Background

Impact on the adult social work workforce

In October 2021, Skills for Care published its latest ‘state of the adult social care sector and workforce in England’. The report was based on information collected in September/October 2021 so well into the Covid-19 pandemic. The report’s findings, specifically linked to social workers, can be found in the connected publication The workforce employed by adult services departments in England. This found (reference table T9):

  • Councils employed 15,655 social workers (permanent and temporary) in adults’ services as of September 2021. This was 1.5% less from the previous year. The number of social work jobs in local authorities also fell from 17,455 to 17,280 over the same period.
  • The vacancy rate for adult social workers increased for the first time in six years, from 7.5% to 9.5%.
  • Staff turnover went from 13.6% to 15%, as 2,355 people left their roles in 2020-21, compared with 2,155 the previous year.

Regarding the report, Jackie Mahoney, co-chair of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) adult group, said the statistics were “concerning”:

These stats are very concerning, especially as BASW members are telling us that rebound demand and pressure, following the initial Covid restrictions and possible reluctance to have support from some of the community, has been relentless over the past 18 months.

Social care is at the forefront of responding to the most challenging needs and circumstances within communities and is fundamentally key to ‘levelling up’. In this respect, I would say the government is failing and is not focused enough on social care.

More information about the impact of the pandemic on the adult social work workforce is available on the website of the BASW at: How BASW is supporting Social Workers during COVID.

Mandatory vaccinations

Background

In June 2021, the Government laid regulations making it a requirement for workers entering care homes to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19, subject to certain exceptions. The mandatory vaccination requirement came into force on 11 November 2021.

In September 2021, the Government published a consultation on extending the mandatory vaccination requirement to other social care workers (and health staff) who have face-to-face contact with service users. In its response to the consultation, published on 9 November 2021, the Government confirmed its intention to proceed with the policy and regulations to this effect were due to come into force on 1 April 2022.

On 1 November 2021, the BASW issued a statement expressing its opposition to making vaccination compulsory. While recognising the complexity of the issue, the statement said making vaccination compulsory

runs the risk of hardening people’s concerns about it and creating increased opposition to vaccination, now and in the future.  It may also lead to increased numbers of social work vacancies, which will have a negative impact on the services available for people in need.

Revoking the regulations

On 31 January 2022, the Health and Social Care Secretary, Sajid Javid, announced the Government would launch a consultation on ending mandatory vaccination in health and all social care settings.

In its response to the consultation, published on 1 March, the Government confirmed it would bring forward regulations to revoke the mandatory vaccination requirement in all health and social care settings, including care homes. The regulations – The Health and Social Care Act 2008 (Regulated Activities) (Amendment) (Coronavirus) (No. 3) Regulations 2022 – were signed into law on 1 March and came into force on 15 March 2022.

Children and family social work workforce

The British Association of Social Workers’ (BASW) 2021 Annual Survey, said existing problems linked to “underfunding and increased workloads” had “only been aggravated further by the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic on funding, on services and on wellbeing”.

Statistics published by the Department for Education (DfE) show in the year ending 30 September 2021, around 5,000 children and family social workers left a social worker post in England. This was a 16% increase from the previous year, and the highest number in 5 years. The statistics also show the number of vacancies had increased to a 5 year high to around 6,500. This was up 7% from the same period a year previous.

Ruth Allen, BASW’s chief executive said:

Without urgent action we are risking highly motivated and experienced social workers leaving the profession

Without a fully staffed and resourced workforce, we risk social workers not being able to meet their obligations as individuals, and teams will be overstretched.

The sector continues to face challenges from years of chronic underfunding in social services. If there is serious intent by government to address children and adults’ protection failures, giving the sector the resource and funding it desperately needs must happen urgently.

In March 2022, in response to a parliamentary question on increasing shortage of children’s social workers (UIN 143092, 8 March 2022), the government said the number of full time equivalent (FTE) child and family social workers employed by local authorities in England was increasing every year:

On the 30 of September 2021, there were 32,500 full FTE child and family social workers employed by local authorities in England. This is an increase of 2.0% compared to 2020, and an increase of 14.1% compared to 2017.

While the department recognises that this may not be the picture some local authorities are seeing on the ground, the department is working closely with local authorities and using central programmes and funding to respond to their needs.

The department is supporting the recruitment and retention of social workers through our investment in fast-track initial social worker training programmes, and in professional development programmes to improve leadership. We are also seeing some innovative practices from local authorities that are driving down agency rates and stabilising their workforces.

