ContextEvery social worker will tell you that they undertook this vocation (and it really is not just a job) because they want to champion the underdog and affect positive change for their service users and their families. No social worker gets into this field because of the money and they certainly do not go to work to do a bad job. I am a firm believer that bad social workers are ‘made’ and not ‘bred’. What I mean is that, when a newly qualified social work graduate leaves university and has that HCPC registration card in their hand, they cannot wait to get out there and ‘change the world’, I know it is very cliché, but it is true!
What they will find, however, is an environment in which they are required to complete box-ticking exercises and spend 90 percent of their time in front of a computer screen and not with their service users.
My own experience is within a Child Protection (CP) Team in a Local Authority (LA) that has now been deemed as being in ‘Special Measures’ by Ofsted. This means that children within the LA are not being protected as they should be and are at risk of harm. This creates pressure from the top down within the LA, a Commissioner was appointed and ordered to bring the LA to a satisfactory standard.
Being in special measures would indicate that there are problems within the LA, and I have seen most of these as I have practiced there over the past 17 months. These are some of the problems that I have faced;
1. Caseloads – this is not a new phenomenon and the number of cases each social worker carries should depend on their experience, for example, a more senior social worker could have a caseload of around 25-30 and a newly qualified social worker should have no more than 15 by the end of the year. They really should only start with six and, following their 3, 6, and 9 month reviews, should be allocated cases on a basis of their capacity and progress. I had 20 cases within the first 5 months.
2. Supervision – this is an integral part of any social worker’s practice. It is required as it gives you the opportunity to discuss your cases and gain advice. A newly qualified social worker should receive weekly supervision for the first 6 weeks and then bi-weekly supervision for the next three months before moving onto monthly supervision following this period (following a review). In my first 6 months I was given supervision on 5 occasions – it should have been around 12-14.
3. Environment – the social services environment is not consistent, this is due to the nature of the role and the pressure that comes with it, and the reputation of a failing authority. Agency workers are being relied on more and more as permanent staff do not want to work in these environments. A constant changing of staff is tough for the families you work with as they have no consistency and it is bad for the permanent members of the team; I found that I could not become settled within my team and this negatively affected my practice.
As I write this, I am currently not at work and have been deemed by the doctor as ‘stressed’. I have not encountered this before and I did not realise that I was feeling like this until I could not even think about work without feeling that pit in my stomach and my hands shaking whenever I thought about my caseloads. I have reflected on my journey as a newly qualified social worker and I can now identify when I started to feel like this, and why. If I could pass any advice on, it would be this;
1. Ensure you are receiving regular supervision – there may be a time when your manager cannot do this with you due to an emergency, that is fine, but ensure that you are in their office the next day, requesting that you have supervision ASAP. Your practice and your confidence will suffer if you do not.
2. If you feel that your caseload is too high or is unmanageable for you, then speak to your manager. It is important that they are aware of how you are faring and how you are managing your cases. If you feel that you cannot do this, you need to speak to somebody else within your LA/organisation.
3. Take time for yourself – 2 months ago, I would have scoffed at this and said something like, “Yeah right, when have I got time for that?!” and I would have been right. It is important to remember however, that YOU are the most important part of this. Yes, you have a responsibility to your service users and you are accountable for your work, but in order to practice effectively and safely, you need to be healthy. I found that writing and starting my blog was a good way for me to relax outside of work, I have a wife as well and ensure that I spend as much time with her as I can.
I would urge you to not internalise any of the problems you may face in your Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (ASYE), I wish that I hadn’t and that I had focussed on ensuring that I was being properly supported. From now on I will speak up for myself and will not take on more than I should. I CAN do that and so can YOU!