Social worker morale has fallen since 2020, finds study for regulator

Social Work England-commissioned practitioner survey finds workload and burnout are undermining retention and, though pride in profession remains high, this has fallen with drop in morale

Wooden blocks spelling out the word 'Morale'
Photo: gustavofrazao/Adobe Stock

Social workers are significantly less likely to have high morale or to recommend the profession to friends or family than in 2020, research released this week has found.

High workloads and burnout were key concerns for practitioners, who said these risked creating a “spiral” of social workers leaving their roles and leaving colleagues even more overworked than before, found the Social Work England-commissioned study.

And though pride in the profession remains high, this has also fallen in tandem with the drop in morale, according to the survey of 1,260 current and 115 former social workers, carried out carried out from May to June 2023.

The study follows a similar YouGov survey conducted for the regulator in 2020. While the authors of the latest research said that comparisons between the two datasets should be made with caution, because of the different samples of practitioners, they added that they had reported on those they deemed appropriate.

Drop in social worker morale

This included a substantial drop, from 43% to 26%, in the proportion of current social workers with high morale, and an accompanying rise, from 24% to 41%, in those reporting low morale.

Also, while 26% were likely to recommend the profession to friends or family in 2020, this had dropped to 16% by 2023, with the proportion saying they would not recommend social work at all increasing from 8% to 17%.

Though 83% said they were very or fairly proud to tell others about their job, pride in the profession had fallen from 89% in 2020. This was seemingly driven by the drop in morale: almost all practitioners with high morale (96%) were proud of the profession, compared with less than three-quarters (72%) of those with low morale.

High morale was more prevalent among men (31%) than women (25%), among those in upper management (39%) than those without management responsibility (21%), and among NHS practitioners (41%) and agency workers (34%) compared with local authority staff (22%).

There were similar differences in current practitioners’ propensity to recommend the profession, with 41% of those in upper management doing so as against 24% among those without managerial responsibility, and NHS staff (42%) being the most likely employment group to do so.

Rising levels of burnout on back of Covid

The changes over time in morale coincide with the Covid-19 emergency and its aftermath. Separate research with practitioners carried out last year found that social workers were working more overtime, experiencing greater levels of burnout and reporting lower work-related quality of life than at the start of the pandemic.

The YouGov study uncovered similar themes, both through the survey and in qualitative research with 30 current social workers, six ex-practitioners, 10 employers and 10 people with lived experience.

In answer to the survey, eight in ten current social workers (79%) cited high workloads and burnout as a main challenge facing their organisation over the coming year, with this feeling being particularly acute among local authority practitioners (87%).

This was strongly linked to retention risk. Four in five social workers said they had been actively job hunting over the past 12 months, with 55% of this group citing excessive workload, and 52% the impact of their work on their mental health, as key reasons.

‘Spiral’ of social workers quitting jobs

This was echoed in the qualitative interviews, with many practitioners speaking of a potential “spiral” of “burned out social workers leaving the profession, creating more work for those who they leave behind, causing them to become fatigued and leave the profession faster and thus contributing to the same problems they were victims of”.

The findings echo those of BASW’s latest survey of the profession, also released this week, which found most practitioners had seen more of their experienced colleagues leaving their roles over the past 12 months, with the vast majority of this group saying this had had a negative impact.

Employers interviewed by YouGov also cited burnout and workloads as the biggest contributors to low retention in their organisations, while two-thirds of current social workers and 56% of former practitioners picked reducing workloads as one of the top three factors that would help retain staff. This rose to 72% among current and former children’s social workers, compared with 55% of current or former adult practitioners.

Workforce facts and figures

  • Vacancies: local authority social worker vacancy rates remain high but came down in the year to September 2023, from 11.6% to 10.5% in adults’ services, and from 20% to 18.9% in children’s services.
  • Turnover: turnover rates (the proportion of staff who left during the year) also fell between 2021-22 and 2022-23, from 17.1% to 15.9% in children’s services, and from 17.1% to 14.5% in adults’ services.
  • Use of agency staff: the agency worker rate rose from 17.6% to 17.8% in children’s services, and from 9% to 10%, in adults’ services, in the year to September 2023.
  • Caseloads: these are not measured in adults’ services but, according to the Department for Education (DfE), average caseloads fell for children’s services staff, from 16.7 to 16, in the year to September 2023. However, the DfE’s measure is based on dividing the total number of cases by the number of practitioners who hold any cases at all, so is likely to be depressed by staff who hold relatively few cases as part of a substantively non-caseholding role.

