Majority of children’s social workers report working more than their contracted hours

Three quarters of children and family social workers say they are working more than their contracted hours either ‘all the time’ or ‘most weeks’, working an average of five hours per week more than contracted.

16/07/21

Majority of children’s social workers report working more than their contracted hours

Three-quarters (75%) of social workers reported working more than their contracted hours to keep up with their workload, a Department for Education study has found.

Local authority children and family social workers were contracted to work an average of 35 hours per week but the average number of hours they reported that they actually worked was 40, the study found.

The study found that social workers in their Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (ASYE), worked even further above their contracted hours, working an average of 43 hours per week.

The figures were released in the third annual ‘wave’ of the five-year study commissioned by the Department for Education in 2018 to track the careers of local authority child and family social workers in England. A consortium of researchers, working with social work academics at Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Salford aimed to collect evidence on recruitment, retention, and progression of a group of social workers over a five-year period, with yearly updates.

The number of hours worked by social workers above their contracted hours showed a drop from the previous wave of research, which found that social workers were working on average 42 hours per week while contracted on average to work 35.

Researchers said evidence from the qualitative answers identified increased home working, reduced travelling time and more virtual meetings, due to COVID-19, as having a positive impact on working hours. They warned however that despite these positives, there were drawbacks for social workers in terms of blurred boundaries between work and home life.

In terms of reported actual hours worked, Senior Service Managers, Directors and Team Managers worked the longest hours compared to other job roles. These roles were also more likely to report working more than 40 hours in a typical week compared with the average social worker. More than a third of Directors and Team Managers reported typically working 46+ hours per week.

The research also identified that the team manager role was made more complicated by working on a fully remote basis, and that this could lead to extra work. Speaking to researchers, one team manager said she needed to move to a new job without supervisory responsibilities due to feeling ‘burnt out’ by her experiences in the pandemic.

“What I've struggled with more than anything is the dynamics within teams, the virtual working, the being able to support people virtually has been difficult. But it creates a lot of complexities as well in terms of managing people's performance.

“Managing the dynamics of a team, in terms of [people saying]: ‘They're doing this, they're not doing that,' and created a real imbalance for people with regards to welfare.”

Social workers in local authorities which Ofsted rated as ‘inadequate’ were more likely than those working in other authorities to report working more than 45 hours per week. More than a third (36%) of social workers in ‘inadequate’ authorities said they worked these long hours, compared to less than one quarter (24%) reporting working 45+ hours per week in ‘outstanding’ rated authorities.

Some practice areas also felt the burden of working long hours more than others. More than four in ten workers in Children in Need (44%) and Looked After Children (43%) teams, said they were working overtime ‘all the time’, compared to less than a third reporting the same while working in fostering (27%) and kinship care (32%).

Social workers who identified as Black or Black-British were also found to be more likely to work overtime ‘all the time’ with almost half (48%) reporting working above their contracted hours compared with 39% on average. However, researchers said this may be partly explained by social workers who identified as Black or Black-British being more likely to be working in local authorities rated as ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted, and in the ‘Children in Need’ area of practice, which both reported higher rates of working overtime ‘all the time’.

Overall, self-reported stress levels for social workers have increased since the previous year’s research, with COVID-19 adding extra pressure.

“There has been an increase in the proportion of local authority child and family social workers who report feeling stressed by their job and that their overall workload is too high,” the report said.

“The impacts of COVID-19 on social workers’ experiences have been challenging in terms of increased feelings of stress and anxiety, more complex cases, and depleted relationships with colleagues and service users, particularly for ASYE social workers.”

Researchers said the impacts on relationships with colleagues were “concerning” due to previous evidence on the importance of these relationships in boosting social workers’ resilience.

Despite this, the majority say they plan to continue working in the profession. Almost three-quarters anticipated remaining in the profession and being directly employed by a local authority in 12 months’ time, and just one in twenty expected to be working outside of social work altogether.

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