Open letter to Director of Adult Social Care – Mental Health social work dispute

Dear James Mass,


We are writing to you today, in the absence of any response to us so far, following our 9 days of strike action. We are deeply disappointed that you have chosen not to acknowledge the strike and, in many ways, feel that we are being treated with contempt. It unfortunately feels in keeping with a wider dismissal of the distress workers have voiced to you in the past 18 months of this dispute. We have always appreciated that in Barnet, senior management regularly interact regularly with practitioners. However, when coupled with the contrast of complete silence during our strike action, the inevitable result has been a deep sense of alienation, frustration and undervaluation.


The past 18 months, and the 14 staff members who have left our teams, demonstrate the dangerous potential of this undervaluation. 1 staff member has already handed in their notice since strike action began, more have formal plans to leave and anecdotally many others have expressed that the lack of response from senior management means they are seriously considering whether to stay. Put simply, your silence has led staff members previously very committed to Barnet to feel that they are in a service which does not make an effort to recognise their worth to the council or the difficulties they are bringing to your attention. We are incredibly concerned about the current recruitment and retention crisis spiralling out of control, leaving remaining social workers unable to provide a service at all, let alone one which is safe for service users and the social workers of whom we have been bereft of since the transformation of mental health social care in 2021. We are therefore urging you to commit to meeting with our representatives and engaging in meaningful dialogue about how we can resolve this situation.


The absence of any negotiation leaves us to reflect on previous responses from you to the conditions which led to this dispute.


We feel dismissed when you deny that our service is in crisis when it is us as practitioners who have to deal with the realities of an up to 15-month waiting list for individuals in mental distress. We are the practitioners assessing individuals whose needs have clearly deteriorated since their referral; who are either referring for Mental Health Assessments or undertaking these assessments at much higher numbers and who are putting in care as urgent hospital discharges for people who have been on our waiting list for months prior to their admission. We know first-hand that this means the care we need to put in place is much more significant than if we had been able to support them closer to their referral. We also know that we are in no position to regularly review and reduce this care, to provide least restrictive support, due to the number of service users needing acute, crisis interventions. Quite simply, unless individuals are presenting in crisis, we are unable to prioritise their care. It is subsequently difficult not to feel that we are in a failing service.


It was therefore also a profound insult to be told that that there is no retention crisis after 14 valued staff members (2 more social workers have handed in their notice since the strike began) , many of whom have been in Barnet for years, have left and told us this resulted from intolerable stress of being part of such a struggling service. We know that current conditions lead to intense anxiety, low satisfaction with work and a pressure to overwork, as quite simply; this is our daily reality. We know this is a recipe for burn-out and that when faced with burn-out, practitioners vote with their feet and leave the service. Subsequently, it is bordering on offensive to dismiss these conditions during a time when the council wishes to prioritise employee well-being as demonstrated by the communication on Mental Health Awareness day. We know the jobs practitioners have taken when leaving Barnet: these are better paid and more adequately resourced/staffed both in and outside of the statutory sector. Barnet has been a big proponent of the Think Ahead graduate scheme as a means of training social workers and encouraging them to stay in Barnet. Yet in the last two years, half of one cohort and 2 out of 5 of the current cohort will have left less than 6 months after finishing their ASYE. This scheme is failing because participants do not want to remain in a service with the current level of stress and chaos. We urge you to listen and prioritise the voices of the social workers that you employ over your own statistics to understand this retention crisis and the way out of it.


It was yet more disappointing to see that you felt our announcement of strike action was asking for special treatment for mental health social workers and pitted us against other social workers and Occupational Therapists in the council. This could not be further from the truth. We value highly the work of our colleagues in Adult Social Care, many of whom shared invaluable knowledge during the transformation to fill the gap of any targeted training for practitioners previously working outside of statutory teams. You are aware of the context for our organising and its genesis in this transformation which initiated our destabilising turnover and resulting spiralling waiting list. To deny this and again attempt to stoke division within social care perpetuates a sense that we have not been listened to. Throughout the dispute we have encouraged other social workers and OTs to take action if they are experiencing similar recruitment and retention problems and will continue to do and support them if they wish to organise. If this does take place, we urge you to learn from our current dispute and engage in the meaningful negotiation that we attempted over and over again prior to our strike action to prevent further disruption to social care.


Not one social worker out on strike wants to be in this position. The decision to strike, and to continue striking, is one which brings intense anxiety given that we know our own workloads, waiting lists and stress levels increase with each day that we are withdrawing our labour. We are in this profession because we want to support vulnerable people experiencing mental distress. You have seen how passionate we are about this work, in reviewing our care plans for panel and shadowing us on visits. You know then, that to take time away from this work is a last resort. However, it is this same commitment and value-base which has made us feel that striking is a necessary extension of our advocacy for service users who are not receiving the standard of care they need.


Each day we are out on strike we are hoping that you will meet with our UNISON reps in order to secure a resolution that will bring this dispute to a close.


Yours sincerely,

Barnet Mental Health Social Workers