Social workers doing more with less, seeing increased need and weighed down by admin, finds health check

Latest LGA survey, answered by 7,000 practitioners, finds social workers feel less valued by employers, and more likely to quit jobs, than previously, with significant minorities having experienced bullying or racism

Three social workers discussing a case in their office
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Social workers are doing more with less, seeing increased need and weighed down by administrative work, a survey of just over 7,000 practitioners has found.

Practitioners also feel less valued and supported by their employers and are more likely to quit their roles over the next 12 months than was the case a year ago, while significant minorities have experienced bullying or racism, found the latest Local Government Association ‘health check’, carried out from February to April this year.

The check assesses social workers’ views on their organisations’ performance against The standards for employers of social workers in England, which set voluntary expectations of how organisations support practitioners to work safely and effectively.

This year’s survey, whose respondents were employed by over 160 organisations, mainly councils, found declining satisfaction in relation to seven of the eight standards, with the other remaining steady.

Survey methodology

Researchers asked respondents a set of questions relating to each of the eight employer standards and a separate set relating to their experiences of their workplaces.

Each question asked practitioners to respond on a scale from ‘strongly disagree’ to ‘strongly agree’, from which researchers calculated an average score out of 100 to measure levels of satisfaction.

Scores of 0-50 indicate a low outcome, 51-74 moderate and 75-100 high.

Increasing levels of need amid admin burden

Some of the most concerning findings related to practitioners’ overall experiences of their workplaces.

The average score for whether they had not seen an increase in the severity of need of those referred to them was just 45, indicating that practitioners were managing more complex caseloads.

There were also low scores for whether practitioners were not required to do more with less (51) and whether their role did not involve administrative duties that had no or limited impact on outcomes for the people they supported (44).

Against this backdrop, there was a drop of five points (from 74 to 69) in relation to whether practitioners felt positive and able to cope in their roles most of the time, compared with the last survey, in 2022-23.

Practitioners feel less valued by employers

This was accompanied by a fall in the average score for whether social workers felt that their senior leadership team valued and understood the work that they did (from 68 to 65) and in whether they would recommend their employer to a friend (from 75 to 73).

As well as concerns about work pressures, many social workers were dissatisfied with their pay and conditions, with an average score of 61 in relation to whether they were rewarded fairly for their job, and a fall from 71 to 68 in respect of satisfaction with their employment package.

There was also a decline – from 75 to 72 – in the average score for whether social workers did not intend to leave their employer over the next 12 months.

Experiences of bullying and racism

The survey also asked social workers about their experiences of bullying and racism within the previous 12 months.

A quarter (26%) said they had experienced bullying from people who use social care, relatives or members of the public, while 5% said they had experienced this from a colleague. One in 12 (8%) had experienced racism from people who use social care, relatives or members of the public, while 3% had done from colleagues.

Concerns about employer consultation with social workers

In relation to the employer standards themselves, the biggest year on year decline in average score was for standard 2 on effective workforce planning systems (82 down to 74).

Within this standard, social workers raised particular concerns about how well employers consulted with them. There was an average score of 57 for whether employee consultation informed and influenced change, and of 64 for whether employers made sure employees understood and were supported through change. Both of those were new questions.

There were also year-on-year declines in satisfaction across all the other questions within this standard. For example, the average score fell from 74 to 69 on whether employers understood the barriers and challenges getting in the way of social workers doing their best work and promoted solutions to address these.

2024 health check results for employer standards

  1. Having a strong and clear social work framework: 80 (2022-23: 80).
  2. Having effective workplace systems: 74 (2022-23: 82).
  3. Having safe workloads and case allocation: 75 (2022-23: 77).
  4. Promoting staff wellbeing: 77 (2022-23: 79).
  5. Having high-quality and regular supervision: 76 (2022-23: 77).
  6. Having regular and effective continuing professional development (CPD): 72 (2022-23: 74).
  7. Supporting social workers to maintain professional registration: 78 (2022-23: 80).
  8. Creating strong partnerships to support social work education and training: 76 (2022-23: 80).

Satisfaction lowest in relation to CPD

As in previous health checks, satisfaction was lowest in relation to standard 6, on continuing professional development, for which the average score fell from 74 to 72.

Similarly to the 2022-23 survey, the biggest area of concern for social workers in this standard was whether social workers had the time, resources, opportunities and support to do their CPD. The average score for this measure was 62, down from 65 in 2022-23.

There was also a drop in the extent to which social workers thought their assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE) helped them develop their skills and professional competence (70, down from 76).

The sharpest fall concerned whether social workers took regular action to update their CPD, for which the average score was 91 in 2022-23 but just 78 in 2024.

Social workers ‘should not have to tolerate conditions’

In response to the results, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services said leaders “[recognised] the issues raised in the survey responses and remain committed to creating the conditions where good social work with children and families can flourish”.

“Social workers should not have to tolerate conditions that would not be tolerated in other professions,” said Nicola Curley.

“Bullying, abuse and discrimination is completely unacceptable and directors and local authority chief executives have a responsibility to protect our staff from this.

“It is important for us as employers to listen to this valuable feedback from social workers, to understand their experiences of the workplace and the support they need to be able to do their jobs well and, crucially, to create change where it is needed.”

Curley added: “Social workers are at the heart of systems that protect children from harm and support families to overcome challenges and stay together safely. Their work can be challenging and sometimes high risk. They work under heightened media scrutiny, yet the life changing work they do is rarely recognised. Without enough skilled social workers, who are supported and equipped with the tools to do their jobs well, in safe and appropriate working environments, we as directors of children’s services cannot ensure all children in our local areas thrive.”

Latest survey to raise concerns about social work

The survey is the latest to suggest that social workers are working in an increasingly challenging environment that is taking its toll on their wellbeing, satisfaction at work and readiness to stay in their roles.

A Social Workers Union survey earlier this year found 53% felt their mental health had got worse recently due to their work, with a further one in ten saying it had “collapsed”.

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.

Concerns about workloads and staffing levels were also prominent in responses to the British Association of Social Workers’ (BASW) latest annual survey, carried out from December 2023 to January 2024. Two-thirds of respondents had noticed an increase in the turnover of experienced staff in their organisations in the previous 12 months, said BASW.

DfE plans to increase adherence to employer standards

The latest health check also comes with the Department for Education (DfE) seeking to improve adherence to the employer standards as part of its children’s social care reform strategy, Stable Homes, Built on Love.

The department has appointed a consortium comprising Research in Practice, Essex County Council and King’s College London to produce and test tools and resources to support employers in implementing the standards.

This is allied to work that the partnership is carrying out with the DfE-appointed national workload action group (NWAG) to develop resources to tackle “unnecessary” drivers of excess workloads among social workers.

*As well as 7,068 social workers, the LGA received responses to the survey from about 8,000 social care workers and occupational therapists, but has not published the results from these groups.

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One Response to Social workers doing more with less, seeing increased need and weighed down by admin, finds health check

  1. David May 16, 2024 at 5:47 am #

    No wonder that Social Workers are eager to get out and look for alternative employment. Employers just do not listen, hence the difficulties in recruiting and retaining. I became alienated from a culture that expected Social Workers to work 50+ hours per week to achieve tight targets and unrealistic timescales. Social Workers in Children’s Services are Care Managers, arranging for direct work to be undertaken by other agencies and monitoring/reviewing this. This is a bureaucratic function and not what I came into social work for.

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