All good social work is dependent on relationships. But how can social workers build meaningful relationships with children and families when so much gets in the way of them spending time with them? Cumbersome bureaucratic processes, outdated computer systems and an overemphasis on paperwork were highlighted in the Eileen Munro review of child protection in 2011, yet we still haven't made much progress. A survey of our members published this year shows the average social worker spends 24 per cent of their working week in direct contact with children while 63 per cent is spent on paperwork.
Meanwhile, research such as the Children's Commissioner Stability Index report last year heard directly from children that they did not see or hear from their social workers enough. Numerous serious case reviews and public inquiries highlight how the absence of engagement and communication with children compromises children's right to a voice and their safety. We urgently need to change this so British Association of Social Workers (BASW) England is working with the Children's Commissioner on a national campaign - the 80/20 campaign - to push for social workers to spend 80 per cent of their core hours focusing on direct work with children, young people and families.
1. Invest in IT.
Leaders need to cut the amount of time social workers spend on recording. This could be done by investing in better IT systems which don't require duplication. Surveys of social workers show most have access to IT but the quality of equipment varies. The most commonly reported problems are slow running computers, unreliable photocopiers and case recording systems going offline. Councils that have invested in new technology have seen it pay off, saving social workers time by speeding up recording so they can spend more time working directly with families.
2. Change your mindset.
Leaders and managers need to move away from performance indicators and targets and focus on direct work and outcomes for children. They should do everything possible to boost staff pride in their work by supporting them to do what they trained for, giving them autonomy to do what is best for service users and giving them more time to engage in direct work.
Steps managers can take include making it clear to employees that the purpose of an agency or service is to provide a public service that focuses on direct work and relationship building. It is also vital to involve employees, at all levels, in the process of improvement, consulting them about what support they need. Ensure social workers have intervals between visits so they can reflect on their practice rather than simply do back-to-back visits that provide no opportunity for reflection.
3. Create the right kind of space.
BASW members report hot-desking and large open-plan offices are not conducive to direct work or engaging in sensitive phone conversations with service users. Only half of social workers in England felt they had adequate quiet space or private meeting rooms for confidential conversations, while many admitted they frequently resort to making phone calls in their cars as the office is too noisy. Involve frontline staff in changing the layout of office space, ensuring there is quiet, soundproof space for sensitive conversations.
4. Lift the burden of admin.
Most social workers agree they currently do tasks they feel could be done by an administrator. Examples including minute-taking, typing and scanning. By cutting down on unnecessary admin and providing team administrators to assist, social workers can be left to do the real relationship-building work. Local authorities need to focus on ensuring that there are support staff to book rooms, transport and advise people of arrangements. This is as much about ensuring there are administrative staff as social work assistants who can liaise with families.
5. Promote self-efficacy among staff.
Self-efficacy in social workers is boosted by opportunities to identify transferable knowledge and skills. Supervisors who are themselves skilled and confident in face-to-face work are best equipped to help them do that, supporting them in planning the work and reflecting upon it afterwards so any encounter with a family becomes a learning opportunity. Therefore organisations need to invest in the training of practice supervisors.
Engaging with children and families in complex circumstances who have histories of abuse, neglect and trauma, is extremely challenging for practitioners. Such work evokes deep and powerful emotions, which can be painful and even overwhelming. This requires a work environment that recognises and validates the emotional component of the work and provides a supportive and critically reflective space for such feelings to be processed. If that is not provided then it is unsurprising that some practitioners might want to limit or reduce their contact with families in situations where they must hear, empathise with and respond to the fear, anger, despair and distress of children and parents.
- Maris Stratulis is England manager, British Association of Social Workers