Most social workers experiencing deteriorating mental health due to work, finds survey

Poll of 716 Social Workers Union members also finds over four in ten are now considering leaving the profession because of their experiences over the past 18 months

Image of young woman home working and looking tired and stressed (credit: StratfordProductions / Adobe Stock)
(credit: StratfordProductions / Adobe Stock)

Most social workers say their mental health has got worse recently due to their work, with one in ten saying it has “collapsed”, a survey has found.

At the same time, over four in ten have said they are now considering leaving the profession because of their experiences over the past 18 months.

That was among the findings of a poll of 716 Social Workers Union (SWU) members, commissioned by The Independent and carried out in January and February of this year.

The research also found that most practitioners felt their caseloads were not appropriate or manageable and a majority also believed they were not doing the job to the standard they would like.

Deteriorating mental health

Just over half (52.7%) of respondents* said their mental health had deteriorated recently due to work, while a further 9.6% said it had “collapsed”. In addition, 86.2% of respondents said they had experienced significant stress as a result of work.

When asked for the reasons, several mentioned caseloads and workloads more generally, including the administrative tasks they had to complete and the pressure to complete work to tight timescales, as well as staffing shortages.

This was leading some to work several hours of unpaid overtime to complete their work and others to feel they were letting people down by not practising in the way they wanted to.

Why social workers are experiencing stress

“Workload is the primary cause of stress, never getting close to getting all necessary tasks done. Letting the people we work with down as a result.”

“It’s difficult getting job satisfaction from a job when you feel you are doing the impossible- trying to meet people’s needs with limited funding and resources.”

“The pressure is too much. Not able to deliver good outcomes for children and there are not enough hours in the day.”

“Worry about missing anything & not doing a good enough job or there being a serious case enquiry. I work roughly 10 hours additional in my own time to reduce stress.”

This was reflected in answers to other survey questions, with 60% saying they were not at all (21%) or partially unable (39%) to do the job to the standard they would like, while 58% said their caseload was either not at all or only partially manageable and appropriate.

Most practitioners expected this situation to get worse over the coming year, with 86.3% saying they anticipated a massive (51.5%) or slight (34.9%) increase in the number of referrals to social services and the number of assessments social workers would have to carry out.

Some also referenced pressure, a lack of understanding and, in a number of cases, bullying from management as factors behind the stress they were experiencing.

Significant minority considering quitting profession

Based on their experiences as a social worker over the past 18 months, 43.9% of respondents said they were now considering leaving social work, with 5.5% saying they already were mulling quitting.

The survey builds on other recent evidence of the pressures on the profession:

The changes over time in morale reported by Social Work England 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 survey of Social Workers Union members also uncovered child safeguarding concerns. Four in ten said they had raised concerns about a child where they believed appropriate action was not taken as a result over the past 18 months. This was in the context of half of the respondents working in children’s services.

 Cost-of-living concerns

The survey also revealed significant concerns among practitioners about costs of living faced by those they supported.

Over half (55.7%) said many of the people they worked with lived in cold and damp homes, while over four in ten said they had seen children (41.2%) or vulnerable people (45.9%) living in conditions with excessive mould.

In addition, a quarter (24.3%) disabled people or those with a health condition whom they worked with were unable to afford to run their medical equipment.

Social work ‘on brink of a collective breakdown’

Responding to the results, the union’s general secretary, John McGowan, said: “The data highlights a profession on the brink of a collective breakdown. Working conditions are not improving, the mental health of social workers is suffering and the resources and support for them to do their jobs properly are missing.

“Social workers go above and beyond to help those at most risk in the country and are highlighting safeguarding concerns on a regular basis. However, the consistent reports from respondents to the survey are that the resources to help those most in need are just not there.”

McGowan said it was up to the government to step in to provide councils with sufficient resources to “reverse the decline in public services and ensure the most vulnerable get the support they need”.

*In all cases, the findings have been reported as a percentage of those who responded to the particular question, not of the sample as a whole.

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15 Responses to Most social workers experiencing deteriorating mental health due to work, finds survey

  1. Louise April 3, 2024 at 5:48 am #

    None of this is a surprise and a Quick look through past community care stories raises the same issues again and again. This raises the question when will anyone listen and take action?

