Social worker caseloads

How Proposed Lower Caseloads can Reduce Social Worker Turnover

Have you ever felt overwhelmed, tired or overworked due to your career in social work? If so, you’re not alone.

Employee attrition plagues a wide variety of fields within the public sector and the results of these departures can have serious consequences. This attrition rate is especially high within the field of social work. Social services in Texas, for example, experienced a 25 percent turnover in 2015, according to an auditor’s report. The problem is perpetual: employees often cite heavy caseloads as their reason for leaving, which causes their clients to be assigned to another social worker. That professional then feels the weight of the additional workload, causing burnout and the desire to look for other job opportunities.

It is critical for social workers and their employers to develop strategies to reduce this turnover rate.

Here are some tips to complete that goal:

Find the right employer/employee pairing

It is not uncommon for employers to be anxious to fill vacancies when they arise. Yet hiring new social workers too quickly can cause organizations to overlook key elements of the job in an effort to cover the caseloads on hand.

It is crucial for agencies to take their time during the hiring process. Developing a recruitment system that targets the right candidates will keep attrition low and client welfare high, according to the Child Welfare Information Gateway. Of course, employers should advertise their openings in various ways such as on social media, online job boards, referral incentives and more — to create a strong pool of applicants. Finding interested candidates is usually not the issue; it is discovering who can actually handle the responsibilities of the job.

Agencies should review educational credentials as well as references and perform background checks to ensure the potential employee is a good fit. An applicant holding a Master of Social Work degree, for example, shows a high level of understanding and proficiency. Personality and in-field tests can help determine this ability and demonstrate a candidate’s handling of particularly tough situations.

Gradually increase workload

At the beginning of their careers, social workers may balk at a full caseload. Coming out of an educational environment offers students a buffer that quickly disappears once they are operating within the field. To alleviate the stress that accompanies this work as well as the fear of making mistakes, agencies can opt to add clients to an employee’s workload on a gradual basis. This enables these professionals to truly understand how each case will differ and will require particular treatment and future action. Each employer can decide how long they will allow their social workers to be in this development cycle. The factors that could lead to employees receiving a full workload will depend on area, need, and readiness and will be fully under the agency’s jurisdiction.

Gradually increasing a worker’s caseload can help reduce stress as well as employee burnout and turnover.

Connect with a mentor

Whether just entering the field of social work or having spent years in the profession, social workers can benefit from having a mentor. Using a peer mentor enables social workers to not only share the issues they are encountering, but to gain access to solutions they may not have thought of on their own.

Certain states have already realized that providing social workers with mentors offers a number of advantages. The state of Texas, for example, has implemented this action into its training program for new employees. Mentees will shadow these advisors for a month of on-the-job instruction followed by a period of classroom coursework, according to columnists Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene, writing in Governing. This practice enables social workers to ask valuable questions in real time and learn from their experiences, instead of trying to apply educational tactics without involvement in the field.

Frequently assess casework

Over time, agencies may add extra clients to social workers who have proven their capabilities in the field. It is critical for employers to assess their employees’ workloads on a regular basis to determine if anyone is struggling to keep up or facing extremely challenging situations in the field. With a better understanding of these professionals’ struggles and potential issues, organizations can take the necessary steps to alleviate stress and burnout. This could mean additional training for challenging client problems, reducing workloads, or adding another team member to strengthen welfare strategies and practices.

In addition to analyzing the number of cases an employee is overseeing at one time, agencies have to pay attention to the difficulty of the clientele. It is problematic to compare two social workers’ caseloads. While some employees may have fewer clients, the situations may be more challenging and time-consuming than peers with larger workloads. Employers should look at workloads on a client-by-client basis and make decisions to reduce or gradually increase cases accordingly.

Improve organizational culture

Employee turnover can be linked to a number of causes — from a high number of caseloads to burnout to client frustration — but there is an overarching factor that cannot be overlooked. The type of organizational culture in which social workers operate can have a large effect on their likelihood to leave a job and — as a result — on the potential for positive outcomes within their caseload.

It is important for agencies to constantly be improving their work environment as well as the methods their professionals use to prioritize, approach, and complete their client responsibilities, according to a study published in the Children and Youth Services Review. This means demonstrating the types of behaviors and practices that are not only valued by the overall organization, but supported by practitioners and leaders alike. When social workers understand not only what is expected of them, but also feel supported by their employers, they are more likely to dedicate the necessary time and effort to their workloads to ensure the outcomes are positive.

Turnover is a challenging problem that the field of social work faces. There are many causes to this issue, but one of the largest is the burnout and eventual resignation of those professionals with heavy caseloads. Reducing the amount of work employees have on their plates is a good place to start, but it is not the absolute solution. Agencies will have to continue to develop new strategies to combat this obstacle, but they can begin the process by developing a strong recruitment program, introducing mentorship opportunities, making regular assessments of workloads, and working to improve their organizational culture.

The Rutgers Online Master of Social Work program offers professionals the additional education and training they need to become leaders in their field. With this knowledge, social workers can better influence decisions and strategies that will not only affect their peers, but also their clients.


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