‘Save From Harm’ – social work after a decade of austerity

JOHN WATSON, a senior social worker, gives his personal view of the survey results of a damning report released this week by Unison

By John Watson

UNISON surveyed staff working in a range of roles in social work teams across all of Scotland’s local authorities. The responses show that budget cuts are having a severe impact on staff. They are under enormous pressure due to staff shortages and growing demands for their services.

The findings are hugely concerning for Scotland, for the public, for social-work teams, managers, and indeed both Westminster and Edinburgh governments.

Social-work staff are burdened with emotional hardship that is connected to the abusive behaviours of the people they strive to support.

We are experiencing higher case numbers and unmanageable workloads. A reduction in administration staff has resulted in social workers adopting these roles and in turn preventing them from delivering the services they are professionally trained for. Likewise, fewer specialist provisions across local authorities and the voluntary sector have ensured that social workers are typically the only resource available.

Our social-work services are being compromised by a crisis fuelled by government cuts stemming from Westminster and Edinburgh. The demon that is austerity has certainly pulled up a seat to our professional table and appears to be feasting from all we have worked so hard to build, leaving us at breaking point.

Austerity has been the unwelcome guest of my profession for longer than I care to remember and there seems to be no escape from the serious impact and damage it brings.

I am first and foremost a member of the public. My expectation is simple: decent social-work services from my local council that I and any other citizens can rely on when we need them.

I am also a social worker and, after years of practice, now a senior social worker and have been privileged to manage many individuals who chose social work as their career.

I have witnessed at first-hand how these professional front-line workers serve our public to the highest of standards. They have gained qualifications at university and often undertaken further study to ensure their practice was exemplary. I manage highly qualified minds that are driven by the heart.

Social work is a vocational career and it is saddening to learn from the survey that 95 per cent wish to leave and that staff morale is at an all-time low. I say this when considering the personal investment each worker has made, not to mention the investments made by local authorities in professional development. I struggle with the thinking behind cuts that are catastrophic for service delivery and compromise the safety and well-being of a dedicated workforce.


As a senior social worker, I allocate cases to workers with issues that are unimaginable to many. Extraordinarily, it was not the complexity of their service users’ lives that caused heartache to social workers, but the unrealistic expectations of higher management.

Social work is approaching a situation in which the welfare of the computer, not the child, will be paramount. Workers told Unison how they feel hostage to the values of a corporate management that has forgotten the core principles that were held dear on their graduation day. As a frontline social-work manager, this unsettled me wholeheartedly, as social workers experience a dilution of their identity as a professional.

Many social workers are also parents and carers who sacrifice time with their own families whilst working tirelessly to ensure the needs of another are met. Their work-life balance is often entirely skewed in favour of their work.

Social workers who serve the most vulnerable are being introduced to their own vulnerability. This leads to levels of stress, anxiety and shame. Workers start to ask if they are fit to practice, when in fact it is the lack of resources and support that is failing them and their service users. I hope Unison’s report will help workers to realise they are not alone in their struggles and persuade their managers to address the reality of the findings.

It was for these reasons that I got more involved in the union and I can now speak as a Unison branch officer who, along with others, attempts to negotiate ways in which social-work practice is delivered whilst upholding our true ethical values embedded within a clear code of practice. I am also honoured to provide guidance and support to members who are burdened by professional expectations.

The findings of the report, depressing as they are, were no surprise to me. I am fully aware of the lack of support for social-work teams. They have been introduced to a culture of fear by increasing pressures from services users, managers and additional legislative demands whilst the resources have been cut. They face abuse and violence which is totally unacceptable.

As a social worker and front-line manager, as a union activist, I ask managers and politicians to explore the findings of the report and to act on them – before it is too late and workers and service users come to serious harm.

John Watson is a member of Unison Scotland’s Social Work Issues Group.

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