Almost two-thirds of social workers say their caseloads are unmanageable according research for Social Workers Union, and it is clear more needs to be done to assist what is often seen as the 'poor relation' among public services, writes John McGowan.

With almost all social workers saying that the vulnerable would be better protected if case loads were lighter, the Social Workers Union has called for urgent action to better support front-line social workers.

Social work intervention can greatly improve the quality of life and opportunities for the children, families, adults and communities we support 24/7. However, it is fair to say that unless the pressures we are under are addressed we will not be able to reach the very people who need our service and support.

The shocking reality is that in the last 18 months alone, almost half of social workers have raised concerns about cases where they don't believe appropriate action was taken. One social worker told us, "raising concerns about the lack of action on cases is the norm. However, with lack of resources it is difficult to take the right action at the right time sometimes. Managers here listen to us but it's the way the system is and we have had to learn to accept it most of the time."

But increasing case-loads are pushing social workers to the brink. Eight out of ten (82 per cent) social workers suffer from stress at work with two-thirds (65 per cent) saying that their mental health is suffering because of their job. A quarter admitted to finding themselves suffering an emotional response to their work (crying/feeling unwell) at least once a week. Resulting in half of social workers considering leaving their posts.

Another social worker told researchers, "working long hours takes its toll on self and my own family life. Recent media coverage puts the onus on social workers failing and blaming people who often make a positive difference in many children's lives."

It's clear that mental health support must be urgently ramped up. There has been inadequate support for social workers dealing with grief. Many are working with sick and elderly people and have witnessed significant death rates among their clients during the pandemic. Specialist mental health social work has become more prominent in the service, and employers now need to ensure that more social workers are able to develop and acquire basic mental health skills, in supporting themselves and to some extent those around them, including colleagues and clients.

Managers should have the training and aptitude to recognise the effects of stress on front line social workers and dealing with it appropriately, as part of their responsibility. Most social workers expected to see referrals increase over the next 12 months, with 71 per cent expecting to be inundated with new cases. Employers must anticipate and plan for a surge in workload.

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The expected surge in demand of referrals to social services and required assessments requires foresight. This will be exacerbated by the potential shortfall in staffing levels due to build-up of annual leave, COVID sickness absences and regrettably some leaving the sector due to their COVID-19 experience.

Employers now need to fortify their workforce and a nationwide recruitment campaign must be ramped up urgently. Employers must also make more flexible and part-time working available. There also needs to be a focus on recruiting more qualified permanent members of staff to ensure more people come into the sector. Naturally, agency staff should also be considered, but with full recognition of their employment rights.

New social workers will require additional positive mental health support including meaningful supervision. But these changes to mental health and recruitment will not be enough unless we take a holistic view of policy and a permanent end to austerity measures. The government needs to realise that on a broader level, the deluge of referrals predicted is as a result of the poverty and inequality experienced by service-users.

Many have been impacted by the austerity measures of the last recession, have now had no access to support in lockdown, and will have little additional support post-pandemic – without sufficient government funding. Women's Aid refuges, mental health support, youth services need to have funding re-instated to pre-austerity levels.

Action to support social workers must be coupled with urgent implementation of policies to end child poverty, food insecurity, fuel poverty and support the most vulnerable through the benefits and welfare system. There must be urgent and major investment within and beyond local authorities, if social work is to play its fullest, necessary leading part in the recovery in communities across the country.

Social work has always been the 'poor relation' in public services, and this also needs to change.

When public health strategy and national governmental decisions are scrutinised, the role of social workers in recovery and future emergency and public health planning needs to be recognised. There can be no effective public health strategy without social health, and social workers must be seen as critical to the health of the nation. We cannot ignore the huge funding gap that exists in social work. Moreover, moves to invest in a centralised NHS cannot come at the expense of local social care yet again.

There needs to be a collective realisation across all layers of government of the value of social work, and any bias addressed.

This recent member survey has highlighted what the reality of being a social worker in 2022 is and reflects the pressures our members are presently under – only urgent action now can prevent a crisis in social work and the support available to the most vulnerable in society.

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