Sources: The workforce employed by adult social services departments in England (Skills for Care, 2024) and Children’s social work workforce (DfE, 2024)

The research also explored current social workers’ experiences of their first role in the profession, with 9% of respondents saying they had left the role within a year and a further third (32%) leaving between one and three years after taking up the post.

While a quarter (24%) of those who left within three years were promoted out of their first role, a similar proportion (25%) cited excessive workload as a reason and 21% not being supported by their manager or employer.

Likelihood of leaving profession

Overall, 39% of current practitioners were very or fairly likely to leave the profession within five years, the same proportion as in 2020.

The rate was higher among social workers from an ethnic minority (48%), a finding that follows research showing that council social care staff from minority backgrounds face disproportionately high levels of workplace bullying, disciplinary action and fitness to practise referrals.

Also, disabled practitioners were more likely than non-disabled counterparts to say they were very likely to quit social work within five years (23% versus 14%).

The YouGov research for Social Work England also identified issues around paperwork and pay facing social workers.

Organisations seen as ‘process-oriented’

Almost half of current social workers (44%) described the culture of the organisation they worked in as “process-oriented”, compared with 12% who said it was dynamic and creative.

In interviews, several practitioners “expressed frustration with having to follow strict bureaucratic processes and paperwork that take time away from working directly with clients”.

Respondents were more positive about other aspects of their workplace, with 83% saying employees respected and valued each other’s opinions, to a great deal or a fair amount, and 69% saying that they felt they belonged.

“Social workers spoke highly of their teams and their managers, saying they felt comfortable in their organisation and that they could use their co-workers as a resource when they were struggling, had questions, or needed a second opinion,” said the report.

Most social workers do not feel fairly rewarded

However, just 36% said employees were rewarded and recognised fairly for their work, with 61% saying this was not the case.

The real value of council adult social workers’ wages has fallen progressively over time, with the average full-time equivalent pay in September 2023 – £41,500 – being worth 7.2% less than the average in 2016, according to Skills for Care data.

Interviewees also said they felt some people were “deterred from entering the profession due to poor reputation and negative associations with social work, particularly due to the messages portrayed in the media, such as social workers taking children away”.

Parallel research by YouGov for Social Work England found that 44% of members of the public thought that the profession was well-respected within society, while 39% felt practitioners often got things wrong.

Change the Script campaign

On the back of findings such as this, the regulator has launched a campaign, Change the Script, urging the entertainment industry to change how it portrays social workers to ensure this is accurate.

Previous research into TV plot summaries from the 1950s to the 2010s, by linguistics academic Dr Maria Leedham, found that social workers rarely featured in programmes. When they did, they almost always worked in child protection and were described as either “judgmental bureaucrats or child snatchers”.

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12 Responses to Social worker morale has fallen since 2020, finds study for regulator

  1. Judith March 21, 2024 at 10:21 am #

    And they’ll have even lower morale in the next 4 years when the same issues with fewer social workers assail them.

    • David March 21, 2024 at 12:47 pm #

      Yes Judith, you’re absolutely right. Even under a Labour government there does not seem to be any prospect of extra financial provision to locate authorities. Children’s services need more Social Workers on the front line. In the absence of this Social Workers will continue to struggle, hence continued poor morale and to the detriment of those vulnerable children and that they are charged to be responsible for

    • Zoe BB March 27, 2024 at 6:03 am #

      Social workers have lost direction of what they are supposed to do and become vindictive instead of being supportive and caring. There is need for a paradigm shift in the services they provide. It’s more money driven and career driven the powerful against to weak. Change should occur if the profession needs to be appealing.

  2. King March 21, 2024 at 9:26 pm #

    As social workers we are expected to do more and more. Officially our job description would be so long there isn’t enough paper for it be written on. I’ve been in the job 12 years and thinking of leaving

  3. Paul John March 21, 2024 at 9:29 pm #

    Absolutely. I think it’s time to disband Social Work and create a new profession, or incorporate the training into Allied Health and Nursing programmes. It is an approach after all, and I see no reason why a Nurse or Occupational Therapist couldn’t do the role well, if not better. Also, the training, I would say is inadequate. It lacks any clinical or specialist pathways for those of us who choose a career in medical or mental health roles. Local Authority SWs, I find, are dumbed down by genericism, and lack appropriate understanding of the biological/physiological factors affecting service users and/or their potential outcomes. Whilst other allied professions are blazing a trail and enabling practitioners to advance, here we are 20 years later listening to the same stuff we’ve been complaining about for decades. How much did it cost Social Work England to commission the study, only to point out the bleeding obvious. It’s like a never ending carousel. How can we effectively help others to break the cycle of negative behaviour when we can’t break our own? Pfffft!!!

