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Social work leaders in Scotland call for ‘indicative caseload limits’ amid rising demand

A new report proposes ‘indicative caseload limits’ after finding that social work in Scotland is facing a ‘perfect storm’ of rising demand and a lack of understanding of the profession, at the same time as cuts to local authority budgets and increased administrative burdens.

08/06/22

Social work leaders in Scotland call for ‘indicative caseload limits’ amid rising demand

Social workers in Scotland should have ‘indicative caseload limits’, a new report proposes, warning urgent action is needed to support the workforce and train and recruit new professionals.

The report, conducted by Social Work Scotland, investigated the workforce’s capacity, looking at whether there are enough social workers to work with people in the way they’re trained to and build evidence on appropriate caseloads. It suggested that Children and Families Social Workers should have a maximum of 15 cases, while Adult and Criminal Justice social workers should have a maximum of 20 -25 cases.

Drawing on existing evidence and two surveys, with responses from more than 1,500 social work professionals – nearly 25% of the 6,000 which work in the public sector – professionals said that social work is facing real challenges in rising demand and a lack of understanding of the profession, made worse by the pandemic, cuts to local authority budgets and increased administrative burdens.

The survey found widespread variation in caseload sizes, from less than five to more than 50, which could be hidden amongst average caseload figures.

The report acknowledged that raw caseload figures was a crude measure of manageability, but Social Work Scotland said: “looking across responses as a whole, a clear relationship emerges, with the number of respondents reporting their caseloads as ‘hard to manage’ or ‘completely unmanageable’ increasing with caseload size.

“My caseload has been increasingly unmanageable over the past few years. I constantly feel like I am fire-fighting and delivering a poor standard of practice. This has led to me feeling burnt out and taking time off sick,” one respondent said.

While almost half of the survey respondents selected high caseloads as one of the least satisfying things about their work (47%), high administrative workload (78%) and lack of time for preventative work (65%) were greater sources of dissatisfaction.

Analysis in the report found that the size of the social work workforce in Scotland has remained relatively unchanged in recent years. However, administrative support has decreased by almost a third, and the sector now faces retention and recruitment challenges. It said that social work departments are facing significant challenges due to a combination of unprecedented financial pressures and the cost of implementing several new pieces of legislation simultaneously.

“Over time these interconnected factors have left much of the social work workforce with larger, more administratively demanding and less balanced caseloads comprising individuals with more challenging lives, often presenting higher levels of risk. At the same time there are fewer services available to connect people to. Any consideration of ‘caseload limits’ must keep sight of the bigger picture,” the report said.

The report also highlighted a ‘norm’ of working unpaid overtime at all levels and shared concerns about lack of opportunities for learning and development, particularly in context of multiple policy agendas. More than 70% of respondents to the survey said they worked additional hours most of the time – 90% said they never got paid for these extra hours.

A spokesperson for Social Work Scotland said that the issues raised in the report were not a surprise but were clear evidence to make a case for change.

“It’s clear from the report that social workers want to make a difference to people, and support them as policy and legislation aims set out.

“As developments for a National Care Service progress, and we continue to embed The Promise’s recommendations in the way we work, Setting the Bar can empower leaders to be clear about what we need in order to fully realise those ambitions.”

Responding to the report, Scottish Association of Social Workers (SASW) National Director, Alison Bavidge, said the report outlined the “wide-ranging and deep-seated problems facing social workers in Scotland.”

“Unmanageable caseloads are just the tip of the iceberg, with little career progression and structured personal development, lack of preventative work, unpaid overtime and excessive paperwork also prevalent.

“It all combines to create a perfect storm which is putting social workers under severe pressure, is damaging their mental health and risks crippling the profession as more people leave.

“The report shows that we must effectively and swiftly increase the workforce to meet demand […] Having an indicative caseload limit is the first step, but wider systematic change is required to improve working lives of social workers and better help all of us who need support from services.

SASW, Social Work Scotland and its members says it will use the evidence presented in the report in discussions with national agencies, organisations and the Scottish Government, and are working with them to address the issues highlighted.

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