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Rising vacancy rate among children's social workers shows toll of Covid working, says BASW

Seven per cent annual leap in England also due to workers delaying retirement or job change to support famliies, says DfE

Published by Professional Social Work magazine, 25 February, 2022

The strain of working during Covid-19 was cited by the British Association of Social Workers as partly to blame for a seven per cent annual leap in vacancies among children and family social workers in England.

Social workers delaying retiring or moving jobs to continue supporting children was also a reason for the rise, said the Department for Education (DfE).

On 30 September 2021 there were 6,500 full-time equivalent children and family social work posts vacant – 16.7 per cent of the 32,502 total. That compares to 6,100 vacancies for the same time in 2020 when it was 16.1 per cent of the workforce.

The vacancy rate is the highest since 2017 when comparable data was first collated.

Sickness absences were also up from 2.9 per cent to 3.1 per cent, but this does not account for reduced capacity due to staff shielding or self-isolating.

The heavy toll of the pandemic on the workforce has been highlighted by numerous surveys, including a study by the DfE itself.

Its ongoing analysis of retention and career progression found 60 per cent of children’s social workers felt stressed by their job between September and December 2020, up nine per cent compared to November 2018 to March 2019. More than two-thirds said anxiety, complexity of cases and workloads had increased as a result of Covid.

A survey by the Social Workers Union (SWU) and LBC Radio earlier this year found 58 per cent of 1,000 social workers said their caseloads unmanageable. Most (94 per cent) expected referrals to increase as a result of the pandemic, with 71 per cent predicting to be “inundated”.

A snapshot survey of 213 social workers carried out by the Social Workers’ Benevolent Trust last June found three-quarters felt emotionally and mentally exhausted.

A working conditions survey by the British Association of Social Workers and SWU found nearly 40 per cent of more than 3,421 social workers thinking of quitting the profession in 2018 due to stress and workloads even before the pandemic.

Maris Stratulis, national director of BASW England, said the latest vacancy rate rise among social workers with children and families should come as no surprise.

“We know from our own members the huge impact Covid-19 has had and continues to have on social workers, not only professionally but personally.

“Many have had to cope with sickness and loss within their own families while supporting vulnerable children and adults in a period of unprecedented complexity.

“At the same, we have seen an increase in pressure on families caused by the pandemic,  lockdowns, caring responsibilities, job insecurity and now the rising cost of living.

“The interventions that social workers provide are arguably now needed more than ever. We must ensure the workforce is properly resourced, given the conditions to do the relational work we know makes all the difference and properly valued and supported.”

The DfE said there are currently “more social workers than ever” and average caseloads have dropped from 17.8 per cent to 16.3 since 2017.

A spokesman added: “To help social workers remain resilient and stay in the profession, local authorities have access to a number of mental health services to support their social workers

"We also organise peer-to-peer support sessions for social workers to help them share best practice and the challenges they face.”