A BBC Freedom of Information request has found a rise in the number of social workers taking long-term ‘sick leave’ due to emotional well-being and mental health issues. They found the number of social workers taking time off work for at least a month rose from 1,537 in 2012-13 to 1,911 in 2016-17, in 135 UK councils.
A British Association of Social Workers (BASW) study suggested more than half of workers are thinking about quitting. The association questioned 1,268 social workers and of those who were considering their positions, the main reasons given were poor employment conditions; particularly high caseloads, poor management and long hours.
Ruth Allen, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, said: “This rise in people taking leave for mental health problems is a concern but isn’t really a surprise.
“Social workers often tell us of poor working conditions and our recent joint study with the Bath Spa University and the Social Workers Union showed over half of social workers have thoughts of leaving their role within 18 months due to poor employment conditions, particularly high caseloads, poor management and working very long hours – a combination the study indicates is leading to burnout.
“A healthy, productive public sector cannot be maintained if the workforce has a turnover over rate of 30% as is the case in some social services departments.”
Barbara Keeley, Labour’s shadow cabinet minister for mental health and social care, said: “Cuts to adult social care budgets are set to reach £6.3bn by March this year while the funding gap for children’s social care is expected to reach £2bn by 2020. This is putting unbearable pressure on social workers, who are left administering those cuts to care packages.”
A government spokesperson said: “We know social workers work incredibly hard to support both adults and children in need and we take their welfare very seriously. “Employers need to do more to protect their staff’s mental health at work which is why we are encouraging organisations to promote awareness of wellbeing.”
Not a surprise
For some social work practitioners, such figures will not come as a surprise. There has been an increased use of ‘sick leave’ for a number of years to deal with the emotional challenges and lack of appropriate support that social workers face in some areas on a daily basis.
Not all ‘doom and gloom’
However, it is not all ‘doom and gloom’; as a profession, there a number of excellent social work projects, employers and services. For example, we recently reported how nine local authorities were changing adult social care by developing community-led social work practice. The results thus far indicate improved staff morale, quicker response time for those seeking support as well as improved budget savings.
In recent years we have also seen a significant increase in the number of support groups for social workers ranging from ASYEs to experienced practitioners that recognise, promote and focus on the need for self-care and a healthier work-life balance. We have seen how the development of new technology can help (note: not replace) the work we do as well as an increased investment from local authorities and agencies in their learning and development programmes.
As such, the future can be bright for social work. However, we must first address and support those social workers at crisis point. We must give them an active voice in the decision making process and equip them with the right skills and tools so as they can feel confident in supporting those assessed as need. Because, if you look after your staff, they’ll look after your ‘customer’…