Social workers’ concerns about welfare not dealt with by authorities

Social Workers Union (SWU) & The Independent

In the last 18 months two-fifths (40%) of social workers have raised concerns about cases where they don’t believe appropriate action was taken. Of these, almost a third 29% have highlighted more than 5 cases in that time. 

The findings come in an exclusive report in The Independent which commissioned research among members of the Social Workers Union (SWU). [1]

The figures show a slight decrease from the last time SWU ran the survey in 2022 (when 48% reported raising concerns without then seeing action from bosses), the numbers of social workers who reported more than five cases has remained the same. [2]

58% of social workers say their caseloads are unmanageable, with almost all (92%) saying that the vulnerable would be better protected if case loads were lighter.

Both figures are almost identical to 2022 showing no improvement in social worker caseloads in the last two years.

Most social workers expected to see referrals increase over the next 12 months (86%), with 52% expecting to be inundated.

While this is a reduction from the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, it still shows social work services will continue to be stretched until well after the next General Election (in 2022 94% expected to see an increase, with 71% inundated)

Meanwhile, the mental health and recruitment crisis in social work continues.

Eight out of ten (86%) social workers suffer from stress at work (up from 82% in 2022) and two-thirds (62%) say their mental health is suffering because of work (65% in 2022). 

One in five (19%) find themselves suffering an emotional response to their work (crying / feeling unwell) at least once a week (down from 24% in 2022).

Around half are considering leaving social work (similar numbers to 2024), although 8% of social workers who were considering leaving have agreed to stay on and help those people they support.

John McGowan, General Secretary of the Social Workers Union, commented:

“The everyday struggles of social workers trying to do their best for the vulnerable people they support are clear to see in this shocking research.

“The data highlights a profession on the brink of a collective breakdown. Working conditions are not improving, the mental health of social workers is suffering and the resources and support for them to do their jobs properly are missing.

“Social workers go above and beyond to help those at most risk in the country and are highlighting safeguarding concerns on a regular basis. However, the consistent reports from respondents to the survey are that the resources to help those most in need are just not there.

“Helping vulnerable adults and young people is only possible if a full range of public services are available and well funded. 

“Ministers must own up to the fact that more than a decade of austerity has led to this situation. It is only the Government that can provide the funding to reverse the decline in public services and ensure the most vulnerable get the support they need.

“Social workers speak out and speak up for the people they support, but if they are not listened to, then the risks to children, young people and adults in need are dangerous and severe.”

One children’s services social worker in the South West England told the research project:

“Raising concerns has led to feelings of being ‘sent to Coventry’, accusations of bullying, and raised complaints. I have seen colleagues pushed out through improvement plans where their work has come under intense scrutiny and micromanagement as the system projects system issues onto individuals, creating a culture of nowhere to go to raise concerns.” [3]

Another children’s social worker in the West Midlands explained what happened when they raised issues with bosses:

“Not much happened. Most of the cases I have escalated concerns about relate to young, vulnerable female people at risk of child sexual exploitation who require more appropriate, usually more secure placements. This usually doesn’t happen due to the national dearth of suitable placements. We end up risk managing these young people’s situations & day-to-day lifestyles to a wholly unacceptable level.”

And a children’s services social worker in the East of England commented on the impact on the children they try to support:

“Children have moved to numerous placements further traumatising them, children forced into residential homes below the age of 11 due to lack of foster carers available, families that had their children removed as it was easier to do that than create a care plan with the level of support needed.”

The harrowing testimonies stretch to adult social workers too.

A criminal Justice social worker, Scotland:

“We’re overloaded with paperwork and tasks that cannot realistically be completed within the time provided. This means your effectiveness with service users is essentially poor. A complete lack of support from management who are very hands off. There is also a strong bullying and blame culture within the local authority I work for.”

A mental health social worker in the West Midlands told researchers:

“Ever increasing caseloads, diminishing resources and too much focus on paperwork which is often long winded and duplication taking time away from direct work. Unrealistic expectations from other professionals about the social work role and what we can do also places additional pressures on staff. Social work awareness and understanding should be included in some way in medical practitioners training.”

But even those who are supported in their role fear for the future as a children’s social worker from the East Midlands commented:

“At my current local authority, I feel like I can work better as my case loads have been manageable. But this doesn’t mean that they will stay like this or that if I leave for another local authority that it would be the same. But, even now with a manageable (15 – 18) case load, there’s always a family in crisis and then they monopolise your time for a week and your plans go out the window.”

Meanwhile other responses to the research suggested some of the steps that need to take place to address the challenges.

One adult social worker from the North West said:

“There needs to be more value & respect for the profession of social work rather than looking at quick fixes in unqualified staff.  There needs to be resources in terms of options for social workers to provide the right outcomes for people they work with, less managerialism. Social Workers cannot do their jobs without excellent social care via commissioned and community based provision there is not enough investment in either.”

And a child protection social worker in Scotland added:

“I feel like we’ve been screaming into a void for the last 10 years. Senior management need to stop trying to reinvent the wheel. Serious long term investment in early intervention services is needed – this is critical for families.  Decisions need to be made by frontline workers – not politicians. Trust your social workers!”


[1] The Social Workers Union, which has more than 16,000 members, invited all members to respond to a survey commissioned by The Independent between 25 January to 12 February 2024. 716 social workers responded.

[2] January 2022 data: The Social Workers Union invited all members to respond to a survey commissioned by LBC Radio between 10-17 January 2022. 824 social workers responded.

[3] All social worker responses are anonymised, but with permission, verbatim responses have been verified and coded by researchers.