Our COVID-19 Recovery Action Plan aims to stabilise and strengthen children’s social care as we transition out of the COVID-19 outbreak, so we deliver well for children and young people and provide a strong foundation for longer-term reform, informed by the Care Review.

Complex caseload

It has been suggested the Covid-19 pandemic has increased the complexity of cases for children and family social workers. The DfE’s ‘Children and Young People Survey (Waves 1 to 22)’ (PDF) found from March 2020 to March 2021, councils were reporting more issues involving domestic abuse alongside:

  • mental health problems among parents and children
  • parental substance misuse
  • neglect and emotional abuse
  • non-accidental injury
  • more newborns presenting in care proceedings
  • self-harming in young people
  • acute family crisis situations
  • escalation of risk in existing cases.

The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) president, Charlotte Ramsden, commented how although the infection risk is lower for young people and children, they have been affected by secondary impacts. This included “loss of learning, the impact of successive lockdowns on their mental and emotional health and being unable to access services they may have previously relied on”. She went on to say “for many, the pandemic will have exacerbated pre-existing challenges such as poverty, hunger, parental ill health and domestic abuse.”

Delivery of social work

During the pandemic, social workers faced challenges to change their way of working. An article by ‘The Conversation’ describes some of the ways the pandemic “transformed” how social work was delivered. The major change highlighted was face-to-face work had to move online. Some social workers noted positive impact of this was increased flexibility and independence, as well as higher engagement from younger people. However, it was also said this meant problems could be missed, as they were not in the same room. One social worker interviewed said:

I think it’s quite worrying that you may potentially be speaking to a victim of domestic abuse and trying to get an understanding of that person’s relationship, but you’re missing all the body language and cues…

Another concern with a more digital way of working was low-income families, older adults and people with learning disabilities who may not have access to digital technology.

Wellbeing

There is evidence to suggest the pandemic influenced the wellbeing of social workers across the sector. A Care England survey conducted in November 2020 of almost 500 qualified practitioners found 39% of respondents felt slightly more negative about their work-life than at the same point in 2019; 36% felt significantly more negative about it. Care England noted responses were “near-identical” between children and adult social workers.

A survey by the Social Workers’ Benevolent Trust found, after working through the pandemic, 75% of social workers are “emotionally and mentally exhausted”. Other impacts included (of the 211 surveyed):

  • 70% had worried about their mental health during the pandemic
  • 20% had taken time off due to stress
  • 24% had sought professional help for their mental health.

The declining wellbeing of social workers was also echoed in the Health and Social Care Workforce Wellbeing and Coping during COVID-19 study (PDF), in its survey of health and social care practitioners between November 2020 and January 2021.

In the report, Social work in England: Emerging themes, published by Social Work England, it said (p24):

Professionals are consistently reporting adverse impacts of their pressured working environments on their mental health, emotional wellbeing, and personal lives. The extended period of intensive and complex practice, as well as changes to the way social workers work, has compounded the challenges of working in a profession that already reported a high degree of work-related stress.

These experiences have been generally consistent across the profession. Placement providers, newly qualified social workers and students have reported experiencing lower morale and a negative impact on their mental health. Those in certain roles also reported feeling stress when working remotely, as lacking in-person contact created difficulties in carrying out quality assessments.

Government policy

In September 2021, the Government set out proposals for reform of adult social care sector in the policy paper: ‘Build Back Better: Our Plan for Health and Social Care’. The policy paper included the following commitments in relation to the adult social care workforce (p19):

Our 1.5 million strong social care workforce is an essential part of the social care system. Social care workers are at the front line, caring for and supporting people at the heart of their communities. A qualified and skilled workforce that is rewarded and feels valued is essential for high quality care that is sensitive to individual needs. We will therefore make care work a more rewarding vocation, offering a career where people can develop new skills and take on new challenges as they become more experienced. This will include developing a plan to support professional development and the long-term wellbeing of the workforce.

The Government will also invest at least £500 million in new measures over three years to:

a. provide support in professionalising and developing the workforce, including hundreds of thousands of training places and certifications for our care workers and professional development for the regulated workforce;

b. fund mental health wellbeing resources and provide access to occupational health funding to help staff recover from their extraordinary role in supporting the country through the pandemic, including through offering services such as counselling, peer-to-peer coaching and workplace improvements; and

c. introduce further reforms to improve recruitment and support for our social care workforce, with further detail set out in the upcoming White Paper.

Further information on the proposals for reform was provided in a White Paper published on 1 December 2021: People at the Heart of Care: adult social care reform white paper.

