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‘I regularly work 80 hours a week’: child protection’s unreasonable workloads

Stressed and overworked child protection staff are at risk of making poor decisions and are costing the department in WorkCover claims, says the Victorian Auditor General’s Office.

The main cause is not so much the inherently stressful nature of the job as the “unreasonable workloads” and inadequate staff support resulting from under-resourcing, according to a report tabled on Thursday.

The number of child protection reports per staff member has nearly doubled in the space of a few years. Staff are regularly working overtime to complete heavy workloads within strict statutory timelines and help some of the most vulnerable members of the community.

“Demand is such workers no longer feel they are doing a good job — they feel everything they do is ‘light touch’,” said one staff member interviewed by VAGO.

“I regularly work 80 hours a week and have to set my alarm at 4am to start work in case I get caught up in another urgent matter which I had not previously featured into my diary,” said another.

The number of child protection reports per staff member has increased significantly in recent years, placing strain on the system. Source: VAGO.

Child protection practitioners’ responses to the People Matter Survey reflect increasing work‑related stress over time. In 2013, 51% agreed that they did not feel too stressed at work, but by 2016 only 33% reported no to low or mild stress. Likewise, in 2015, 58% agreed they could manage their workload, but in 2016 this was only 34%.

Half of those asked by VAGO said they could not reasonably manage a balance between work and their personal lives.

The struggle to cope with mental health risks is reflected in WorkCover claims. Department of Health and Human Services data shows that in 2016-17, 49% of the 37 child protection practitioner WorkCover claims related to mental health. WorkSafe Victoria’s site visits to child protection offices are also primarily in response to complaints of excessive workloads.

And this isn’t the first time the problem has been raised — from 2015 to 2017, records of DHHS’s workload review panels repeatedly comment on the impact of the heavy workloads on practitioners, describing their high levels of fatigue and stress.

The department’s processes for assisting staff in dealing with stress and mental health issues aren’t working very well either. Regular meetings for this purpose are regularly being cancelled — because staff are too busy to attend them.

There are issues with the employee assistance program — for some it’s located offsite, others have privacy concerns when it is onsite, and for many a more clinically advanced level of support was required.

A lack of respect for child protection practitioners was noted as a factor.

“An absence of appropriate respect for the child protection profession fuels frequent poor behaviour by clients and community members, in court environments, and even in child protection workplaces,” says VAGO.

“Poor behaviour towards CPPs has also been a subject of concern in past parliamentary reports.”

The ‘traditional’ focus of occupational health and safety training on manual tasks and occupational violence risk assessment has meant a lack of discussion about identifying mental illness, something DHHS is now working to rectify with an awareness program.

The excessive workload and need to always have enough staff around means that competition for break time or holidays is high, with many regularly missing out. Even taking sick leave or stress leave is viewed negatively, respondents noted.

The stress of the job is leading to high turnover, which in turn exacerbates the program’s under-resourcing as new staff have to be constantly recruited and trained.

The department is responding to some of these problems through its Child protection workforce strategy 2017-2020, secretary Kym Peake noted in DHHS’ response to the audit.

“I am committed to ensuring [child protection practitioners] receive the support and recognition they deserve,” she wrote.

“I acknowledge that the report findings demonstrate that more is required to support our workforce, including a more holistic view of the mental health of child protection practitioners, with improved monitoring, support and the provision of specialist services.”

The department accepted the auditor’s recommendations.

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He's previously written for The Guardian and Crikey and holds a masters in international relations.