  2. David April 3, 2024 at 8:37 pm #

    The lack of support from managers to social workers struggling with their workload is incredibly sad. In my experience management priorities remain as budgets, unrealistic targets and timescales so that social workers have to work excessive hours leaving them exhausted and demoralised. Do managers really care? Social workers will not be heard until they are prepared to withdraw their labour. This has been the history so that that working conditions have generally improved. It is still happening today. Witness strike action taken by doctors, train drivers, nurses for example. Workers have always had to struggle

  3. Derek April 5, 2024 at 9:29 am #

    Don’t worry, the social work ‘leaders’ will be along any minute to tell us that things are improving and that there is a plan to do x, y and z. The subtext being that practitioners are not resilient enough or not working hard enough. The people who run social work are good for one thing only – gaslighting

  4. Beth April 5, 2024 at 9:50 am #

    Social Work literally has no strong voice!
    Shocking that the same things being raised & nothing done.
    I could have predicted the survey outcome without the need for endless surveys!

  5. Paul April 5, 2024 at 9:53 am #

    It is not uncommon to work over hours in week and weekends at home to get reports done. Maybe we all ought leave our laptops in office Friday night until Monday? Work to rule would expose the chronic system and rediculous work loads!

    • julia April 5, 2024 at 2:21 pm #

      I would love this to be the case. However, when the court gives deadlines for statements and care plans to be filed, it is the social worker who has to explain why this has not been complied with. Unfortunately, the court is not interested in lack of capacity, it just wants to see no delay due to lack of correct paperwork.

    • Natalie April 6, 2024 at 11:45 am #

      As a social worker who came to the UK from another country l am so appalled and in short i can say i rather go back to my country where SOCIAL work is social work ,where you work with pride,joy and dignity .No wonder there is massive shortages of social workers -Redflag cause who on earth want to do this and still be sane.So stressful and many sleepless nights working and there is no work life balance.If its been like this for years whats being done now to change it-NOTHING.
      l have to put my mental wellbeing first

  6. Pete April 5, 2024 at 9:55 am #

    Leave computer at office weekends, great idea

  7. Ryan April 5, 2024 at 10:03 am #

    10+ years of austerity, coupled with oppressive management, insufficient resources available, high case loads, and staff leaving.
    What a surprise… 🙄
    Perhaps if we had a union that was fit for purpose.

  8. Roryboy April 5, 2024 at 1:41 pm #

    Is it our own ‘fault’. . .

  9. Sue O April 6, 2024 at 4:35 pm #

    How many of us retired burnt out Social workers are now diagnosed with stress related Auto Imune Deficiency Diseases. You won’t read about this but just ask around.

  10. Michael April 8, 2024 at 9:32 am #

    “Buck up”, “be more resilient”, “this is the job”, “stress is motivating”, “be better at time management”, “too emotional”, “there are other jobs you know”, “work life balance is an excuse for failure”, “it’s not exactly Bolivian kids down a mine is it”. Some of the more printable responses I got from various managers over the years when I’ve dared to suggest I might be a tad overwhelmed. Still one did get us to complete an online checklist for “coping strategies” run by a ‘reputable’ trainer who just happened to have been a manager in our service before setting up her “training for skills consortium’. This will not be news to most social workers of course.

    • Lynne April 10, 2024 at 8:25 am #

      Not news at all unfortunately. Mind one of my managers with this level of emotional intelligent empathy did get an MBE so the laugh is still on us.

  11. Citizen Smith April 8, 2024 at 8:27 pm #

    Constantly being told what to do,.
    Lost cause battling for service users ,
    No work life balance ,
    Deteriorating mental health,
    Unable to sleep properly .

    Got the medication ,let’s see if that works .


  1. SWU and Independent survey highlights how the cost-of-living crisis is affecting social workers and the people they support - SWU Social Workers Union - April 5, 2024

    […] Care reported on another topic covered by the survey with the article on April 2nd “Most social workers experiencing deteriorating mental health due to work, finds survey“. The survey found that most social workers say their mental health has got worse recently […]

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