The White Paper highlighted the impact of the pandemic on the social care workforce:

…the social care workforce suffers from very high levels of staff turnover (overall annual staff turnover rate in 2020–21 was 30%), particularly amongst frontline care workers and nurses. Vacancies rates are also persistently high, particularly for regulated professional roles such as nurses, social workers and registered managers.

Much of the workforce suffers from poor mental health and burnout, especially following the huge sacrifices they made during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The White Paper added that the £500 million for workforce reform would, among other things, be used to invest in social worker training routes. It said:

We are committed to improving the quality of social work education and training and maintaining a sufficient supply of social workers with the right skills, knowledge, and values. We will invest in new training routes for people who want to become social workers. In addition, over the course of the next three years, we will work with the Chief Social Worker for Adults, Chief Social Worker for Children and Families, DfE and Social Work England to improve the overall pre- and post-qualification landscape for social workers.

More information on social care reform can be found in the House of Commons Library briefing: Proposed reforms to adult social care (including cap on care costs).

Parliamentary material

Children: Social Services

16 March 2022 | 136640

Asked by: Mike Amesbury

To ask the Secretary of State for Education, with reference to Reporting Year 2021, Children’s social work workforce, published 24 February 2022, what assessment his Department has made of the adequacy of child social care in response to the 4,995 social workers who left their roles in 2021; and what steps his Department is taking to (a) retain current social workers and (b) help ensure that the 6,522 vacant positions are filled.

Answering member: Will Quince

The number of full-time equivalent (FTE) child and family social workers employed by local authorities in England is increasing every year. On 30 September 2021, there were 32,500 FTE child and family social workers employed by local authorities in England. This is an increase of 2% compared to 2020, and an increase of 14.1% compared to 2017. It is important to note that the 4,995 social workers who left their roles in 2021 includes all social workers who have moved between local authorities but are still working in children’s social care.

While the government recognises this may not be the picture some local authorities are seeing on the ground, we are working closely with local authorities and using central programmes and funding to respond to their needs.

The department is supporting the recruitment and retention of social workers through investment in fast-track initial social worker training programmes, and in professional development programmes to improve leadership. The department is also seeing some innovative practices from local authorities that are driving down agency rates and stabilising their workforces.

The government’s COVID-19 Recovery Action Plan aims to stabilise and strengthen children’s social care as we transition out of the pandemic, to deliver well for children and young people and provide a strong foundation for longer-term reform, informed by the independent review of children’s social care.

Children: Social Services

23 February 2022 | 125191

Asked by: Ms Emma Lewell-Buck

To ask the Secretary of State for Education, what recent assessment his Department has made of the impact of Frontline on (a) retention and (b) vacancy rates in children’s social work.

Answering member: Will Quince

The government is committed to improving the recruitment and retention of social workers to ensure local authorities are best able to protect and care for vulnerable children and families.

Frontline trains around 450 social workers each year. Social workers trained by the Frontline programme have made a contribution towards retention which is comparable to those who train through other routes. A study undertaken by Cardiff University to track the retention and progression of Frontline and Step Up to Social Work graduates found “no evidence that attrition rates for fast-track-trained social workers at 18 months after qualification are higher than they are for social workers trained via mainstream programmes”. The final report was published in December 2021 and is available here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/social-work-fast-track-programmes-tracking-study.

Children: Social Services

23 February 2022 | 125190

Asked by: Ms Emma Lewell-Buck

To ask the Secretary of State for Education, with reference to the abolition of the national assessment and accreditation system for children’s social workers, whether his Department plans to consult (a) representatives of the social work profession and (b) other relevant stakeholders on the long-term future of post-qualification social work training and career development.

Answering member: Will Quince

The department invests over £50 million each year on recruiting and developing child and family social workers to ensure that the workforce has the capacity, skills and knowledge to support and protect vulnerable children.

The decision to end the current delivery model of the national assessment and accreditation system in March 2022 has been informed by feedback from social workers, local authorities and other stakeholders, as well as learning from other professions that have moved to remote assessment during the COVID-19 outbreak.

We remain committed to assessment and accreditation as a key element of continuing improvements in children’s social care, and we will continue to engage and collaborate with the sector and other stakeholders as we develop the long-term future of post-qualification training and development for child and family social workers.

