Mental health social workers in Barnet are set to strike over “chronic staffing issues” affecting frontline teams.
Six days of walkouts have been planned after members of the Barnet branch of trade union Unison voted in favour of taking industrial action earlier this month.
The strikes are set to take place on the 26th September, 3rd-4th October and 10th-12th October.
Barnet Unison says the borough’s mental health social work teams have been affected by “a long drawn-out neglect” that began with the launch of the council’s mass outsourcing scheme in 2013, under the then-Conservative administration, which saw the focus shift from delivering to commissioning services.
The union branch said the “final nail in the coffin” was a decision made in 2016 to delete social work posts and replace them with non-social work-qualified roles.
In March, the union presented council bosses with evidence of “unsafe staffing levels” across mental health social work teams. It said almost 50% of the workforce were newly qualified and almost 40% were agency workers, most of whom had barely two years’ experience of working in Barnet.
The loss of nine staff in the first three months of this year compounded the problems.
Barnet Unison has been asking for the implementation of the council’s recruitment and retention policy (RRP), which offers salary supplements of up to 25%, as a short-term solution to try to hold on to existing staff.
It says some family social workers are receiving 15% as a minimum under the RRP, with other social workers receiving 20% or 25%.
But the council has failed to do so, instead offering a £1,000 one-off payment to staff that the union says was “quickly rejected” by mental health social workers.
A survey carried out by Unison of its members working in the two mental health teams revealed 100% of respondents did not believe they were working in a safe working environment and had considered leaving their roles in the past three months.
Helen Davies, branch chair of Barnet Unison, said: “Our members are showing the same commitment to the profession they love as junior doctors to theirs in taking strike action.
“Drastic action is needed to keep mental health services safe and viable for them and service users. The service needs staff with experience.
“Currently no-one is sticking around because the levels of stress and pay are simply not worth it. Our members are absolutely doing the right thing.”
Paul Edwards, Barnet’s cabinet member for adult social care, said: “The cost-of-living crisis means that Barnet Council must find ways to help our residents in need and maintain services, at a time when our central government funding is not adequate to the situation we face. It is also affecting all our staff, including our social workers and those that work in mental health. Our employees are at the front line of supporting our vulnerable residents. We truly appreciate all the excellent work they do.
“Balancing all these demands – our service users and wanting to support all our staff – we have striven to offer good support and pay to our social workers, with salaries that benchmark well. We currently have a staff retention rate of 88%.
“We have proposed offering an additional £1,000 per year to all social workers, occupational therapists, senior practitioners and team managers across all social care teams – 185 staff.
“We are grateful for the dedication and commitment of all our staff including our mental health social workers and our door is always open for further discussions.”