Social workers at breaking point with half at risk of quitting, warns UNISON

Unacceptable levels of pressure on social work teams will end up costing lives.

Excessive workloads, high stress levels and low morale are rife among social workers who are at breaking point, according to a new report published today (Monday) by UNISON.

The report – Social work and the impact of the Covid pandemic – is based on a survey of nearly 3,000 social workers across the UK. It sheds light on the working conditions of social workers, and limitations on the help they are able to give vulnerable families.

Staff shortages (93%), unmanageable caseloads (90%) and long hours (80%) are identified by social workers as major concerns affecting their ability to do their job​s, according to the union.

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.

Many face threats of violence to not only them, but ​to their families ​too, from frustrated families in desperate need of support. Social workers described being ‘grabbed and pushed’, receiving death threats and being told by those they’re helping that their houses would be burned down.

More than three quarters (78%) of social workers said they had experienced increased stress levels and 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.

Four in ten (44%) believed harassment and abuse have increased during the pandemic, while a similar number (45%) said they had experienced emotional distress. As many as 78% worry about being blamed publicly in connection with cases.

One worker said: “We get so much blame and hostility, but we have no protection. 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.”

While the recommendations of the recent MacAlister review address serious failings in England, the union says councils and the government must do much more to ensure safe services for children.

UNISON general secretary Christina McAnea said: “Unacceptable levels of pressure on social work teams will end up costing lives. 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.”

Notes to editors
– UNISON is calling on the government to invest properly in social work so families in need can receive help in good time. This must also allow social workers to operate in a safe environment, free from bullying and harassment.
– The full report is available here. The survey was conducted between 24 January and 22 February 2022. A total of 2​,949 social workers responded to the survey.
– UNISON’s social work manifesto ​looks at five key ways governments, regulators and employers can support the workforce.
– Comments from social workers (names have been changed to protect identities) who took part in the survey include:
“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.” Emma, social worker
“We do not have enough workers and resources to meet demand.” Gina, social worker
“We are having to deal with service users in extreme distress and they are often frustrated by a lack of services so they vent their anger at us.” James, consultant social worker
“I’m currently off sick due to being physically assaulted by a service user. He also threatened me. I asked over a period of three months to work elsewhere and this didn’t happen. He then assaulted me again.” Hayley, social work assistant/support worker
“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.” Mike, senior social worker
“It is difficult to keep experienced social workers in post which means we have to provide a service with fewer staff. This means a poorer service for families, and delays, which mean we’re dealing with crisis instead of early intervention. I regularly work late to do my job and I’m exhausted which affects my personal life.” Monica, social worker
– UNISON’s national local government conference, takes place on Sunday and Monday at the Brighton Centre. Social work pressure and pay are among the issues that will be debated.
– UNISON is the UK’s largest union with more than 1.3 million members providing public services in education, local government, the NHS, police service and energy. They are employed in the public, voluntary and private sectors.