    • Calum March 23, 2024 at 7:08 pm #

      What you suggest will require overhaul and redrafting and ascent of an abundance of legislation primarily, years of work. Look at the collapse of the NCS proposed in Scotland- it was never fit for purpose but the government propogated it as a solution. For what? To drive down the profession and save money by decimating social workers. We have a profession that works hard but austerity and bureaucracy, unsympathetic disinterested governments compound the untenable realities for social workers – many deeply commited to people and the work they do with them. It is absolutely not the time to abandon social work as a valued profession. It is time to upskill our health and education colleagues in the nature of the work we do, especially child and adult protection. Personally I have not seen the evidence of nurses, OTs or Physios doing this at all despite legal frameworks & legislation such as ASP & GIRFEC being there to enable them to do a modicum of our role. This is not to say I don’t value working with health or education colleagues but, I’ve worked with more police who understand and support the responsibilities of social workers. Social work is rooted in rights and is / should be person centred as opposed to task orientated or prescriptive. An OT can knock out a functional assessment on an A4 page in 30 minutes then issue equipment – this is what their profession has been reduced to. We have wards full of nurses unable to provide care because they are sat at computers dealing with bureaucracy, only unqualified staff enabled to deliver care. It will likely take a social worker several hours to document a holistic assessment and, then of course the funding application for support or the coordination of other services existing or needed (some of those Allied Heath Professionals). There are many social workers who absolutely do understand bio-pyscho-social models, you undervalue your colleagues considerably though possibly this is not your intention. We are also in a privileged position to argue the impact of broken government policies on the lives of people, socio-economic factors which worsen conditions and general life and ironically increase the need for public spending. As an individual frustrated by the platitudes of career progression you might benefit from retraining in a medical profession rather than insisting 130k professionals are absorbed in to an even more dysfunctional hierarchical system that does not place individual human rights at the forefront of it’s duties, or indeed the wellbeing of its staff. No question reform is needed. Another survey completed giving us the same answers we’ve heard since 2016/7 when BASW SWU & Bath Spa Uni began conducting them arguably is a waste of money, having produced the same answers. We can look deeply at the motivation but to say ony more would only be speculative. Money & resources need to be spent by government agencies (including regulators) on reform, not repetition.

  4. Dezzy March 22, 2024 at 8:30 am #

    SWE play a significant role in damaging the morale of many social workers I know of.

    • Paul John March 22, 2024 at 8:55 pm #

      Absolutely. They just recycle the same issues year after year that SW’s have been complaining and warning organisations about for decades. They call themselves a ‘specialist regulator’…Specialist where?They promise the earth and deliver nothing. The complaints system is an absolute sham and their inertia to get anything moving is stupefying. And Social Work must be the only profession to have 4 seperate regulators in the UK. It’s shocking, it’s ineffective, and to me, they reflect that which Social Workers have so desperately been trying to get away from. Pfft! 😡

  5. David March 22, 2024 at 9:18 am #

    In other news, research finds that the Pope is Catholic

    • Paul John March 22, 2024 at 6:30 pm #


  6. Citizen Smith March 22, 2024 at 10:59 am #

    It’s not a profession ,it’s just a job.
    No autonomy .
    Told what to do.
    Micromanaged .
    Fighting for service users – Lost cause .

  7. Alan McDonald March 22, 2024 at 6:22 pm #

    No surprise at all. I had a relatively positive experience in my last team. However, my previous experience of being micromanaged by talentless, narcissistic gaslighters helped make my mind up there was something better. The survey has highlighted significant levels of bullying and discrimination towards workers, particularly from ethnic minority backgrounds which is shameful. This requires immediate action as discrimination towards service users. Institutional racism and unconscious bias is rife in some local authorities I have worked in. I feel much better I am out of it and certainly wouldn’t recommend the profession to anyone.