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Stress levels high in social work before COVID-19 pandemic

Stress levels in social workers were already high before the outbreak of COVID-19, research has found.

A Department for Education commissioned longitudinal study tracking the careers of local authority child and family social workers in England over five years found that one-quarter social workers who reported they were not stressed by their job at Wave 1 felt stressed at Wave 2, which was carried out between September 2019 and January 2020.

At this time, COVID-19 was starting to be seen as a threat in the UK before schools were closed in March, aside from for the children of key workers and vulnerable children, and lockdown commenced which will undoubtedly have placed increasing pressure on social workers.

Those that reported that their stress levels had increased between Waves 1 and 2 were more likely to be front line practitioners and working in Children in Need or Child Protection teams.


The latest Wave 2 research found:

- Three-quarters of social workers reported working more than their contracted hours either ‘all the time’ or ‘most weeks’.

- In a typical week, three-quarters of social workers spent time doing direct work with children, families or carers, and these were more likely to be case holding practitioners. One-quarter (24%) did not spend time doing direct work, and were more likely to be team and service managers.

- The mean number of cases held was 18.8.

- More than half of social workers at Wave 2 agreed they feel stressed (56%), their workload is too high (54%) and they are asked to fulfil to many roles in their job (55%).

- This was an increase compared with Wave 1 and there was agreement that all of these three indicators were higher among those working for local authorities rated as ‘inadequate’.

- 25% of social workers who reported they were not stressed by their job at Wave 1 felt stressed at Wave 2.

- Three quarters of social workers who reported feeling stressed at Wave 1 remained stressed at Wave 2, and these are also more likely to be front line practitioners working in those teams.

- Time off in lieu remains the most common flexible working arrangement social workers used by 81%, followed by flexi-time at 63%. Paid overtime (16%) and job-sharing arrangements (5%) were much less widespread.

High workloads

“Working long hours, particularly over an extended period of time, was a common issue raised in the qualitative interviews, and often contributed to feelings of ‘burnout’ among social workers who had left or were considering leaving. One reflected back on her decision to leave the profession and attributed this to her very long working hours, even though she was employed part-time,” said the report.

The report highlighted that some social workers working in Child Protection in particular singled out the amount of extra work involved in cases which were part of court proceedings.

Looked After Children and Child in Need/Child Protection are the two practice areas where social workers were consistently more likely to agree that their workload was too high, that they were being asked to fulfil too many roles and they felt stressed by their job.

High workload is linked with the Ofsted rating of the service, social worker satisfaction levels and their future outlook.

Social workers in ‘outstanding’ and ‘good’ rated local authorities were less likely to agree they had too a high workload (48% and 51%) compared with those in services rated as ‘requires improvement’ (59%). This is compared with an overall average of 54% of local authority child and family social workers reporting that their workload is too high.

Social workers dissatisfied in their job were more likely to agree their workload is too high (74%) compared with those who are satisfied (48%).

Feeling stressed is also related to the Ofsted rating of the service: social workers’ self-reported stress increased as the Ofsted rating declined. For example, 48% of social workers in ‘outstanding’ rated authorities agreed they felt stressed compared with 55% at ‘good’ authorities, 59% at those rated as ‘requires improvement’ and ‘61% at ‘inadequate’ authorities. This compares with 56% of all local authority child and family social workers reported feeling stressed by their job.

Job satisfaction

Having too high a caseload was the main reported reason for feeling stressed at Wave 2 (24%, up from 21% in Wave 1), overtaking having too much paperwork (22%, down from 30% in Wave 1).

Most social workers (73%) at Wave 2 found their job satisfying. Although this was consistent with the proportion at Wave 1 overall (74%), among those working as child and family social workers who took part at both waves, the proportion who were satisfied had decreased from 78% in Wave 1, to the 73% in Wave 2.

Most of those respondents still working in local authority child and family social work plan to stay there over the next 12 months. Of all those currently working in local authority child and family social work, including agency workers, almost three-quarters 72% anticipated remaining in the profession and being directly employed by a local authority in 12 months’ time.

For those who were considering leaving child and family social work in the next 12 months, the most commonly cited reason was retirement at 20%.

Only five per cent of those who completed Wave 2 had left local authority child and family social work between waves. Two per cent who had left child and family social work for another social work role, most commonly attributing the change to high caseloads in child and family social work. Three per cent who had left social work altogether. The key reasons among this group were that ‘it was just not the right type of job for me’ and ‘I am taking a career break’. Nearly half of leavers were still working in the health and social care sector, in a non-social work role.


“The key drivers of satisfaction among front line practitioners include feeling proud to work in child and family social work, having positive relationships with line managers, and feeling valued by their employers. Conversely, factors such as feelings of stress and having too high a workload had a negative impact on job satisfaction. These are all 17 factors that can be influenced by positive workplace culture and good quality line management,” said the report.

“There was definitely a sense that workload, stress and ‘burnout’ were deep-seated and recurrent issues among the small proportion of people who decided to leave. These could be exacerbated by unsupportive line managers, oppressive working cultures, inadequate IT, and overly bureaucratic systems. On the other hand, they could be alleviated by a range of support factors, including: better quality reflective supervision; time and support for professional development; access to flexible working arrangements and supportive IT; and senior managers who were visible, approachable and seen to take a genuine interest in their staff,” the report concluded.

The study aims to collect robust evidence on recruitment, retention and progression in child and family social work by tracking individuals over a five-year period.

Longitudinal study of local authority child and family social workers (Wave 2)

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