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Social workers need mental health support

High caseloads, high stress, and a lack of mental health support for social workers are key challenges in the social work profession contributing to a high turnover rate, a report by the Independent review into children’s social care has found.

Mental health support for social work professionals needed addressing to help reduce burnout, stress and absence from work as a result of the exhaustion and emotional fatigue felt in the profession.

“We carry a lot of vicarious trauma, social workers need personal supervision and reflection rather than just case supervision. Targeted support. Independent Fostering Agencies have therapeutic support but that’s dropped off since Covid-19,” said one social worker.

The engagement summary details the findings and methods of consultation that the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care has undertaken with the workforce.

Retention was further hampered by a lack of professional development that did not involve a move to management and therefore a move away from working directly with children and families. Social workers feel they can only progress by moving into managements taking them away from direct practice.

Professionals highlighted the high turnover of social workers and the challenge of this for children and families. It was felt this impacted on the families relationships with professionals and could also cause difficult behaviour and a lack of attachment or trust with adults. Professionals reported the need for a consistent long term person in the life of the child who would not give up on them. They stated that a child needed to feel a sense of belonging, to be cared for and for someone to be on their side who is invested in their aspirations. Carers were needed that wanted to remain part of the young person’s life and were willing for the child to become part of their family.

Professionals also spoke of the need to have robust recruitment of social care staff who were suitably qualified to support young people. Whilst it was felt that recruitment was a big factor, some questioned whether the qualifications required for some roles in social care needed to be so academic, and if potential future staff were being excluded as a result.

These comments were in relation to residential care roles which requires a Level 3 diploma, but many practitioners felt that level of qualification is not necessary. It was also commented that the Level 3 diplomas are not fit for purpose or transferrable to other parts of the children’s social care system, and there were calls for Ofsted to remove the level cap for degree apprenticeships and change the qualification requirements. They also called for adequate funding to employ staff with the right qualities and attributes for the profession.

The report highlighted how professionals across the sector had entered social work to help children and families. However, bureaucracy, stigma, low support, and underfunded services were all key barriers preventing them from doing their job. Social workers and other professionals wanted the review to look at how to better fund services, reduce large caseloads and increase support for professionals, so they could deliver the best help to children and families.

Social workers felt unable to offer meaningful intervention and support to families due to the enormous bureaucratic and administrative tasks they were required to undertake.

There were calls for more administrators and family support workers to provide business support to free up social workers’ time. Social workers also spoke about the need for streamlining processes and employing smarter working like self-populating forms and the use of technology to reduce duplication of work.

Increasing caseloads was another area raised as a major problem for professionals who called for lower caseloads and work pressures to allow them more time to work effectively with families and build trusting relationships.

The report also highlighted:

Local authority staff saw Ofsted as the biggest driver of paperwork, creating a barrier to spending time with children and families.

“Many of the professionals spoke about the stigma attached to social work creating barriers to meaningful engagement when working with children, families, and in communities. They felt the public perspective of the social worker role was to remove children and that more needs to be done to project a positive image of social work, by the government, Social Work England and the media,” said the report.

“They thought that more needs to be done to raise awareness amongst the public of what statutory services can offer and to reassure parents and families that social workers first and foremost want to help,” the report added.

It is for this very reason that WillisPalmer launched our #Respect4SocialWork campaign which calls for greater awareness of the profession and a more balanced portrayal in the media of the work social workers do.

The report highlights discussions around:

  • There is a huge need for community support and interventions to help with therapeutic work, which falls to social workers due to a lack of community services.
  • The majority of professionals that we spoke to thought that children’s services are underfunded as a consequence of diminishing government funding for local authorities.
  • Professionals recognised that agencies and services often work in silos, creating an uncoordinated response and negatively impacting the effectiveness of support and interventions for children and families.
  • A lack of information sharing between agencies was another key issue highlighted by professionals, and was attributed to incompatible information systems and the prevailing risk-aversion around data sharing.

Suggestions to improve multi-agency working included completing joint home visits, shared group supervisions, co-location of services, multi-agency networking and training.

Many professionals raised the issue of waiting lists for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) with children and young people often waiting up to 18 months for support.

Professionals across agencies suggested that support and preventative services should be accessible in communities.

“When discussing child protection, some of the social care professionals thought that the way the system currently operates pushes more families into child protection processes than need be. Some social workers felt that the reasons for this are complex and have been influenced by public opinion and policy that has evolved when things have gone badly wrong, and that too much practice is currently process-driven rather than identifying with families what they need and providing that help,” said the report.

There were 80,850 looked after children at 31 March 2021, up 1% on 2020 and levels are now at an all-time high.

Further discussions centred around:

  • Professionals stated that in far too many domestic abuse cases, the onus was on the victim to protect the children in the home which was often challenging and complex, and could result in the children being taken into care.
  • The more prevalent harms from outside the home for children and young people were drugs and gang involvement; county lines and trafficking; weapons; child sexual exploitation (CSE) and child criminal exploitation (CCE).
  • Social media played a significant role in the harms young people experience and some professionals felt it was probably the greatest current risk to teenagers.
  • Professionals said that community support for children and families is vital.
  • There is a need for a more holistic approach to supporting parents and families, including support during pregnancy, help with managing difficult relationships, support for mental health and other unmet needs, long term therapeutic services and wrap around support for the whole family such as domestic abuse support, drug and alcohol misuse services.

“Social workers and other professionals wanted the review to look at how to better fund services, reduce large caseloads and increase support for professionals, so they could deliver the best help to children and families,” the report concluded.

Workforce engagement

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