Soaring workloads can make a tough job unbearable, say children’s social workers
"I have never experienced such intense stress," Charlie* recalls. "I went from being newly qualified into a small team, where I was handed loads of cases I didn’t have the skills or experience for."
No one goes into child protection work looking for an easy ride. But for Charlie, a social worker who until recently worked at Bristol council, the first months of the job proved "hellish".
Only weeks into the job, one visit to a family left Charlie feeling "dangerous and like I didn't know what I was doing".
"I felt demoralised and resentful – questioning what I was doing," Charlie says. "I was put in a situation where I was not supported, and with hindsight I should have asked, or said no – but it was a decision made by a manager at the time."
While Charlie's tale is particularly scary, the feeling of being overwhelmed by the job is common among social workers. That's especially true within frontline children's services teams, which in many places have seen the numbers of families they work with who are put on child protection plans or go through care proceedings soar.
Recently published research carried out on behalf of the Department for Education (DfE), which surveyed nearly 6,000 practitioners, found just over half (51%) felt stressed by the job. The same proportion said they were overworked.
Notably, 70% of those with just two to three years' experience describing themselves as stressed while 60% said their caseload was excessive.
Those numbers sit in the context of years of austerity and a chronic national workforce shortage in children's social work, which disturbingly is often referenced by investigations carried out when children die or suffer serious harm.
At any given time, dozens of councils will be trying to carry out the crucial work of safeguarding at-risk children with teams staffed mostly with temps. Those agency staff may leave at the drop of a hat, disrupting relationships with families and leaving colleagues suddenly drowning in work.
Neither Bristol council nor any of its direct neighbours are currently in crisis of the type described above. But social workers at local councils have told the Cable that the picture of people facing burnout within a few years, is all too familiar.
‘Families were not getting the service they deserve’
After qualifying, new social workers are meant to be eased into the role via their assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE). This is supposed to provide them with opportunities to learn and reflect on the job, while handling a caseload that reflects their abilities.
The researchers behind the recent DfE report – which is the first chapter in a five-year study – concluded that peak stress levels reported by those with a couple of years’ experience probably coincide with this protection tailing off.
But for most of the social workers we speak to – while not quite experiencing the same baptism of fire as Charlie – there was little sense of being given time and space to find their feet.
"I don’t think the ASYE really meant anything – I had child protection cases in my first few months, court work way before the year came to an end, and a lack of supervision very early on," says Ali, who works for Bath and North East Somerset (BaNES) council. "There was little practical difference [in terms of stress levels] when I came out of my ASYE."
At Bristol council, which has struggled in recent years with patchy Ofsted reports and high turnover in some teams, social worker Jordan, who’s been there several years, similarly describes the ASYE as a "non event".
"There's lots of paperwork you have to do – it's supposed to demonstrate extra support, and be you reflecting – but for me it was just filling forms to say I have done X, Y and Z without any actual extra support," Jordan explains.
"I look back at things I was left to get on with and think, 'Wow, I would not do that now'," Jordan adds. "There were families, at the beginning, who were not getting the service [from me] they deserved."
A rare contrast is provided by Ellis, who works at South Gloucestershire council, which has had to spend on improving children's services after a disastrous inspection in 2016. Caseloads for newly-qualified social workers start low before being slowly raised over nine months or so, Ellis says.
But even Ellis, who admits to being lucky to be in a settled team, with a “great” manager, says the context of a "lack of time, lack of resources" makes the job increasingly stressful.
Local authorities have, broadly speaking, maintained their spending on children's services during the past decade of austerity and deep budget cuts.
But a National Audit Office report from earlier this year found that the percentage of children's services budgets going on vital preventative services – for example Sure Start centres, which have closed in their hundreds nationwide – dropped from 41% to 25% between 2011-12 and 2017-18.
In the same timespan, child protection assessments rose by 77% and plans by 26%. Meanwhile the numbers of children taken into care went up 15%, with 91% of councils overspending their children's services budgets.
Social workers at BaNES recall a time several years ago when the council – which is rated 'good' by Ofsted but has seen numbers of children in care rise by 40% in five years – became "overwhelmed" by child protection cases and court proceedings.
