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COVID impacts negatively on wellbeing of children’s social workers

COVID-19 has had a significant negative impact on the wellbeing of children and families social workers, according to a longitudinal study by the Department for Education.

Wave 3 of the study, conducted between September and December 2020, found feelings of stress and having too high a workload have increased since Wave 1 and Wave 2 despite a reduction in average caseloads and working hours.

Wave 1 was conducted between November 2018 and March 2019, while Wave 2 was conducted between September 2019 and January 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic hit the UK.

“More than half of local authority child and family social workers at Wave 3 agreed they feel stressed by their job (60%), their workload is too high (58%), and they are asked to fulfill too many roles in their job (55%),” said the report.

The report also found:

  • Over two-thirds of social workers considered that anxiety (68%) had increased due to COVID.
  • Almost 70% felt the complexity of cases (68%) had increased as a result of the pandemic
  • 69% said workloads had increased as a result of Covid-19
  • Three-quarters (73%) felt that work-related stress had increased due to Covid-19.

Almost 60% of social workers felt that relationships with colleagues had worsened as a result of Covid-19, particularly among front line practitioners. There was a more balanced picture in terms of impacts on relationships with children and families: while 44% felt these had worsened due to Covid-19, 37% felt it had no impact.

Amongst those who completed the survey at each wave, the proportion feeling valued by their employer has increased (from 56% at Wave 1 to 61% at Wave 3) while feelings of loyalty have remained consistent.

The frequency of receiving reflective supervision has reduced significantly since Wave 1, with fewer receiving it every three or four weeks (41% compared with 44% at Wave 1) and more receiving it less frequently than every six weeks (24% compared with 18%).

Furthermore, 62% thought that the Covid-19 pandemic had negatively impacted the resources available to support children and families.

While 72% of social workers in Wave 3 found their job satisfying, consistent with previous waves, there were three aspects where levels of satisfaction have decreased – sense of achievement, the work itself and opportunities for skills development.

The majority (84%) of local authority child and family social workers, including agency workers, anticipate remaining in local authority child and family social work in 12 months’ time (73% employed directly by a local authority and 11% by an agency). Amongst those currently employed directly by a local authority, 14% expected that they would not be in local authority child and family social work in 12 months’ time, compared with 22% of agency workers.

The most commonly cited main reason for considering leaving child and family social work was retirement (20%), followed by the dislike of the local authority social work culture (17%) and not making the best use of their skills (12%) - consistent with previous waves of research.

Local authority child and family social workers were contracted to work an average of 35 hours per week but the average number of hours they reported that they actually worked was 40. This compares with 35 hours contracted versus 42 hours actually worked in Wave 2. Increased home working, reduced travelling time and more virtual meetings, due to Covid-19, had a positive impact on working hours.

Three-quarters (75%) of social workers reported working more than their contracted hours either ‘all the time’ or ‘most weeks’ to keep up with their workload, consistent with Wave 2.

The profile of new ASYE entrants at Wave 3 was very similar to ASYEs in previous waves, with few demographic differences. Four in five (78%) ASYE social workers in Wave 3 reported feeling well prepared for a career in child and family social work, consistent with ASYEs in Wave 2 but significantly higher than in Wave 1 (71%).

Covid-19 has had a substantial impact on ASYEs, with the vast majority reporting it had increased work-related stress (82%), anxiety (77%), complexity of cases (71%) and workloads (67%). ASYEs reported high levels of job satisfaction (79%) in line with previous waves despite reporting high levels of work-related stress.

“The impacts of Covid-19 on social workers’ experiences have been challenging in terms of increased feelings of stress and anxiety, more complex cases, and depleted relationships with colleagues and to a lesser extent, service users. ASYEs in particular report higher levels of stress and anxiety as a result of Covid-19, than more experienced social workers. The impact of Covid-19 on worsening relationships with colleagues, reported by over half of social workers, is potentially concerning given the importance of these relationships as a protective factor in boosting resilience. Further, the impacts of the pandemic are likely to have contributed to the lower levels of satisfaction with sense of achievement, the work itself and skills development,” the report concluded.

Rachael Wardell, Chair of the Workforce Development Policy Committee said: “This latest study of the experiences of child and family social workers provides some valuable insights and there are important messages here for local authorities to take away. There are also messages for the Department for Education and Treasury, particularly around caseload sizes and lack of resources being cited as a common cause of stress experienced by social workers. However, there are some encouraging signs such as high levels of job satisfaction among experienced social workers and ASYEs. Social workers carry exceptional responsibility on behalf of us all. It is important to us that social workers feel valued, well supported in their role and have manageable workloads so that they can spend more time with children and families making positive and enduring changes in their lives.

“The whole workforce has been under immense pressure since the outbreak of the pandemic. Social workers and local authority staff have had to adapt to new working arrangements, such as home working, in a short space of time and during very difficult circumstances. For some, the transition to remote working has been difficult as well as the long-term impact of being away from friends and colleagues but we know it has been particularly challenging for new people entering the workforce. Councils are doing all they can to put in place the necessary support to make this easier to ensure that staff receive the support they need. As the report notes, we are seeing more complex cases as the real impact of Covid-19 on vulnerable children is starting to become increasingly apparent. We anticipate that the number of children and families requiring our support will significantly increase over the next year and beyond, with a greater complexity of need,” she added.

Longitudinal study of local authority child and family social workers (Wave 3) Research report

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