A quarter of social workers crying or feeling unwell due to work at least once a week

Half of social workers are considering leaving their post due to the emotional effect of rising caseloads, a new survey for the Social Workers Union has found.

25/01/22

A quarter of social workers crying or feeling unwell due to work at least once a week

Almost two-thirds (58%) of social workers say their caseloads are unmanageable and putting vulnerable service suers at risk, according research for Social Workers Union (SWU) and LBC Radio.

Almost all social workers (97%) said that the vulnerable would be better protected if caseloads were lighter, with the Union now calling for urgent action to better support front-line social workers.

The vast majority of respondents (94%) said they expected to see referrals increase over the next twelve months, with more than two-thirds (71%) saying they expected to be “inundated”.

However, increasing caseloads are already pushing social workers to the brink. Eight out of ten (82%) social workers said they suffer from stress at work with two-thirds (65%) saying that their mental health is suffering because of their job. A quarter (24%) admitted to finding themselves suffering an emotional response – either crying or feeling unwell – to their work at least once a week, resulting in half of social workers considering leaving their posts.

Speaking to researchers, one social worker from the West Midlands said she was at one point responsible for a caseload of fifty children at one time, more than double the recommended amount.

“I felt like I was just a walking zombie. I wasn’t sleeping, but I was still getting up the next day and getting on with it. It took its toll,” she said, explaining that the stress made her physically unwell to the point where she was signed off work by her doctor.

“We need more staff to bring caseloads down,” another social worker said. “A 60 hour week when you are paid for only 35 means we are practically on minimum wage. We need to be looked after by the services we work for. Our job is unsafe and unhealthy."

The survey comes after recent Government and media scrutiny following the tragic deaths of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson. In the last 18 months almost half (48%) of social workers have raised concerns about cases where they don't believe appropriate action was taken. Of these, a third (29%) have highlighted more than 5 cases in that time.

Emma Lewell-Buck, Labour MP for South Shields and a former children’s social worker, who shadowed Nadhim Zahawi – currently the Education Secretary – during his time as Children’s Minister said she warned him that stretched social work services would lead to the loss of lives, and that she was ignored.

“Nobody can sustain on that level of lack of sleep and that level of work and that level of trauma without missing something.

“Working long hours takes its toll on self and my own family life,” one social worker told the survey, adding: “Recent media coverage puts the onus on social workers failing and blaming people who often make a positive difference in many children’s lives.”

“Raising concerns about the lack of action on cases is the norm, however with lack of resources it is difficult to take the right action at the right time sometimes. Managers here listen to us but it's the way the system is and we have had to learn to accept it most of the time,” another said.

John McGowan, General Secretary of the Social Workers Union, said the member survey has highlighted what the reality of being a social worker in 2022 is and reflects the pressures its members are presently under.

“It is a great concern that half of social workers are considering leaving the profession due to the pressures of the work and the impact the work is having on their mental health.

“Social work intervention can greatly improve the quality of life and opportunities for the children, families, adults and communities we support 24/7. However, it is fair to say that unless the pressures we are under are addressed we will not be able to reach the very people who need our service and support.”

Responding to the survey, the Department for Education said it was investing in fast-track recruitment and training programmes. It added that councils are being given a share of £4.8bn in grants for front-line services such as children’s social work.

The survey was carried out between 10-17 January 2022 with 824 social workers and Social Workers Union members responding.

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