Working Safely as a Child Social Care Worker

In 2018, the UK Government reported that there were 31,720 child and family social workers employed by local authorities in England. The number of social workers visiting clients at home has increased in line with their caseload volume. This means that workers often carry out several home visits a day, attending various different environments that they may be unfamiliar with.

social worker sitting with a child client at a table

Every day child social workers provide vital services to vulnerable children in society across a range of complex environments, including child welfare agencies, mental health centres and hospitals. Social workers are public facing, often required to work in unfamiliar environments without other colleagues and engage in potentially risky situations, which raises serious concerns around the safety of these employees. When entering new environments employees can be at increased risk as they may not know how to get out of the situation in the event of an emergency. 

For many, lone working can be rewarding because if affords them a level of autonomy over their schedule. For social workers specifically, it can provide a better environment to develop a meaningful relationship with those they support; however, there are also increased risks that come with working alone. The absence of immediate back-up can leave employees vulnerable to violence and aggression which can have negative impacts on physical and mental health.

Violence and aggression

Although staff should not be expected to accept abusive behaviour as a normal part of their job, unfortunately, many social workers have been targets of verbal and physical abuse, especially when dealing with challenging behaviour is a daily occurrence. Unison conducted a survey on social workers and found that 50% of respondents answered that they had been subject to physical violence while at work, while 42% faced verbal abuse whether that is from the service user themselves, a relative or a friend.

Working alone or out of earshot of others – as many social workers do – inherently places them at greater risk if there is nobody around to help should a client visit turn violent. As a minimum requirement, employers should provide lone working public-facing staff with training that gives them the skills to effectively deal with situations that could become dangerous, such as conflict resolution and how to diffuse aggression.

According to the HSE, it is known that non-fatal injuries are under-reported via RIDDOR – this figure is estimated at around half. The majority of employees who are attacked while working do not report this to their employer, either because they don’t see it as important or because they don’t have the time.

Staff members should be educated about the importance of reporting incidents and subsequently encouraged to report any occurrence of threatening behaviour or violence to their line manager, who should be able to provide support and follow the company’s formal incident process. It can also be helpful for social care workers to record any information about a difficult visit in a way that can be accessed by other colleagues who may have to visit the same client. Keeping a record of difficult or challenging visits will help to build up a profile of each service user and may help to identify the patterns that cause a particular individual to become violent.

Mental Health

Social care workers deal with stressful situations on a day-to-day basis, ranging from ensuring children are in a safe home environment, to offering mental health support. In 2020, Community Care conducted a survey which found that 72% of respondents were having difficulties with their social work caseload provided by the local authority or children’s services trust. Worryingly, 23% described their workload as ‘completely unmanageable’, while 49% said it was ‘hard to manage’. Dealing with high-stress situations at work with the added pressure of a heavy workload can have a negative effect on employee’s mental health and wellbeing.

The higher caseload volume can be directly linked to staff shortages and austerity measures that have seen cuts in the social work industry. Coupled with more clients to see is the need for social workers to conduct visits alone. Due to the nature of the job and the likelihood of being faced with aggressive, if not violent, behaviour, many social workers suffer with work-related depression and anxiety. Analysis by The Office group revealed that among social workers, on average 0.92 days are lost each year due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety – double the average of 0.46 days.

Female worker looking stressed at her laptop

Providing staff conducting these visits with a reliable and robust lone worker service can empower them to feel safe while doing their job; knowing that their location is being monitored and a level 1 police response can be issued when a SOS alarm is raised offers peace of mind.

Encouraging employees to communicate with each other and their line managers is often the first step to dealing with poor mental health. Managers should be aware of clients with challenging behaviour that present significant risks and when caseloads are forcing staff to work more than their recommended hours. With this information, they can seek additional support, often from technology solutions such as a formal caseload management system or a lone worker service.

Further guidance on how to support employees through mental health struggles can be found through charities such as Mind.

Fatigue

The type of work that is carried out by social workers tends to be of high importance and often includes many hidden hours, making it both time consuming and tiring. The Unison survey looking into the life of social care workers revealed that the average number of hours worked per day was 9.5, despite the average hours employees had been paid to work being 7.5. Additionally, almost 1 in 10 respondents reported working days of 12 hours or more.

When working for long periods of time, workers can experience tiredness – making them less perceptive to potentially dangerous situations and less able to deal with them safely. While lone working, this risk is magnified because there isn’t a colleague available to discuss or influence safety decisions.

In order to minimise the risks posed by tiredness, it is important for social care workers to have regular breaks and to not exceed the recommended 48 hours of work per week. When completing home visits it is also important to encourage social workers to stay alert and aware of potential hazards, completing dynamic risk assessments where possible. 

How can Peoplesafe help?

Peoplesafe can help employers to fulfil their duty of care for child social workers by incorporating our personal safety service into your lone worker policies and procedures. The range of technology solutions available gives you the flexibility to choose the best suited options to mitigate the risks faced by your employees.

Staff who regularly complete home and site visits are at a particular risk of violence and additional hazards such as trips, slips or falls. All of our apps and devices have the capability of raising a SOS alarm to our dedicated Alarm Receiving Centre (ARC) which operates 24/7.

Additional features such as roaming sims, which utilise networks from the UK’s largest providers to ensure the best chance of connection of areas in low signal can help to put employees at ease when they’re travelling to unfamiliar environments. Fall detection can also be included – this feature automatically raises an alarm if it senses a sudden motion (such as a change in orientation) followed by a period of non-movement. It is particularly helpful to minimise the risk of a lone worker being unable to call for help after a slip, trip, fall or medical emergency.

If you have any employees that you feel could benefit from our lone worker service, please contact our sales team on 0800 990 3563 or complete the online contact form here.