Social Workers: Labour Turnover

7 February 2022 | 113763

Asked by: Rachael Maskell

To ask the Secretary of State for Education, what recent assessment he has made of the (a) retention rate of social workers and (b) reasons for social workers leaving the profession

Answering member: Will Quince

The latest estimate of local authority employed children’s social worker turnover is 13.5% for the year ending 30 September 2020, down from 15.1% in 2019. This is a measure of all social workers leaving their local authority employer, including social workers leaving the profession and those moving to another social work role. This does not measure numbers of social workers changing roles within their current employer. The department does not produce statistics on the retention rate of social workers.

Data on the reasons for social workers leaving or considering leaving the profession are collected in the department’s longitudinal study of local authority child and family social workers. In the latest wave of the study, Wave 3, respondents who are considering leaving or have left are asked to report all reasons and the main reason. The report is available here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/longitudinal-study-of-local-authority-social-workers(opens in a new tab).

Social Workers: Mental Health

28 October 2020 | 99115

Asked by: Marsha De Cordova

To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, what plans he has to extend bursaries for student mental health social workers.

Answering member: Helen Whately

Final year students in receipt of the bursary whose studies were disrupted by the pandemic will receive a pro-rated 2019/20 bursary for the period of their course extension to enable them to complete their studies.

The NHS Business Services Authority administer the social work bursaries and we would encourage any student who needs a course extension to speak directly to their university who can advise on requesting one through the NHS Business Services Authority process.

Social Services: Coronavirus

6 August 2020 | HL6851

Asked by: Lord Judd

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the Social Workers Union about the results of its survey which estimates that one third of social workers are now considering leaving the profession as a result of the deterioration in working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic; and what steps they are taking in response.

Answering member: Lord Bethell

We are committed to providing ongoing support to social workers so that they are safe, supported, valued and able to continue the exceptional work they do. We continue to support local authorities and other social work employers to meet their duties regarding social work workforce planning and sharing best practice in recruiting, retaining and developing staff.

There are currently 98,000 registered social workers across the country, of whom 363 were surveyed by the Social Workers Union. The Chief Social Workers for Adults continue to have regular conversations with the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, the British Association of Social Workers, Social Work England and Principal Social Workers across the country and have ensured concerns are responded to as soon as they arise.

Social Workers: Coronavirus

23 July 2020 | 73821

Asked by: Alex Cunningham

To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, with reference to the Social Workers Union’s (SWU) Social Work’s Six-Point Urgent Action Plan published on 9 July 2020, what assessment he has made of the SWU finding that social workers have faced traumatic experiences during the covid-19 outbreak; and if he will make a statement.

Answering member: Helen Whatley

We are committed to providing ongoing support to make sure social workers feel safe, supported, valued and able to continue the exceptional work they do to support people who need care and support. We have provided a £5 million grant for leading mental health charities to fund additional services to promote people’s positive mental health and emotional wellbeing.

The Chief Social Workers for Adults are in regular conversations with the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, the British Association of Social Workers, Social Work England and Principal Social Workers across the country to ensure concerns are responded to as soon as they arise. In partnership with The Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, they have developed dedicated guidance for the support and wellbeing of adult social workers during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Further reading

Please note: the Library is not responsible for either the views or the accuracy of external content.

Will Quince MP, Department for Education, “Social workers are without a doubt unsung heroes, and we must all strive to champion and celebrate their important work”, Gov.UK, 16 March 2022

ADCS, Social Work in a Pandemic, 10 February 2022

NSPCC, Coronavirus briefing: guidance for social workers, 13 January 2022

BASW, Social work during the Covid-19 pandemic: Initial Findings, 28 January 2021

BASW, The role of social workers in a pandemic and its aftermath: learning from Covid-19, 28 May 2020

Press articles

Mithran Samuel, Community Care, Most social workers happy in role despite unpaid overtime, cuts and Covid mental health toll, 9 March 2022

Mithran Samuel, Community Care, Temporarily registered social workers urged to restore full registration to remain in practice, 8 March 2022

Local Government Association, Children’s social worker shortage reaches five-year high, 3 March 2022

Mithran Samuel, Community Care, Drop in adult social workers employed by councils as vacancies and turnover mount, 3 March 2022

Mithran Samuel, Community Care, Government examining how councils can take more social work students, 24 February 2022

Rob Preston, Community Care, Social workers’ wellbeing and quality of working life have decreased over course of pandemic, study finds, 8 October 2021

Journal articles

Tom Kingstone et al, The British Journal of Social Work, Exploring the Impact of the First Wave of COVID-19 on Social Work Practice: A Qualitative Study in England, UK, 17 August 2021

Rachelle Ashcroft et al, The British Journal of Social Work, The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Social Workers at the Frontline: A Survey of Canadian Social Workers, 27 July 2021


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