How to deal with work overload

A Social Work Union Guide

My workload is spiralling out of control, caseloads are horrendous and I am struggling to cope. What should I do first, what if my employers aren’t sufficiently responsive and the problem persists or worsens, and what are my legal and professional obligations when I believe I am incapable, due to circumstances, of doing my job effectively?

The first action I would always advise someone to take is to go back to your manager and discuss it openly and frankly. This meeting ought to be recorded in some way or followed up by an email briefly detailing and confirming the manager’s response and agreed way forward. Additionally, the manager could help you to establish two things in the short term.

Firstly, what coping strategies are available? In this regard, there are several areas you and your manager could look at together in a recorded supervision session:
What cases can be closed or reallocated
Whether there may be ways in which you can better manage your time
Whether there are other working methods which would help – for example, tele-conferencing Whether some of your time can be freed up

What a worker should not accept is being told that the work has to be done, or that other workers are managing equivalent workloads so you must accept it and just get on with it. Your employer has a duty of care to you, its employee, and has to exercise that duty. Unfortunately, many social workers find themselves in this situation, and it may be an example of an unacceptable bullying culture. If you find yourself in this situation you must record your dissatisfaction. Clearly state that you will not take personal responsibility for any risks or mistakes arising from the situation.

However, there is always a chance that the problem described may be as a result of a social worker’s abilities and competence. Different workers have different abilities: for example, some can write a report for court, safeguarding conference or tribunal relatively quickly, while others take longer. Your manager should understand this and consider it in the support offered. If you consider you need training in, for example, how to improve your report writing, it’s not an unreasonable request to make.

The other thing you should avoid doing (and many have done this) is just to absorb the work and extend your working hours. The European Working Time Directive states that adult workers cannot be forced to work more than 48 hours a week on average – this is normally averaged over 17 weeks. You can work more than 48 hours in one week, as long as the average over 17 weeks is less than 48 hours per week. And quite apart from legal considerations, remember that most social workers do not routinely get paid for working over their contractual hours.

Many hard-pressed social workers might respond to this advice by saying that this suggested approach is all very well in theory but that few practitioners operate in a world of perfect employment and it isn’t always easy to challenge an employer. Of course it is not easy and first line managers are often under extreme pressure and will, in all probability, have to take responsibility if the work is not done. But the risks to a professional of not alerting an employer to serious workload concerns need also to be considered. If there is a serious incident or safeguarding issue resulting in harm to a vulnerable service user, and a social worker’s action or lack of action is considered to be a contributory factor, the practitioner may well find themselves in trouble with the employer, the regulator or both. Equally, in many very high profile cases (Victoria Climbié and Khyra Ishaq to name two) the team manager was held by the employer to be responsible for the failings, as well as the lead social worker. As such it is imperative that the managers take caseload concerns to their managers, who may be in a better position to ease the team burden with the consideration of extra staff on a temporary or permanent basis if there is no other option.

The important advice is to ensure every conversation is recorded in detail. And though it is not a comfortable option, and not one I would recommend as a first action, employees do have the right to submit a grievance where they have serious concerns about the situation, either as an individual or a group.

Finally, remember that as a BASW member you are signed up to the Association’s Code of Ethics, which places an expectation on you to act in the best interests of service users. A social worker who is unable to safely discharge their duties because of stress and overwork will inevitably fall shy of this quite proper requirement.

Published : 2nd January 2012*

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* Although BASW has prepared the information contained within Social Work Knowledge with all due care and updates the information regularly, BASW does not warrant or represent that the information is free from errors or omission. Whilst the information is considered to be true and correct at the date of publication, changes in circumstances after the time of publication may impact on the accuracy of the information. The information may change without notice and BASW is not in any way liable for the accuracy of any information printed and stored or in any way interpreted and used by a user.