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PSW magazine survey highlights poor working conditions for social workers

Nearly two thirds of social workers who responded to a survey in PSW (Professional Social Work) magazine say their office is unfit for purpose.

Respondents to the magazine survey, published monthly by BASW, cited excess noise, lack of quiet space, vermin infestations, temperature extremes, poor lighting and problematic IT systems as having a negative impact on their job.

More than six out of ten respondents said they regularly have to use their car to make sensitive work-related phone calls and 15 per cent use the office toilets because of nowhere else to go.

Over 600 BASW members responded, revealing daily scrambles for workstations in ‘hot desk’ offices, typified by cramped and crumbling buildings at one extreme and noisy open plan “call centres” lacking privacy and often shared with non-social workers at the other.

Seven out of ten respondents said their office does not provide a quiet place for concentrated working, such as writing up complex reports. More than six out of ten said they had nowhere to make sensitive work-related phone calls. Seven per cent said they use their car for such purposes every day, 15 per cent at least once a week and 44 per cent occasionally.

Six respondents said they use the toilet daily for confidential phone calls (one per cent of the total); nearly three per cent at least once a week and almost 12 per cent said they do this occasionally.

Asked if they feel their office is a safe place to work, 31 per cent responded no, highlighting risks to their person, such as poor security, and to service users, such as lack of confidentiality.

Noise pollution was the concern most commonly cited by social workers, raised by more than 35 per cent of respondents. Hot desking came next, with nearly a quarter believing it negatively impacts on their ability to do their job.

Closely associated with the hot desking trend was a lack of desks, affecting 18 per cent of respondents, many of whom described having to trawl buildings searching for a workstation or even travelling to other sites. Offices that were either too hot, too cold or badly ventilated was an issue for one in five social workers.

Other problems included unsuitable IT and lack of space (both five per cent); not enough telephones (four per cent); bad lighting (1.5 per cent) and vermin (1.5 per cent). One social worker said of their workplace: “It is a condemned local authority building. Rat infested, with poison traps scattered everywhere. Fifty people work in one room; the noise is unbearable. There is no confidentiality; sensitive telephone calls are undertaken with hectic background noise. Report writing is impossible in such an environment and there are no alternative spaces to be able to undertake such work.”

Another said: “I have to find somewhere to work every day and spend half an hour looking for a desk. The noise levels are high, [it’s a] call centre environment with equipment that is often faulty and phone lines that cannot cope with the number of people there. I need to sit with my team as we co-work cases, but this is not always possible.” One worker complained of noise levels so high it was “like being in the middle of Euston Station which makes it impossible to think”. “When non-social workers complain about social workers, it is unlikely they realise the circumstances in which some of us work,” one respondent commented.

BASW England Manager Maris Stratulis said: “We know from visiting members in their workplace that there is a real disparity between the quality and location of social work offices. It’s sad that in 2015 we have social workers attempting to deliver high quality services within environments that do not reflect their worth and value.

“The LGA (Local Government Association) employer standards make it very clear there is a responsibility placed on local authorities to provide a safe and effective environment for social workers, which includes providing social workers with appropriate practical tools to do their job. While these standards are not mandatory, BASW considers it to be good practice and the mark of a responsible employer to implement them.”

The survey is published in the latest edition of PSW, out now.