Capped Caseloads

I was interested to see that Community Care are running an article about a survey that they ran which says that 9/10 social workers want caseload numbers to be capped.

I completed that survey and I’m in the 1/10 minority.

Most of my reasons are covered in the article. My point is that a ‘case’ is not necessarily a fair recognition of how much or how little work might be involved. One ‘case’ could be anything from some high intensity almost Assertive Outreach type working which involve both multiple visits a week and lots of peripheral organisation and meetings that might involve one ‘case’ taking the majority of a professionals’ time.

On the other hand, another ‘case’ might be one that is pretty much dormant, where everything is stable and the worker just hasn’t had the time to get around to closing because other, more pressing situations arise.

A blunt cap on caseloads doesn’t allow for any subtlety in the vastly different ways that cases are managed and the different work that is involved.

My very first social work job was in an adult community care team. When I left, I remember having to close 49 cases. Yes, that is appalling as a number on paper and I was consistently overworked – but – at least 20 of them did not need to be open and it was a matter of just not having got round to closing them.

Before I went in hospital earlier this year, I had a purge of all those cases that could be closed and managed to close five that I probably should have closed months previously.

Numbers aren’t necessarily the key. The other problem with a caseload cap is that there is an incentive for a worker maybe not to close a particular case if they don’t want to be allocated another one!

The problem is that  raw numbers are too haphazard a tool to measure workload.

I am in favour of weighted caseload management theoretically  but the systems to ‘weight’ the caseloads are not always able to take into account the various nuances of the job. It is something to ‘be aware of though’. A weighted caseload management system would find some way to balance the heavier pieces of work and the more ‘straightforward’ cases.

The problem is that anyone who has worked in the field for five minutes would know that an apparently ‘simple’ case can become complex very very quickly. We are talking about people!

One of the other issues about numbers is that there is an impression of ‘fairness’ across the team – you can know if you have the same number of cases as Joe and if that’s ‘fair’ or not.

I’ve always been slightly suspicious of this in the sense that having fewer cases doesn’t equate to having less work. Caseload management systems that try to equate ‘complexity’ can fail because although sometimes it’s very obvious something will be both complex and intense, sometimes these things just appear randomly in the nature that is human life.

So the answer?

The key to workload management has to be through good supervision and a dialogue between the manager and employee and a respect to know what the limits of an acceptable workload are and it will be different for different settings and for different individuals.

6 thoughts on “Capped Caseloads

  1. I agree with you view on case loads caps – it strikes me as the wrong solution to the problem. As a point of note the Comm Care survey shouldn’t be taken too seriously IMHO due to the manner in which it was conducted – I think it was just a link on the website wasn’t it, that people could go to if they felt they had something to say? That will always lead to fairly meaningless results… like putting a survey on the Daily Mail website asking people if they think jail sentences should be tougher! This isn’t to question the genuine issue that people are overworked (which I don’t think is much in dispute), just the results of this survey and the story being told off the back of them.

  2. Hi Fighting Monsters,
    Thanks for taking part in our survey. It’s interesting as I think most of the readers who responded to our survey would actually agree with you, a number is too simple. But most social workers seemed to want recognition of the fact that there comes a point when you can’t take any more cases. Maybe some sort of traffic light system would help set the limits of asn acceptable workload as you suggest.
    In reponse to Hound, the survey was on our website, but was also emailed to all our readers and to members of various professional associations and unions. 633 is a pretty impressive sample size if you ask me and I certainly don’t think we can dismiss the findings of our survey in the way he suggests.
    Ruth Smith
    Head of content
    Community Care

  3. Funny, we just had a discussion about this (case load caps, not the survey) in a team meeting this morning. Our case load numbers are determined according to the frequency of visits each client needs, and we must average a certain number of visits a month.
    That, and it’s not really up to the worker alone when to close a file.

    I can understand though in some agencies why workers would want a cap – I’m thinking of things such as Children’s Aid and Social Assistance programs where a single worker may support 50-60 or more cases at a time. That’s a lot to keep track of no matter what, and certainly doesn’t make it easy to prioritize emergency situations.

  4. (Cb – really sorry for taking over on your blog with the rather lengthy reply that follows! I just wanted to explain my views to Ruth. I’ll let it lie now!).

    Hi Ruth, sorry if some mix up, I was just explaining why I thought the survey results might be at odds with the position taken by CB (with which I agree) and the Social Work Reform Board. The results would suggest that either we are massively out of sync with the views of most social workers, or that the survey results aren’t very representative of the true views of SWs. From the data I could find CC gets over 70000 unique hits; I am not sure what the magazine readership is. In that context 633 is a relatively limited sample. Had you sampled 200 SWs selected at random (but pre-selected, not just who chooses to complete the survey) and reported those findings I think the results would be more interesting, although I understand that budgets might not allow this. Also, the manner of the survey questions can clearly influence the results (as anyone who has seen Yes, Minister will attest!). Perhaps if there were three options (keep the current ways of working; introduce more sophisticated case load management tools; have a numerical cap on caseloads); or perhaps if there was a questions before the caseloads cap question asking if people thought that simple caseloads caps could lead to some unfairness in caseloads within a team… then the results to the final question might have been quite different … we don’t know. I am not questioning the validity of the rest of your reporting (I spend an unhealthy amount of time reading your website!), or the need for caseload management to change from how it is now, just that we should be careful in suggesting that most social workers want numerical caps based on the survey findings alone.

  5. Hound and Ruth,
    Thanks for your response. I think that everyone without any question agrees that a lot of social workers are under a massive amount of stress regarding workloads.
    I think that playing ‘numbers’ games is far too simplistic and even the UNISON ‘traffic lights’ system is not flexible enough to have an understanding that a ‘green’ today can be allocated but could turn into a ‘red’ within five minutes of allocation!
    However, it is easy to focus on numbers as a rough tool – and so as a rough tool it may work – and it may work in some services better than others.
    The problem with tools, numbers, targets and figures is that there is an attempt to quantify and class human behaviour in a way that is not always possible and that has been a problem with target focused work for a long time.
    It works in some situations but there has to be an element of human touch and intuition about what is manageable and what isn’t and for me, the heart is at good supervision and good management rather than new systems to try and help the system become more equitable.

  6. Like cb, I’m a one out of ten who don’t think a caseload cap will answer the problem. Many factors affect actual workoad as cb and others have said, including number of cases, sure, but also their complexity, the worker’s experience level, travelling time (an issue in rural communities). As a Team Manager my view was that usually if a SW said s/he had too many cases they probably did have and measures needed to be taken, including going unallocated. Not a way to be popular with senior management but with a clear rationale and system for prioritising incoming cases and responding to emergencies, thye had to listen.

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