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People using services ‘paying high price’ for poor social work conditions

Poor working conditions for social workers risk putting them in situations where “they’re going to make mistakes”.

The warning came during a Q&A and panel discussion during BASW’s annual UK conference in Cardiff.

Janet Foulds, a children’s social worker, told panellists she feared the impact of some practitioners facing “impossible caseloads” and being increasingly isolated from teams by policies like hotdesking.

“We’re putting workers into situations where they’re going to make mistakes…we need to get the balance back,” she said, voicing her support for BASW England’s ‘80/20 campaign’ to give practitioners more time for direct work with families.

“From my personal perspective, children are actually paying a very high price for social workers being stuck behind their computers,” she added.

Malcolm Jordan, another delegate, said council cutbacks had left social workers struggling to get basic tools for the job.

“You spend half an hour trying to find somewhere to park. Then you get into the office and there’s no desk space. Then the next step was to take telephones away – so you’re just using your mobile. The next step was to take the printers away, so if you’ve got something confidential you need to queue up to get it printed.

“The effect of all of this is to encourage people to work from home – and that means you’re increasingly isolated. If you’ve had a really bad visit or a really bad day you can’t share it and get support from your colleagues.”

Panel member Shelley Caldwell, a principal social worker in a children’s services department, said practitioners had heard lots of commentary in recent years about the need to develop their own resilience in the face of stressful conditions.

“The difficulty with that message is that then the responsibility only rests with us. And that’s actually not fair because it needs to be that our organisations themselves are resilient and promote resilience within them.”

Caldwell urged social workers to relay concerns to their principal social workers (PSWs) if they have one and, if they don’t, urge their employers to appoint a PSW.

“We [PSWs] can often be that conduit between those who are delivering services and those at director level. It’s essential we help get those social work voices heard when people are feeling overburdened.

“See if you can start a social work participation forum too. Voices are far more powerful when they’re a collective.”

Donald Forrester, professor of social work at Cardiff University, said social work needed to “push back” against bureaucratic demands that “squeeze out” essential time to reflect on practice. He said authorities that had prioritised direct work and protected time for reflection had benefitted those working with and using services.

“The impact seems to be that it reduces the number of children coming into care. Because you’re spending less time on admin and more time thinking ‘what do we actually need to do and why are we doing it?’ you’re being more purposeful and less responsive.

“Part of the compelling argument for this is not just ‘don’t give us all of this admin’. It is ‘if you give us time to really think and reflect we will deliver a better service that makes more of a difference to the children, families and adults we work with’.”