"My manager went off – we had a period with one team manager overstretched," says Leigh, who worked in child protection at BaNES at the time. "Quickly you get a domino effect where people get stressed and leave, or go sick, their families get reallocated and everyone gets more swamped.
"I remember feeling like I was on a treadmill all week – it was high-adrenaline, just get through it, crash, recover at the weekend and then get back on the treadmill," Leigh says. "Looking back, I'm not sure how I survived."
'Whatever I am doing, I never complete it'
Ultimately it's the intensity of that load, rather than any emotional drain from working with children and families in crisis, that social workers cite as the main reason many colleagues end up burning out.
A survey of more than a thousand social workers this year by Unison found half were considering leaving the profession for something less stressful, with 95% saying they felt unable to do their job properly due to the impact of austerity. It highlighted the burden of paperwork and other bureaucracy that can stand in the way of actually getting things done with children and families.
"Every week I'm over my hours, some weeks you do seven days," says Ali. "You have to make peace with the fact that you will never get close to the end of your to-do-list and will be out of timescales for some things. Whatever I am doing, I never complete what the job is."
Several people we interview say they were ultimately unable to find that peace – and chose to leave frontline child protection work, though they are still social workers.
"I feel better able to do meaningful work [with children] now," says Charlie, who has moved to another South West council and does longer-term work with children already in the care system.
Those who have stayed at the sharp end say they are among a minority left from peer groups who only began work at councils within the last three or four years – meaning their teams lack a well of experience newer recruits can draw on.
None of the social workers in this article have plans to leave their jobs at the moment. But some highlight factors that could quickly change – such as a culture held in place by a supportive manager, or a lull in turnover within their team – as being the main thing keeping them there.
Asked by the Cable about the support now in place to help social workers, Jacqui Jensen, Bristol council's executive director of people services, points to the city's relatively low numbers of agency staff as evidence that the authority looks after its employees.
"During their ASYE social workers are supported by a senior learning and development officer and are allocated less complex work," Jensen says. "Supported by their manager, they transition by working alongside more senior staff, helping them develop their skill set and enabling them to tackle the more complex and specialised aspects of the role.
"After the completion of their ASYE, professional development continues through our progression pathway which recognises the different skills, learning and support needs of experienced and advanced social workers in our workforce," Jensen adds. The council is also, she says, developing a new "wellbeing resource" in conjunction with academics at Bath University.
At BaNES council, cabinet member for children's services Kevin Guy says social workers are offered "manageable caseloads" along with monthly one-to-one supervision and regular checks on their wellbeing. At BaNES, like Bristol, he says new social workers are supported through their ASYE with a gradual increase in the complexity of work they are allocated and are guided by an experienced practitioner.
In South Gloucestershire, meanwhile, the cabinet member for children and young people, Jon Hunt, says the council significantly upgraded its support for novice social workers in 2018. He says their programme includes mentoring, support and “continuous specialist training until they feel that they are fully confident in their roles.”
'We should be seen as an emergency service'
But while individual councils may make headway in terms of creating better work environments from which social workers can support families, real solutions mean addressing the wider stresses on the system.
Earlier this year, a parliamentary select committee report said a minimum extra £3.1 billion in government cash was needed to prop up children's services departments, many of which are now putting dangerous pressure on council coffers because of the cost of care placements.
The committee called on the government to consult urgently with social workers, employers and professional bodies around ideas to address the massive problems councils have keeping vacancies filled.
Ellis says more positive portrayals of what social workers do for people need to appear in the media, and especially on TV, in order to make the job more attractive in the first place.
"We've got the ambulance, police and fire services – social work, with top-end crisis management, should be seen as an emergency service, but we are not recognised in that way," Ellis says.
Other local social workers who chat to the Cable mention therapeutic support, more flexible hours, or simply creating systems that do not get in the way of direct work with families, as ways to stop people quitting.
But like the select committee, all say that those measures have to start with proper funding.
"[All the stresses are] connected to policies coming down from central government – it's so short sighted, and you have to think of what you are storing up for the future," says Charlie.
"[Stopping people burning out is] about support, and recruiting the right people as managers, but you need to have the resources, and to not be taking on so many cases that it’s impossible to manage – it's basic stuff at the end of the day."
* All names have been changed