Skip to main content

UK Social Workers: Working Conditions and Wellbeing 2017

Stress at work is a significant issue for employees in all employment sectors. Indeed work stress has been shown to be related to negative health complaints such as cardiovascular disease and increased burnout symptomology, and affects productivity and other organisational outcomes. Workplace stress is therefore the biggest cause of long-term sickness absence in the UK public sector (i.e. that which lasts longer than 4 weeks) and the second biggest cause of short term sickness absence behind illnesses such as colds and flu. It costs the UK economy greatly each year, equating to approximately £800 per employee employed each year in many sectors. However, while it is widely agreed that social work may be one of the most stressful occupations in the country, particularly in a rapidly changing political environment, working conditions which may lead to stress have never been investigated with respect to stress in this occupation.

The aims of this project are therefore as follows:

  1. To investigate stress levels in UK social workers.
  2. To investigate differences in stress experienced by social workers in different job roles.
  3.  investigate the ‘working conditions’ faced by UK social workers.
  4. To demonstrate how satisfied social workers are with their role, the how many are seeking to leave the role in the next 12 months, and the level of presenteeism in the job role.
  5.  To demonstrate how the working conditions that social workers are exposed to influence stress, job satisfaction, turnover intentions, and presenteeism.

It was found that working conditions for social workers across the UK, irrespective of job role, are extremely poor. The only possible exception to this is peer support, i.e. the support that social workers received from colleagues.

Overall however we found that irrespective of the job role in this sector, the demands that individuals had on their time was consistently found to be related to increased levels of stress, intentions to leave the job, job satisfaction, and presenteeism. Therefore the sheer amount of work, and diversity of work required of UK social workers, was consistently found to influence these outcomes. These survey results are backed up by comments left by respondents to the project – in particular respondents described the sheer number of cases, and too much administrative work, were the two types of work demand which needed significant improvement.

Furthermore the influence of ethnicity and having a disability was investigated. First of all, social workers who are non-white and British described that this often allowed them to take a different perspective to their role in social work, and in particular have a greater understanding of the influence of the different cultures of service users. However, respondents also described that there was a culture of institutional racism, which played against non-white employees. With respect to those social workers with a disability, respondents described a lack of understanding from management and colleagues within their organisation, and others also described a lack of reasonable adjustments for their disability at work.

It is concluded here that urgent action needs to be taken to reduce the demands faced by social workers across the UK. Indeed, evidence is provided here to demonstrate that without improving on the caseload and administrative demands of the role (particularly for children’s and adult’s social

workers), a large proportion of social workers may leave the role across the next 18 months.