culture still remains where by social workers are the target.The profession in my opinion is being dismantled with unfair blame on social workers.It is no wonder committed and experienced social workers are leaving the profession.

    As a social worker when you see no positive out come for the hours of unpaid work , no recognition for the hard work and commitments made to provide a safe and meaning ful services why remain in such an environment.

    Is the aim by those in position’s of power really!!! to support a system for vulnerable children,adults and members of society?

    It appears an ever increasing struggle in my opinion.

  22. Yemi March 24, 2024 at 7:48 pm #

    Well said Lisa, where managers are not being appointed based on competence, attitude, skill and experience but based on ‘if the face fit’ they under perform and cause more stress for the already stressed out social workers.

  23. David March 25, 2024 at 9:19 am #

    Managerialism, the implication being that managers know best. Clearly not. They need to look after and listen to their workers