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"Unacceptable levels of pressure on social work teams will end up costing lives,” union says

A new survey says that social workers are at breaking point with half at risk of quitting.

13/06/22

"Unacceptable levels of pressure on social work teams will end up costing lives,” union says

Excessive workloads, high stress levels and low morale are rife among social workers who are at breaking point, according to new research published this week.

Based on a survey of nearly 3,000 social workers across the UK for UNISON, staff shortages (93%) and unmanageable caseloads (90%) were identified as ‘major concerns’ affecting their ability to do their jobs, shortly followed by long hours (80%).

More than seven in ten (72%) said their workload has increased during the pandemic and 89% are worried about the level of service they are able to provide to the public. Social workers who took part in the survey repeatedly said their first point of contact with families was often only at crisis point because they have no time for early intervention and preventative work.

“Staff morale is very low, lots of people leave and are replaced with either agency or very inexperienced workers who are reliant upon smaller groups of experienced staff,” said one social worker. Another senior social worker said: “The high level of vacancies in the frontline teams is at the highest I’ve ever seen in my 20-plus years in social work.”

Four in ten (44%) believed harassment and abuse have increased during the pandemic, with professionals describing the harrowing effects of threats of violence and physical assault that they face while on the job. One described being ‘grabbed and pushed’, while another shared how they received death threats and were told that their house would be burned down.

More than three quarters (78%) of social workers said they had experienced increased stress levels and a similar number (77%) of respondents were worried about their mental health due to the pressure they’re under. Seven in ten (70%) also said morale has decreased and almost half (49%) said they’re now less likely to stay in their jobs.

As many as 78% said they worry about being blamed publicly in connection with cases, echoing the mainstream media response to the recent high profile cases of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson.

“We get so much blame and hostility, but we have no protection,” one worker said. “We have nothing to keep us safe. We’re expected to do so much but no one considers the threat and danger we face. Social workers are disliked as much as the police. But the police don’t find their personal details being used and aren’t at risk of being followed home.”

The union says councils and the government must do much more to ensure safe services for children.

“Unacceptable levels of pressure on social work teams will end up costing lives,” UNISON General Secretary Christina McAnea said. “The safety of vulnerable children, adults and their families must be paramount and that can only be achieved with a strong and valued workforce.”

“Social workers’ skills and interventions keep people safe from harm and change lives. But there simply aren’t enough of them to deal with increasing demand. New recruits and experienced workers are at breaking point and are leaving the profession in their droves.

“Ministers must take these findings seriously. Councils must be sufficiently funded to recruit and retain social workers to ensure communities are properly protected.”

Responding the report, Steve Crocker, Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) President, said a decade plus of austerity and shrinking local government budgets have affected the ability of children’s services to help children and families at the earliest opportunity when the biggest difference to their life chances can be made.

“We urgently need properly and sustainably funded children’s services which will reduce demand for children’s social care and improve outcomes for children and families – we hope the Treasury is listening.”

“It is difficult to read that during the pandemic, when social workers, like our NHS colleagues, continued their critically important and often lifesaving work with children and families, too many also faced a rise in harassment and abuse against them.

“Social workers have a very challenging role, often in extremely difficult circumstances. If they are to do their jobs well, then they need to be protected from harassment and abuse in all its forms and to be confident that should they experience this that their employer and the police will take appropriate action.”

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