Social workers quit council jobs in favour of agencies

Mark Turner, UNISON Cymru/Wales care lead
UNISON’s Mark Turner. Photo credit: Natasha Hirst

More social workers in Wales are quitting permanent council paid work and signing up with agencies due to burnout and stress, according to figures seen by UNISON.

Social Care Wales (SCW) research has revealed a rise in social workers leaving permanent jobs with local authorities in favour of agency work from 2019 to 2021.

Social workers who took part in the research put their reasons for quitting council employment down to burnout and stress.

Some said local authority social work departments were toxic, negative environments with high demands and vacancy levels.

Staff interviewed by SCW also said agency work gave them a feeling of ‘being in control’ of work, workload and balance with family life. Agency workers only work the hours they are contracted for.

Sick pay is not offered to agency staff, but some said they are less likely to need sick leave as stress is reduced.

Some agency children’s social workers said they feel they provide a more reliable option for local authorities than permanent staff because if there is less stress, they will be less likely to take long term sick leave.

However, SCW also found support on offer from agency contracts is mixed with some making mistakes with pay and hours.

Agency social workers can also expect little, or no induction and training is rare.

UNISON has also been told local authorities are working together to limit the ability of social workers to work for an agency because they want to reduce the numbers of children’s social workers moving from permanent jobs to agency roles within Wales.

According to the ADSS Cymru (Association of Directors of Social Services), newly qualified children’s social workers will be prevented from working for an agency until three years after they have qualified.

The ADSS Cymru will also prevent the use of agency workers who have left a permanent council contract within Wales for a minimum of six months after their last day of employment.

Rhondda Cynon Taf social worker, Nicola Irwin, said, “As a directly employed council social worker, I could be sitting next to an agency worker who is earning much more than me, sometimes double the rate of pay. They are not allocated the long-term cases and they can move on when they choose, so the turnover of agency staff is high. The unfairness of it all hurts.

“We feel that our loyalty to the council and the job is taken for granted. Agency workers were meant to be a stop-gap but have become a permanent fixture. If the amount of money spent on agency workers was instead spent on permanent staff, we would have lower case loads and there would be less sickness absence.”

UNISON Cymru/Wales care lead officer, Mark Turner, said, “Social workers are clearly saying they no longer feel valued by local authorities and are turning to the more flexible model of agency employment.

“Councils must work with UNISON to tackle this issue and provide a more supportive environment for their staff.

“Agencies don’t give workers the same job security as local authorities but the impact of intense workloads and high vacancy levels is now creating a serious problem for councils across Wales.

“Funding for better pay to make the profession more attractive is crucial.”

Notes for editors

  • Research from Social Care Wales on 17 May 2023 shows a trend for increased use of agency social work labour by local authorities (2021: 7.2% social worker and social care worker employed through agencies; 2019: 3.9%).
  • ADSS Cymru (Association of Directors of Social Services) recommendations on methods of retention of social workers in local authorities in Wales came into effect on 1 May 2023. There was no trade union engagement.