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Social work caseloads: How high is too high?

25 Apr 2019
Posted by: Jonathan Wadsworth

Heavy caseloads in social work are a relatively large source of stress for social workers and 56% of them have related this stress to ongoing staff shortages. This affects the ability of social workers to provide consistently high levels of care and support. Statistics have shown that the average number of cases held by a children’s social worker is 17.4, exhibiting a correlation between low caseloads and high performance, with the five lowest caseload authorities all being rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted.

According to the Unison report, 47% of social workers often end the day worrying about their cases and 74% claim this is due to them being unable to get the necessary paperwork completed. These issues, however, can easily be mitigated with effective managerial support from employers. How can social workers and their employers alter their practises to handle high workloads and workplace stresses?

Share caseloads

A report found that of 2,800 respondents, three primary stress factors recurred in most reports involving caseload, staff and admin/IT. Specifically, these include complicated cases, not having enough social workers to share the caseloads, repetitive admin tasks and “hot-desking”.

Hiring more staff and sharing caseloads can lead to higher job satisfaction rates and a higher retention rate. There are many elements of social work which are highly rewarding, but where social workers suffer, however, is when they feel they can’t provide quality support because they are stretched too thin.

As a social worker, you can avoid this by learning to effectively prioritise and manage your workload. Start with the most important tasks and take breaks in order to avoid feeling overwhelmed with work. While you may feel compelled to provide around-the-clock care, it’s important you learn to assess what is and isn’t a fair workload and rather than letting it take a toll on your own health, ask for help or guidance when necessary. In fact, the BASW report found that social workers have shown a higher appreciation of managerial provision and especially value the support of their colleagues during these stressful times.

As an employer, it’s important to set reasonable levels of responsibility to each employee. Provide your staff with access to effective support both on-field and administratively to enable them to perform well — you can also encourage training so they feel better supported in their careers and utilise the benefits of technology which can streamline administrative processes.

Positive working environment

SWU general secretary, John McGowan has said that “Positive working environments are necessary for social workers’ psychological and physical welfare and to keep [them] in post. If this is not addressed, then we will be facing a crisis – the government needs to listen.”

This is useful advice to follow as a worrying report found that more than 40% of social workers said they experienced verbally abusive behaviour from service users and their families at least every month. To promote a positive working environment, social workers need to set clear boundaries for unacceptable behaviour and report these cases to higher authorities. Everyone deserves to be treated with respect in their profession, especially by those who they are caring for — this is an essential right that social workers must take seriously and express. You should utilise the support of authorities and HR managers to ensure your workplace rights are being met and report abusive behaviour in the correct way.

Similarly shocking, 67% of social workers who completed the Unison survey said they had not had a lunch break that day and a similar proportion (64%) said they “almost never” take a break at work. Employers should promote employees’ wellbeing by encouraging taking periodic breaks at work, just as social workers should utilise breaks which enable them to be even more productive and provide better care than if they were to skip the break.

Practising emotional resilience

What is emotional resilience? It’s a mental and physical stance that enables one to recover from challenges, setbacks and difficulties. It also involves placing necessary boundaries between the worries of oneself and empathising with those around them. When dealing with emotionally demanding jobs such as social work, it’s important to hone this skill. Doing so shows an active investment in your future wellbeing and protects you from psychological stresses that may arise.

An important step to practise this begins with leaving work at work, instead of bringing the responsibilities of the day home with you. You can do this by incorporating a routine to distinguish between your working day and your time at home, where you focus on your own wellbeing.

Practising mindfulness and CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) can help you improve strategies to be more present, regulate emotions and build resilience to tough situations, just as it can help foster supportive relationships both at home and work.

Another important thing to consider is talking therapies which have reported high success in reducing stress and anxiety. Even if psychotherapy isn’t a viable option, simply talking about the problems you face at work with someone who can lend a friendly ear can do wonders to alleviate pent up tension and allow you to feel less alone in your situation. In addition, it’s beneficial to practice gratitude journaling in which you express the positives of your day — you might find that the stresses of the job pale in comparison to the life-changing impact you make on multiple lives every day.

Rewarding careers with Charles Hunter Associates

At Charles Hunter Associates, we’re dedicated to supporting our candidates and enabling them to reach new career heights. Apply for a range of social work jobs across the UK with us today.

Tagged In: Social Work
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