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Survey reveals high caseloads, disillusion and support for a BASW college

Almost a quarter of social workers are handling more than 30 cases at once and 56% have seriously considered leaving the profession during the last year, a BASW survey on The State of Social Work Today has found.

Social work respondents to an online survey were clear that the priorities for improving the way they work are reducing caseloads and recruiting more social workers to make the job manageable, with a combined 58% highlighting these two prescriptions as the most pressing requirement.

Social workers also offered a clear message of support for BASW’s plan for an independent College of Social Work. Ninety-three per cent support the idea of a UK college and 91% said they felt BASW should take the lead in developing the institution. Explaining their stance, one respondent stated: “This is sorely needed – social work needs a more confident and positive view of itself. It needs to have a coherent and well established academic foundation to do this.”

Among the 395 respondents to the online poll, carried out during March 2010, 215 offered comments on why they had considered leaving the profession, many of them damning assessments of intolerable pressures. “Disillusioned and burnt out,” one said. Another respondent stated: “I left my local authority last year with 42 cases and no admin support.”

Other comments included a social worker who felt “stressed and undervalued”, while the views of another reflected a widespread concern about the possible implications of the way many social workers are working: “Too much working with computers, not enough seeing clients. This makes me anxious given the high level of risk.”

There was evidence of employers offering sufficient levels of support to the majority of their workforce, with 71% feeling happy with the level of training received over the past year and 64% expressing satisfaction with the level of supervision.

Alarming gaps remain evident, however, with 8% of social workers having received no supervision sessions whatsoever in the last year and 4% just once. Levels of continuous professional development also suggest cause for concern, as 68% of social workers received less than 30 hours professional development in the last year, despite the fact that practitioners need to undertake 90 hours Post Registration Training and Learning (PRTL) over three years to maintain their registration.

Pay and workload offer little respite. Social workers who completed the online survey revealed that on average they undertake a day a week of unpaid work, completing 39 hours compared with a contracted average working week of just 32 hours. For children and families social workers the figure was even higher, with staff giving an extra eight hours a week over their contractual arrangement. Among the 210 children and families work respondents, slightly more (60%) had considered leaving social work during the past year than the overall sample (56%).

Alarmingly, among new recruits to the profession the statistics are all too similar, with 54% of those in their first five years in social work having considered moving on over the past 12 months. Eighteen per cent of this crop of professionals are managing caseloads in excess of 30 cases, suggesting little added protection for inexperienced social workers, and explaining why 41% of them make the need for lighter caseloads a clear priority for action – 12% higher than for the wider social work workforce.

Social workers in the first years of their careers also work longer hours than many of their colleagues, with an average of 43.5 hours, compared to a contracted average of 35 hours.

Sixty-nine mental health social workers responded to the survey, revealing working weeks lower than the average across social work and slightly fewer having considered leaving the profession over the past year (47%) than across the whole survey. Less positively, 10% said they had received no supervision at all during the past year.

Mental health social workers also deviated from the wider survey findings in their priorities for improving the quality of their working lives, with 26% pointing to the need for more social work staff and for better pay, in preference to lighter caseloads, which 20% said would help their work most.

Across the whole sample of 395 social workers, 53% stated that they feel they are poorly or very poorly paid.