Social Work Workforce FAQs

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This blog explores the social work workforce in Scotland – who they are, the challenges they face, and the potential for big changes to their work on the horizon. You can read more about social work in Scotland in our briefing.

Who makes up the workforce?

Roughly 8% of the total workforce in Scotland work in the delivery of social services. This includes:

  • care workers
  • offender accommodation staff
  • fostering and adoption staff
  • social workers
  • social work support staff.  

How big is the workforce?

In 2020, the latest available data, nearly 210,000 people worked in the social services workforce, the largest the workforce has been. There were 17,800 employees in local authority social work departments, and within that just over 6,000 social workers.

How are social work services organised?

Statutory social work is carried out by social work departments in local authorities. Planning and organisation of social work services is the responsibility of integration authorities, or local authorities where services are not delegated.

Many social services are also delivered by local authorities, but most services are commissioned from the private and voluntary sectors. The private sector provides most care homes for older people (76%), while the voluntary sector provides more services to people with learning disabilities (62%) and physical and sensory impairments (76%).

The workforce is also spread across these different employers with the private sector having the largest share of the workforce at nearly 40%, and local authority employees making up 34% of the workforce.

What training does the workforce have?

The Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC) is the regulator of the social work, social care and early years workforce. It maintains a register of most job roles in the sector and outlines training, qualification and continued professional learning requirements.

What are the key issues facing the social work workforce?

Workplace stress

A recent study found that 82% of social workers in Scotland reported experiencing significant stress at work and 36% felt ‘not valued at all’

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated what many social work staff felt were already challenging working conditions. Before the pandemic, many social workers reported feeling stressed at work and not respected, something that continued after the pandemic started.


In a 2021 study, only 40% of social workers reported that their workload was manageable.

Many social work staff have reported that their high caseloads are unmanageable. Across the UK, social workers have reported levels of demand at work 95% worse than the UK average, and over 70% of workers in the UK are not able to complete their work within their contracted hours.

Scotland has an ageing population and a declining healthy life expectancy, which means that more people are living longer in poor health, increasing demand for care services. A national policy direction to shift more care from hospitals to community settings has resulted in fewer hospital beds and more support is needed outside of hospitals. This has increased the demand for social work and social care.

Local authorities have limited resources which can result in only the most complex and urgent cases  accessing resources. A limit on the amount of early intervention work that can take place can also contribute to a high workload of complex cases.

Alongside high caseloads, social work staff have also reported a growing volume of administrative tasks and reduced administrative support.

Social work staff have also reported wanting more managerial support.

Retention of staff

There are issues around the retention of staff as a result of wellbeing issues. The high job demands can cause stress, poor job satisfaction, staff continuing to work when ill and wanting to leave their job.

In Scotland 20% of social services staff left their post in 2020. Over 40% of social workers plan to leave the profession, reduce their hours, take early retirement or a career break in the next three years.

Most staff in the social services believe that the high turnover of staff has a negative impact on the quality of services they provide.

Issues have also been raised around career progression and there are few opportunities for social workers to progress in their career without moving out of practice into management. This can lead to poor career satisfaction, and a loss of experienced social workers into management or away from the profession.

Rural areas can find it harder to recruit and keep staff, with a lack of candidates applying and the transport issues (for example, the costs of running a car or lack of public transport) associated with large authorities and spread out populations making these areas less attractive areas to work in.

What impact has the COVID-19 pandemic had on the workforce?

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing issues experienced by social work staff, with many reporting the pandemic adversely impacted workplace morale and 57% their mental health got worse.

Across the UK, nearly half of social workers have reported increased caseloads since the pandemic. Social work staff were mostly working from home. In some cases, this has meant that difficult decisions and conversations were taking place at home, without immediate support from peers or  managers.

Staff in the health and social care workforce also reported adopting more negative coping strategies during the pandemic, including substance use, behavioural disengagement and self-blame. They also reported worsening work-related quality of life and burnout.

What is being done to address these challenges?

In the health and social care workforce strategy, the Scottish Government have said it will  give additional funding to local authorities to increase the workforce to try and ease some of these problems.

The Office of the Chief Social Work Adviser at the Scottish Government is also preparing an advanced practice framework for social work. This is expected to include proposals to create more career progression with senior practitioner roles. The proposals may also include a supported year for newly qualified social workers offering protected caseloads, professional supervision and dedicated training time. This approach has already been trialled in pilot schemes.

What impact will the National Care Service have?

The Scottish Government has committed to introducing legislation to establish a National Care Service (NCS) by June 2022. It consulted on proposals in 2021 and the analysis of responses was published in February 2022. Although the aspects of social work that will be included will likely be outlined in the Bill, it is expected that there may be changes to the way in which social work is organised and delivered.

You can read more at our National Care Service – hub for SPICe material

What about a National Social Work Agency?

The Scottish Government’s NCS consultation sought views on setting up a National Social Work Agency (NSWA), a national organisation responsible for the leadership of the qualifications, training, professional development, workforce planning, and pay and grading for social work staff.

Although the detail is unknown, what is certain is the development of an NCS is likely to have a significant impact on social work services and the workforce itself.

Sam Harrison, Researcher

Blog Image: “Writing Working Photo” by Startup Stock Photos is marked with CC0 1.0.