Page content

On Friday the Derry/Londonderry campus hosted a first-of-its-kind event to bring together international experts, frontline social workers and representatives from all Northern Ireland Health and Social Care Trusts in order to discuss safe staffing in social work.

At a time when the issue of staffing levels across the health and social care sector are making the headlines, this important initiative brought key stakeholders together to explore different ways of thinking about what safe staffing means in practice.

The event was led by Dr Paula McFadden, Senior Lecturer in Social Work from the School of Applied Social and Policy Sciences, as part of innovative policy development research funded by the Office of Social Services the Northern Ireland Social Care Council.

The project has been commissioned by the Chief Social Worker for Northern Ireland, Aine Morrison, in preparation for Safe Staffing in Social Work becoming a legal requirement in Northern Ireland and involves, in the first place, children’s, older people and mental health social work services. Dr Paula McFadden designed the methodology to be applied to meet the goals of policy development, by providing an evidence base to support policy guidance and legal requirements.

Aine Morrison commented:

“Safe staffing in social work is key to workforce stability and workforce wellbeing. The roundtable discussion was a great opportunity to learn from others about approaches to safe staffing and I look forward to continued collaboration as we develop this work.”

The event was the first of its kind in Northern Ireland, and included local, regional, national, and international representation. Over one hundred attendees from the five Health and Social Care Trusts (including front line social workers, managers and Executive Directors of Social Work), the Department of Health, Northern Ireland Social Care Council, the Strategic Policy and Planning Group, NIPSA, BASW NI,  the Health Services Executive (Donegal –older people service and Dublin –mental health service) and TULSA (Republic of Ireland, Family and Child Agency) participated in a day long exchange of practice-based approaches and models used in current practice to manage service pressures and social worker caseloads.

International speakers also contributed to the knowledge exchange, including Professor Timo Harrikari (Finland) and Dr Austin Griffiths, (USA). Safe Staffing in Social Work is already law in Finland and in a number of American States so this was an extremely valuable aspect of the proceedings. Attendees reported positive evaluations of the day, including useful models which will inform approaches to risk management of workload demands on staff.

Dr McFadden commented:

“This event has provided confirmation of the views of multiple perspectives on safe staffing in social work. There is a shared goal, which is to take an evidence informed approach to this critical matter. Safety for service users is enhanced by safety and wellbeing of our workforce, who must feel supported, valued, and given workloads within human capacity.  Actions to address workforce turnover and instability must be a priority to improve ‘safe staffing working conditions’ and retain staff, and this is our collective responsibility.”

Research has begun across all five HSC Trusts on data collections at team level workload information, as well as interviews and focus groups with front line social workers and teams. The first phase of the project is estimated to be completed by December 2023.