Cuts in Social Services budgets laid bare in accounts of ‘Day in the life of social workers’

Personal accounts of the tough day to day life of social work staff across the country are laid bare in Social Work Watch* – a new report from UNISON, the UK’s largest union.

The difficulties that social workers face are fuelled by official figures showing that councils cut spending on social services staff – from social workers to care assistants –  by £746m (adults) and £147m (children) between 2010/11 and 2012/13,  as central government cut more than £5 billion from the grants it made to local councils.

The impact of the cuts on children and adults is revealed in stark reality as social workers struggle to support and protect those in need against all the odds. Overall 61% of those surveyed said that their ability to make a difference day to day was affected by cuts to budgets and resources.

UNISON is calling for a range of measures to stop unnecessary suffering, but success hinges on a reversal of swingeing budget cuts.  They may create short term savings, but at far greater cost both financially and socially in the longer term, warns the union.

Extra financial support from Government would crucially enable councils to employ more social workers to tackle dangerous case-load levels, that currently make it impossible for social work staff to do their jobs effectively.  It would also allow investment in early intervention services which are cost effective by helping people early on so their needs don’t escalate. Survey respondents spoke of seeing people going to jail or back to hospital, and children staying in the child protection system longer – all of which could have been avoided if they had got help earlier.

The survey showed that at the end of the day 42% of respondents left work with serious concerns about one or more of their cases. 30% of these raised serious concerns about not being able to spend time with a particular child, adult or family.  This is despite working on average a 9-hour day –  up to 16 hours in some cases – catching up on paperwork at home, and with 84% having no proper break during the day.

Helga Pile, UNISON National Officer for Social Workers said:

“We see a lot of crocodile tears from this Government over the plight of children in care, or in need of protection, and over the growing number of elderly needing support.  Social work staff are crucial to delivering that care and protection. They are often the only people who can stop vulnerable adults and children suffering mental and physical harm, crisis and despair. Yet they are being hampered on a daily basis by cuts from this very same Government.

“Some of the accounts from social workers of what they face daily make for harrowing reading. We see workers struggling against the odds, but also making an incredible difference to the quality of many people’s lives.  If the political will was there, we could bring in far more early intervention that would result in long term financial benefits as well as helping to turn people’s lives round.”

The results of unmanageable case-loads and shrinking resources are clear from comments from front-line social workers.  However, shining through the whole report are success stories that literally change lives and bring new hope to some of the most vulnerable.

“I secured a warm, safe and loving environment for a baby to grow and develop.”

“This woman will now have a secure tenancy in a safe living environment. The sheltered housing will enable her to get out of hospital and promote her independence.  She is 90 and so happy.”

“I am working with a man who, when visiting for the first time, was living in squalor, eating out of bins and very unkempt – neglecting all personal and nutritional care.  I feel the work I have done with this gentleman in the last 8 weeks has made a vast difference to his life. Before the death of his wife this man was a pillar of the community, much respected by all.”

On the other hand, other accounts tell how difficult it is getting to keep making a difference when resources are continually cut back:

“I had to settle for a cheaper independent fostering placement rather than a more expensive one where a young person could have been placed with a sibling.  Now we have a temporary placement that will result in further moves and increased emotional harm.”

“My case-load is very high and does not allow me to effectively plan for families.  This means that children are involved in services for longer and the harm/abuse they experience is likely to continue for longer.”

“A third of my team’s staff has been cut, whilst extra work has been passed to the team.  Because I am not able to visit and support service users this will inevitably result in them being detained in hospital again.  This could have been avoided if I’d had the time.”

Key Report findings

·                 On average respondents were responsible for 22 active cases.

·                 52% said their case-load size was affected by covering for staff shortages e.g.vacancies or long-term sick.

·                 Nearly three quarters had no formal system for measuring their case-load and ensuring their workload was safe.

·                 Just 29% of employers used a formal case-load/workload management system – even where a formal system existed 39% said their case-load on the day was over that limit.

·                 44% of staff in children’s services covered by a case-load management system were currently “over the limit”.

·                 The average case-load for newly qualified social workers was 83% of the average of social workers.

Charter for change

1.    National governments must urgently focus on how to provide extra funding to enable more manageable working conditions in social work – they should not get distracted by tinkering with professional regulation, changing initial education or pursuing unpopular privatisation agendas. 

2.    Employers should maintain a register where instances of unmet need are logged together with details of how they create greater cost and demand on services further down the line – this will provide an important evidence base to support the political and economic case for ongoing additional funding for social work services.

3.    There must be an urgent injection of funding to stabilise services together with a statutory duty and resources to provide early help – this will avoid the unnecessary costs associated with waiting till people reach crisis when an early intervention can deal with need at lower cost.

4.    Effective workload management for social work staff is critical and should be a statutory requirement in all services – it is dangerous that nearly three-quarters of respondents had no system for ensuring that their case-load was safe and manageable. The latest evidence from Ofsted confirms what has long been known, that high case-loads make it impossible for social workers to protect people, whereas well-functioning councils have systems for close monitoring of workloads. Social workers should have an alternative route to raise concerns when they believe their case-load is at dangerous levels, outside the normal line management route.

5.    All social work services should be required to regularly publish data on average case-loads so that they can be held to account for the consequences when case-loads are allowed to spiral upwards.

6.    Governments must do more to publicly promote the value of social work and the difference it makes to people’s lives – regular publication and dissemination of positive stories such as those in this report will boost understanding and public support for the difficult work social work staff do. 

7.    Employers should introduce work-life balance measures to ease the toll that social work takes on practitioners’ personal and family lives – this will reap benefits in improved retention of social workers, and savings in recruitment and training costs associated with high turnover and burn-out rates. 


*Social Work Watch – inside an average day in social work.  How social work staff support and protect people against all the odds.