Special Report: Social workers feel targets are prioritised over families

Report from the University of East Anglia reveals how social workers feel they lack support and understanding

Senior social work managers are prioritising paperwork and resource targets over families in need, social workers have reported.

A study by the Centre for Research on Children and Families at the University of East Anglia found a perception from social workers that senior managers did not appear to listen to their concerns when they raised them.

“Social workers perceived a lack of support and understanding of the demands on them from the organisation,” said the study which was led by Dr Laura Biggart. “Support at work is even more important in social work due to the confidential nature of the work. Whilst many social workers reported that they received good support from some peers and supervisors, social workers also reported frequent lack of support, often due to high staff turnover leading to supportive colleagues leaving teams and agency staff being used to fill vacancies.”

Average working life of a social worker is eight years

The research project assessed the benefits of Emotional Intelligence and Emotional Intelligence training for child and family social workers in relation to stress and burnout using a randomised control trial.  The occupation of social work was chosen because of the emotionally demanding nature of the job.

Work-based stress and burnout are widely recognised as important problems at work among a range of public service professions. While emotional intelligence skills are associated with less burnout, there is little consistent evidence to show the benefits of emotional intelligence interventions on practice.

“The rate of work related stress and burnout among social workers is high compared to similar professions,” said the report. Curtis (2010) estimated the average working life of a social worker was eight years, much less than that of 15 years for similar demanding professions such as nurses.

High levels of stress and burnout contribute to high vacancy rates, particularly in the areas of child care, young people and families. At the end of September 2013, data shows a vacancy rate of over 14% and a turnover rate of 15% amongst child and family social workers.

The Health and Safety Executive has categorised the most common work stressors into the following themes:


  1. Demands (including caseload, work patterns, work pace, working hours and the working environment).
  2. Control (how much say the person has in the way they do their work).
  3. Support (which includes the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues).
  4. Relationships at work (which includes promoting positive working practices to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour).
  5. Role (whether people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures that the person does not have conflicting roles).


Frequently changing organisational structures

Stress is a natural physiological and psychological reaction to changes and demands in the environment and helps the body and mind prepare for action. Prolonged stress however can lead to a wide range of psychosomatic symptoms such as insomnia or sleeping too much, muscle tension, muscle aches, headache, digestive system problems, and tiredness.

Emotional Intelligence covers the ability to identify emotions in oneself and others and to manage emotions in oneself and others. The report adds that given the emotional demands of the social work role, enhancing Emotional Intelligence resources could be one way of providing social workers with the skills required to cope with these emotional demands.

“The role also requires that social workers play a key part in containing high stakes emotional situations and social workers have to establish relationships with families who are unwilling to engage with them,” says the report. “In their work environment, social workers are increasingly working in settings where resources are often restricted and work in frequently changing organisational structures with consequent changes in team membership.”

The study included two studies with the first aiming to identify characteristics of good social work practice from multiple perspectives and create a self-report tool for good practice and validate this tool. The second was a randomised control trial to evaluate the effect of Emotional Intelligence Training on stress and burnout.

The Emotional Intelligence Training was developed for the study using the RULER programme as a framework and covered two days of training on Emotional Resilience/Emotion Intelligence in the Social Work profession based on The Anchors of Emotional Intelligence.

Forty-six of the 209 social workers who started the study withdrew over the study period, accounting for 22% of the original sample. Reasons for participants withdrawing from the study included: maternity leave, workload, leaving the authority, leaving social work and sick leave.

The study found:

  • Witnessing the distress and trauma of the children and families that they are working with has an emotional impact on social workers and not only do they have to contain and manage the emotions of those children and families, but also have to contain their own emotional responses on a frequent basis.
  • Social workers frequently enter families’ lives at times of crisis and are usually not welcomed by the family, therefore social workers can experience verbal and physical aggression. Even when this is not necessarily a frequent occurrence, the worry about the threat of violence or verbal abuse is also a significant emotional demand.
  • Social workers often work with uncooperative and/or disengaged service users which can be very dispiriting, demotivating and concerning.
  • Social workers often struggle to find the funding for the most effective resources for them and therefore they often have to manage the expectations of service users and deliver disappointing news.
  • Participants reported struggling with the demands of a large, complicated and ever changing workload.
  • High caseloads were one issue for workload, but alongside this were requirements for paperwork, IT recording, reports and statutory visits within specified timescales.
  • Ineffective administrative and IT systems were also stated as contributing to demands at work either due to being removed (e.g. administrative support), being complicated to use or frequently not working.
  • Open plan offices and hot desking created noise disturbance or difficulty finding a desk and not having everything to hand. The lack of a desk to return to after often difficult home visits also added to a sense of emotional disorientation.

