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Why are social workers involved in almost 60% of referrals to HCPC?

Regulator represents 16 professions yet receives ‘disproportionately high’ number of referrals about social workers

Published on 10th October 2017

Social work employers are referring social workers to the Health and Care Professions Council in a bid to maintain public credibility of the sector, research has found.

Research carried out by the University of Surrey into disproportionately high number and nature of complaints to the regulator about social workers in England and UK paramedics found employers refer their employees as a means of protecting themselves.

“Employers may refer concerns to the regulatory body, as a way of maintaining public credibility, and protecting themselves from blame by ensuring ‘misconduct’ or ‘incompetence’ is seen to be dealt with at an individual level,” said the report.

Bullies or wimps

The HCPC regulates 350,000 individuals from 16 health and care professions. Six per cent of all professionals on the register are paramedics, and 27% are social workers in England. Paramedics represented 10.65% and social workers 57.65% of all fitness to practice cases in 2014-15.

As a result, the research set out to ascertain why there was a disproportionately high number of referrals involving social workers and paramedics and what could be done to address this.

The report highlights the difficulties faced by social workers given the contradictory purposes and values of their job role to both care and control as well as societal ambivalence towards their work with vulnerable and/or dangerous people whereby social workers are seen as ‘bullies’ or ‘wimps’.

Given that service users are often branded as ‘skivers’, ‘undeserving’ or ‘troubled’ and at the heart of a welfare system may “to some extent account for the disproportionately large number of concerns being lodged against social workers by the public,” the report added.

High stress levels

A blame culture and defensive practice militates against honest relationships between service users, professionals and employers, which might in fact defuse concerns before they escalate to an official level, it says.

However, the report states that poor conditions in workplaces, high levels of stress and responses to stress including alcohol and drug use may also be factors contributing to poor judgement, unethical and incompetent practice.

Inadequate supportive supervision which should be at the heart of good social work also contributes to an environment where errors, omissions and misconduct are not picked up.

The research highlights the important role that employers have in supporting their employees and suggest that many social workers would not go through the whole conduct and competence process through the HCPC if they received better support at work.

It states that there should be “much greater emphasis on local, employer-led interventions”.

“There will always be a small number of individuals who do cause deliberate harm. They must be held to account, and there is no evidence in this study to suggest that the HCPC’s current system of regulation does not meet its obligations to the public in this regard,” said the report. “However, there are many more professionals who, with appropriate local support and intervention, would, and arguably should, never have been referred to the regulator in the first place.”

Political climate

Responsibility for delivering a more proportionate response lies with all the agencies involved -employers, professional bodies, advocacy groups, educators and regulators - working together, the report says.

Participants in the research agreed that, on a societal level, changing public attitudes and expectations of health and social work professionals, together with increasing emphasis on accountability and awareness of how to make a complaint, were likely to be having an impact on the rate of complaints.

On an organisational level, factors such as poor leadership, heavy workloads, poor staff development provision and pressure on services, resources and support were contributory factors. On an individual level, contributory factors included the selection, training, supervision and professional development of practitioners, and the need for clearer guidance on the ethical responsibilities of individual registrants.

Four key themes from the interviews and focus groups emerged:

  • The impact of public perceptions and expectations;
  • The challenges of practice for both social workers and paramedics;
  • The organisational, cultural and political climate affecting their work; and
  • The evolving nature of these professions.

Both paramedics and social workers operate within contexts of uncertainty and ambiguity, the report highlighted.

The research also examined 10% of cases to explore the nature of complaints about paramedics UK-wide and social workers in England. Researchers analysed 232 cases involving social workers from all three stages of the investigative process.

The analysis revealed:

  • 67% of the social work cases involved social workers employed by local authorities
  • 69% worked in children’s services.
  • 56% of referrals about social workers were from members of the public
  • This compared with an average of 18% for paramedics and 12% for all other HCPC regulated professions during this period
  • Only 5 of the referrals from members of the public progressed to a final hearing
  • Just one referral from the public resulted in a sanction.

“Overall, we did not find a disproportionate number of complaints leading to a judgement of impairment. Instead we identified a disproportionate number of referrals to the regulator that did not meet the threshold for further investigation,” said the report.

“The majority of these emerged from circumstances in which the individuals concerned were working in complex, ambiguous, highly pressurised environments, often distant from or feeling unsupported by their managers and confronted with patient and service user frustrations with wider, organisational service delivery failures during a time of social and political turmoil,” the report concluded.

 

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