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Social workers face more emotional distress and verbal abuse each day

  • 03 Apr 2017

Community Care and UNISON’s joint research into a typical social worker’s day reveals the increasing cost of staff shortages and budget cuts

Judy Cooper

23 March 2017

Social workers are suffering more emotional distress and verbal abuse in their day-to-day work as staff shortages and budget cuts take a heavy toll on the profession.

Joint research from Community Care and UNISON captured a typical day in the life of 2,032 social workers who responded to the ‘Social Work Watch’ survey on 21 September, 2016.

It found the vast majority (80%) reported they had suffered emotional distress during the day while 40% had been verbally abused.

Both numbers are increases on responses to the same survey in 2014.

Emotional exhaustion

Some of the situations social workers said they’d faced included a nine-year-old child self-harming and trying to hang themselves, a very aggressive father making threats and distressed colleagues crying at work and needing to be supported.

Others mentioned feeling routinely anxious, emotionally exhausted and unable to engage with partners and families after clocking off for the day. One commented that the pressures of the job had led to divorce. Many wished that stress hadn’t affected their behaviour towards others.

“I left work feeling completely drained and emotional. I wasn’t able to do anything productive in the evening and spent most of it crying.”

Caseloads over the limit

More than half (56%) felt their caseload sizes had been influenced by staff shortages and almost half (48%) reported feeling over their limit in terms of the number of cases they had been given – up from 43% in 2014. Among those who described their job role as ‘social worker’ this figure went up to just over 50%.This was despite 30% reporting their employer did operate a formal caseload management system.

As a result two-thirds (67%) had not had a lunch-break that day (a significant increase on the 54% who replied similarly in 2014) and an almost identical proportion (64%) said they almost never took a break at work.

On average social workers worked 9.5 hours, but were paid for just 7.5 hours. One in 10 social workers reported working for 12 hours or more, and 28 said they had put in a shift “of at least 15 hours”.

Serious concerns

Despite working such long hours, almost half (47%) still left work with serious concerns about their cases while two-thirds felt that cuts to services had affected their ability to make a difference.

Reasons given for this included social workers having to take on tasks that other agencies would previously have handled, the housing crisis and welfare reform agenda piling problems onto families that social workers felt unable to solve, and intervention thresholds being raised, meaning practitioners were only getting involved in situations that were already at crisis point.

However, social workers also highlighted the reasons their jobs continued to be bearable with many sharing stories about breakthroughs with service users, and receiving thanks from families and other professionals.


“A young mum ended an abusive relationship with my support and will not be hit anymore and her daughter won’t have to witness this,” one respondent wrote.

Another working with disabled service users said: “An isolated client made the first steps to attend a place where she can make a friend who is not a paid carer. It could be life-changing in her ability to access the community and not be so reliant on paid carers.”

A third said: “A 13-year-old girl opened up to me on our journey back to her placement after she had run away and I could see she was feeling much better by the end of the journey just having talked things through.”

On the brink of burnout

UNISON head of local government Heather Wakefield said: “This is a profession on the brink of burnout. Staff are working long hours without breaks and having to cope with unprecedented caseloads. Those in need are suffering because social workers have less time to go out and help them.

“All councils should set up a system of monitoring to reduce demands on already over-worked staff. Otherwise not only social workers, but those they’re trying to help will suffer.”

She called on all local authority employers to regularly undertake social work health checks, as recommended in the social work employer standards, to ensure caseloads and stress were under control and being appropriately monitored.

To read the full findings of the survey, download the report.