Social Work services reach breaking point, warns UNISON

UNISON, Scotland’s largest union, has today (Thursday) warned of a social work crisis as cuts have left the service struggling to cope.

UNISON’s report – Save from harm – is the latest in UNISON’s damage series of reports which looks at the impact of austerity on Scotland’s public services.

Freedom of information requests to local authorities and a Scotland-wide survey of UNISON members working in social work teams reveal a dedicated workforce working hard to support the public but who are under enormous pressure.

The report also revealed that violence at work is a major issue among staff with two thirds having experienced physical or verbal abuse at work. Only one third of those who had experienced abuse knew of a risk assessment following that abuse.

Save from harm lays bare the impact of major budget cuts which have left social work teams severely underfunded and services that have now reached breaking point.

The report revealed:

• 76% of respondents stated their teams did not have enough staff
• 82% stated their workload had got heavier in the last few years
• 89% of staff are working late and skipping breaks to keep on top of their workload
• Almost a third of respondents rated their stress as 9 or 10 on a scale of 1 to 10
• 90% of respondents are considering leaving their jobs in social work
• Two thirds of staff had experienced physical or verbal abuse at work
• Only 31% would recommend social work teams as a place to work
• There are 176 fewer social workers and 605 fewer business support staff than last year
• Local authorities are short 55 mental health officers
• In 2016, Audit Scotland estimated that social work services needed a 16-21% increase in funding to cope with growing demand. The funding has not been put in place.

Joe Lynch, UNISON regional organiser, said: “This is a damning report which shows our social work services have reached breaking point. Our dedicated staff are going above and beyond to support the public but they are under enormous pressure with heavier workloads and too few staff.

“They feel exhausted, undervalued and suffer violence regularly. Social work teams are severely underfunded and we are facing a social work crisis. The dedicated people working in our social work teams deserve better and so do the people who rely upon them.”

John Watson, a social worker, and also a member of UNISON’s social work issues group, said: “Social work teams are so under-resourced that we now spend the majority of our time reacting to problems rather than preventing them. This is not the kind of service that people deserve and it only ends up costing more and putting further strain on other public services such as NHS, police and schools.

“Staff are working through breaks and staying late in order to protect service users, which is having a terrible impact on their own health and personal lives. We need proper funding put in place for these vital services and urgent action to prevent violence in the workplace.”

Valerie Jennings, of UNISON in West Dunbartonshire, said this week that he Social Work members are under pressure because of ongoing staff cuts and shortages and the fact they have been allocated office accommodation which is not fit for purpose.

James O’Neill told social media: “The common denominator to this and always recurring issue of staff welfare and well-being is bad management.

“My question is how many senior managers have worked with PEOPLE? Very few I would suggest.

“Yet they are given positions of responsibility to provide a service to our most vulnerable.Wake up!”

* This is a survey of staff working in social work teams. As well as social workers and social work assistants/support workers, it also includes social work managers, business support, administrative and clerical roles, mental health officers, occupational therapists, care workers, residential care workers, addictions workers and welfare rights officers. You can view the full report online here:


  1. The SW staff in West Dunbartonshire took the lead in exposing these working conditions in the vital services they provide and with the support of their Union have won some important concessions from management. There needs to be a National Campaign of opposition to Local Council cuts which always disproportionately affect the most vulnerable in our Communities.


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