‘High stress, high demand, high burnout’: life as a social worker in England

John says he cannot do the work he was trained for and tells of ‘constantly firefighting’ in under-resourced job

John* has a motto: “You don’t choose to be a social worker, social work chooses you.” It reflects his experience giving up his first career to become a carer for a family member with mental health problems. After they died, he realised he wanted to help other vulnerable people.

Yet despite that initial strength of purpose, he was beaten down by the cost of retraining. As a graduate, he studied an MA in social work, which cost £16,000, yet the bursary he received was just £12,000. While he recalls coursemates dropping out, he did weekend work and took out a credit card.

He said: “If you’re going to be a social worker, you’ll leave with £30,000-£40,000 worth of undergraduate debt. Why would anyone go into a job which isn’t portrayed in a good light, which is high stress, high demand and high burnout?”

When an agency came knocking offering him a £54,000 salary after graduating, compared with £35,000 at a local authority, he felt forced to accept it until his debts were paid off. He found the experience gruelling: temporary workers are given limited training and development and are often given the cases that full-time staff do not want.

He has since joined a local authority, which, despite the £20,000 pay cut, he finds much better for his professional development. Yet he has been frustrated to find his role is more about managing cases than directly helping families in need, with the latter mostly passed on to unqualified technicians or assistants.

“We can’t do the work we trained for because there’s so much paperwork,” he said. “Many social workers are working for free, sometimes until midnight or at weekends. When working with extreme demand, eventually something will slip – you’re putting yourself under a lot of pressure.”

He said it was not unusual to feel his duties were going beyond the scope of his training. “You will be asked to do things and you think: ‘Oh, I’m not sure about this,’ but it has to be done.

“We’re constantly firefighting emergencies and crisis after crisis, so we haven’t got the time to work with families, and once the child is safe in a foster or residential placement, they’re not intentionally forgotten about, but if I have 13 kids, once I know one’s OK, I’ve got another 12 – so you forget about the one that’s safe. But they still need development, nurturing, to go to school, they need extra support.”

This can compound disadvantage and create bigger problems for social workers to solve in adulthood.

“They have so much trauma, so much baggage, they have no life skills,” he said. “They’ve developed routines and behaviours you’ve got to try to unpick – the time to work with them is when they’re kids, that’s when there’s the best chance of success because they’re still developing.”

He has seen many instances in which, because there was no early intervention, people have ended up in crisis, such as young people who do not go to school because of abuse, who end up without an education, and turn to gangs to support themselves, or young women who have been neglected by their families who are vulnerable to grooming.

Things have been “getting worse and worse and worse”. John said: “Austerity crippled the health and social care system and its been on life support since 2008. The pandemic and cost of living crisis have merely shed light on an already underfunded and broken system.”

* Name has been changed


Rachel Hall

The GuardianTramp

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