Social workers carry out £600m worth of unpaid overtime

92% of social workers across the UK carry out an average of 10 hours unpaid overtime each week

Published on 17th July 2017

More than £600 million worth of unpaid overtime is being carried out by social workers across the UK, according to a study by Bath Spa University.

BASW, which supported the study, has slammed the findings as “alarming evidence of the difficulties social workers experience”.

Dr Ruth Allen, of BASW, commented: “Social workers provide vital professional support and protection to millions of people of all ages. Poor employment conditions and long hours lead to burn out and practitioners wishing to leave the profession too early. This is extraordinarily wasteful and undermines quality.”

“Chiming closely with what we found in our Northern Ireland 'Above and Beyond' study in 2016, Dr Ravalier's UK research confirms that social workers give an immense amount in unpaid time because of their professional commitment. We will work with social workers and employers to improve models of working and to influence governments to fund and support excellent social work for all who need it,” added Dr Allen.


The study showed that 92% of the 100,000 registered social workers across the UK are working an average of 10 hours of unpaid overtime every week. This equates to approximately 480 hours every year, or 64 days, per person which means that social workers in the UK are working £644,736,000 worth of unpaid overtime every year.

As a result, over 50% of current social workers are considering leaving the profession within the next 18 months due to the stress of too many demands on their time.

The study found that working conditions for social workers across the UK, irrespective of job role, are extremely poor. The demands that individuals had on their time was consistently found to be related to increased levels of stress, intentions to leave the job, job satisfaction, and presenteeism – returning to work when still sick enough to be at home.

These survey results are backed up by comments left by respondents to the project where respondents described the sheer number of cases, and too much administrative work, which were the two types of work demand which needed significant improvement.

Institutional racism

The study looked at race and disability and found that while non-white and British social workers described said this enabled them to take a different perspective to their role in social work, and in particular have a greater understanding of the influence of the different cultures of service users, respondents also described that there was a culture of institutional racism, which played against non-white employees.

Institutional racism was mentioned 40 separate times by respondents who described being either victim or witness of institutional racism from management in their local authority. For example respondents described being “surprised at the level of prejudice in social work settings”, that “institutional racism is still entrenched in local authority”, and that individuals are “undermined and overlooked” due to their race.

The study says this issue needs greater investigation, and addressing where it is found to be a problem.

With respect to those social workers with a disability, respondents described a lack of understanding from management and colleagues within their organisation, and others also described a lack of reasonable adjustments for their disability at work.

‘Social workers are giving away their free time’

Urgent action needs to be taken to reduce the demands faced by social workers across the UK. Without improving the caseload and administrative demands of the role (particularly for children’s and adult’s social workers), a large proportion of social workers may leave the role across the next 18 months, it concludes.

Researcher Dr Ravalier said: “What our research has revealed is that the majority of social workers are actually deeply fulfilled by their work but the satisfaction they feel can no longer outweigh the lack of support they are experiencing.

“Deep budget cuts are forcing social workers to take on more cases than ever, putting them under pressure to deliver a service to people that are often vulnerable with fewer resources. In order to keep up, they are simply giving away days of their personal time.

“If this keeps up, and the social workers we spoke with do leave the profession, local authorities will be forced to pay for contract workers who are expensive, transient, and certainly won’t be working lots of free hours.”

Mass exodus

Dr Ravalier is now working with the Social Workers Union and BASW on a series of recommendations to present to the government, outlining the key areas of investment needed.

BASW and SWU will work with members on the implications of these findings for them and develop social worker-led actions including: 

  • Lobbying MPs and Peers in Parliament, involving social workers
  • Liaising with employers’ organisations across the UK to formally discuss our role in supporting good workplace conditions and models
  • Liaising with other Unions representing social workers on joint actions
  • Investing in dedicated SWU staff resource to carry the work forward.

Despite thousands of social workers working extra hours for free, the Local Government Association (LGA) predicts that social care funding faces a gap of at least £2.6 billion by 2020.

Dr Ravalier continued: “The government has enjoyed years of huge savings in the form of conscientious employees giving up their own time. The funding black hole that many predict we are facing almost certainly does not take this into account, so the situation is likely to be much worse than thought.

“If we do see a mass exodus then these costs will have to be taken into account – a crisis is definitely looming and thousands of people, including the elderly, the very young and those with health issues, are at risk of slipping through the net. With this evidence in hand, the government needs to consider its spending position on social care very soon and inject a great deal of money into the sector.”

UK Social Workers: Working Conditions and Wellbeing Report available here


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