If you’re working as hard as you can, yet can’t keep on top of your work within the 37 hours you’re paid for, then it’s not you who’s the problem. You are being paid a lot less than you should be.
In the United Kingdom, where I’ve spent the entirety of my social work career, the standard contract for social workers is 37 hours a week. Whether you are an agency worker paid by the hour, or a full-time salaried employee, the standard arrangement is to get paid for 37 hours of work.
Anything more than this can be taken back as flexi time or, less commonly, time off in lieu.
Of course, that’s the agreement- that you can take it back. But it never happens.
I don’t know of any social worker who has been able to take back every hour they’ve been owed by their employer. Conversely, I know of many workplaces where flexi-time is capped at one or two days a month. So, if you accrue more than 15 hours of overtime that you don’t take back in the calendar month, it’s gone forever.
Let’s play devil’s advocate and naively assume that social workers can find one day out of every ten that they are able to take back to cover their overtime; giving us 15 hours back.
Have we got back everything we’ve worked extra?
Are we now being paid, or getting the time off, for every hour worked?
Not bloody likely.
A study from 2017 showed that up to 92% of registered social workers in the United Kingdom are working an average of ten hours’ unpaid overtime every single week.
That’s 480 hours every year.
Working it out, taking the maximum flexi-time allowance that most of us are likely to get will leave 25 hours of unpaid and unaccounted over time. Every single month.
This results in a situation where, even if you take all your flexi-time by accounting for every one of your additional hours worked, you’re still being short-changed.
Let’s use some quick maths to try and work out what this unpaid overtime means in purely monetary terms.
The average social worker’s wage in the United Kingdom is £28,163. This breaks down to just over £16 an hour.
In the context of the national average income of £27,600 and national minimum wage of £8.21 an hour, we’re not doing too badly.
Indeed, if we only have to work the hours we are paid for, I’ve occasionally argued that we can be seen as having a ‘good wage’ if we put it in the context of those we support who are often experiencing poverty.
But there’s the rub: we don’t only have to work the hours we’re paid for.
Take the best-case scenario of being able to take all your allowed flexi-time and having ‘just’ worked 25 hours for free a month:
That drops your wage to £13.28 an hour.
Looking at the most likely scenario of flexi-time not being taken into consideration when people responded to the survey:
That leaves a wage of £11.68 an hour.
Before tax, that is equivalent to an annual salary of £22,815
The average travel consultant earns £23,000 a year
The average builder earns £24,000 a year
The average marketing assistant earns £25,000 a year
On the face of it, these are ‘lower paid’ jobs in average salary terms. But break down the hourly rate and you’re actually better off in these jobs than you are in social work.
Add in the reality that travel consultants aren’t often pilloried in the media, builders don’t go home wondering if their bricks are going to be hurt overnight and marketing assistants probably don’t experience vicarious trauma on account of horrifying tales of recounted neglect and abuse…. well, you get the idea.
In this context it’s little surprise that social workers are leaving for apparently ‘lower paid’ jobs. The benefits are there both in reduced stress and in terms of a higher real-term hourly wage.
You are better off financially and emotionally if you leave a stressful position, where you are working 40 hours of unpaid overtime, for a 9-5 job that pays you for the work you do and doesn’t being the unsurmountable pressure of having the burden of safeguarding vulnerable people placed upon your shoulders.
Flexi-time was sold to council employees with the positive spin that they would have more freedom to make their working life suit their personal responsibilities. Instead, the reality has been borne out that it is a way of enforcing unpaid overtime on workers whose duty of care to vulnerable people means they can’t clock off for the day on their own terms.
Instead of blaming people for deciding to either walk away from social work for good or making the most of their earning opportunities by leaving their teams for higher paying opportunities in other authorities, our employers need to reflect on the changes they can bring about.
Paying people for the hours they actually work is the bare minimum place they should start.