Negative perception

The study highlighted that social workers found managing expectations from other professionals emotionally demanding. Other professionals often misunderstood the scope of social workers’ role and responsibilities, alongside having a lower threshold of risk. As a result, social workers find themselves having to take time to explain why they are unable to take the action that other professionals feel is required and deal with the antagonism this misperception often creates.

“Social workers were very aware of the negative perception of the profession that people outside the profession have and were frustrated at having no clear mechanism of addressing misconceptions held by the media about social work,” says the research. “Whilst it is understandable for external stakeholders to put pressure on child and family workers to protect children, the organisational response to this pressure has tended to foster organisational cultures which seek to monitor social work activity in order to be able to target blame rather than being solution focused.”

“Working under such scrutiny, however necessary it may be, is also emotionally demanding,” it adds.

Despite the many emotional demands of being a child and family social worker, social workers also report emotionally rewarding parts of the role. Social workers overwhelmingly found making a difference to children and families lives very rewarding, partly through seeing the change happening and partly through contribution to positive outcomes. Social workers also reported that direct work with children and families was very rewarding.

Training may not be enough to mitigate emotional demands

The two studies concluded that there “were no statistically significant effects of Emotional Intelligence Training on psychological strain, physiological strain or Emotional Exhaustion”, however, participants’ feedback about the training was very positive.

“The majority of participants stated that their objectives had been achieved, that the emotion skills learned could be put into practice and that they would recommend the training to colleagues,” said the report.

The report suggested four reasons as to why Emotional Intelligence Training in this project did not show any effect on stress and burnout:

  • The majority of participants were experiencing relatively low levels of stress.
  • The majority of participants were relatively high in Trait Emotional Intelligence which is associated with low stress.
  • The training format, although well received, did not include any follow-up to help refresh knowledge and give encouragement to participants to put techniques into practice.
  • Participants went back into the workplace after training to work with other colleagues and managers who had not received the training, it may have been harder to find the time to try and change ways of doing things and ways of thinking without support from colleagues who were also familiar with the training.

“It is also possible that Emotional Intelligence Training may not be enough on its own to mitigate the high emotional demands of child and family social work,” said the report.

The social work practice tool to help social workers reflect on their practice has been created and further work will take place with social workers to refine it for introduction into social work and practice educator training. The report suggests that further work to evaluate different formats of training, such as including follow-ups and embedding follow-up into supervision systems, is needed.

The report concludes that emotional demands in social work and ways of managing these should be provided within qualifying social work training and continuing professional development.

The report also recommends:


  • Senior managers should receive training on managing stress at work both for themselves and their teams.
  • Senior managers should ensure there are clear systems to hear the views of social workers about workload issues and to provide feedback as to what action has been taken to address such issues.
  • Senior managers should create a positive emotional climate where social workers have the opportunity to undertake direct work, receive positive feedback, have influence over their work environment and have opportunities for collaboration and learning as this is likely to mitigate the emotional demands of the social work role.
  • Team managers should ensure that social workers have the opportunity for reflective supervision.
  • Team managers should enable social workers to discuss workload issues using a solution focussed approach by having workload on team meeting agendas as a standing item.
  • Social workers should make use of supervision opportunities to reflect on the emotional impact of the role both on yourself and on your practice.
  • Aim to raise concerns with supervisors, team leaders about workload or complex cases you may need help with, rather than trying to persevere alone.


“Remember that none of us are emotionally invincible or all-knowing, therefore thinking about using engaged coping strategies can be helpful when we feel overwhelmed,” the report concludes.




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