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‘It’s Soul Destroying’: Why Barnet Social Workers Are on Strike

Amid spiralling workloads and a staffing crisis, mental health social workers in Barnet have taken over 60 days of strike action to demand investment in a vital service. Barnet’s Labour Council have responded by using strike-breaking agency workers.

‘Four years ago, we were a very different service,’ says Kimberly Lawrence, a 38-year-old mental health social worker working for Barnet Council. However, since the council decided to implement a restructuring, taking social workers out of its multidisciplinary community mental health teams, the service is now experiencing ‘astonishingly high waiting lists,’ a spiralling workload and a staffing crisis — and it’s putting the most vulnerable members of the community at risk.

Lawrence got into social work because she really wanted to help people. ‘I started training in my late twenties, and I realised just how people with mental health problems really struggle to access services and move forward, but with a little bit of help, they are able to flourish and live really meaningful lives,’ she tells Tribune. ‘I really want to be part of that.’

Initially, Lawrence was embedded in a community mental health team. These are multidisciplinary teams made up of social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, mental health nurses and other mental health professionals who support adults with bipolar, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, psychosis and other serious and enduring mental health conditions, as well as neurodivergent adults and dementia patients who have been detained on mental health wards and adults with substance abuse issues.

In late summer 2021, explains Lawrence, a restructuring of mental health teams took social workers out of the community mental health teams and created three teams consisting only of social workers.

Now, waiting list times have increased from four months to 17 months and, in the space of 18 months, 21 of the most experienced social workers have left the team with more set to leave if things don’t improve. ‘Those were the social workers who had 10 to 20 years of experience,’ says Lawrence. ‘And what we have left is those of us who have less experience, and the new people who they’re hiring, often don’t have any experience or are straight out of university.’ This, she says, would be fine if there was a team of experienced staff members able to help upskill and train newcomers. Without that, the service is suffering, and social workers are left unable to do their jobs properly.

Social workers also no longer have access to the mental health records of patients, making risk assessments difficult, and, without a psychiatrist on their team, they are constrained by the same waiting lists to make any judgements about a client’s mental health. ‘The community mental health team is responsible for a client’s mental health,’ says Lawrence. ‘We often see people because we’re assessing them ourselves, and we might notice something new if the community mental health team hasn’t seen them recently.

‘But, we aren’t able to talk to our mental health colleagues about it because we’re not embedded in their team anymore, so people might be waiting five months for an assessment.

‘It’s much harder to have a holistic approach to assessing people.’

All of this has led workers feeling unable to do their jobs properly, with some saying the work no longer aligns with their personal values. According to Lawrence, she and her colleagues are so stressed out that they’re getting sick. ‘We all talk with each other, a lot of my colleagues have said they’ve never been so repeatedly unwell,’ she says. ‘Your immune system finds it a lot harder to fight things when you’re really stressed.’

She adds that she and her colleagues are spending less time with friends and family, with all their focus instead being placed on work. ‘You’re putting all of your energy into work; people are at risk and you’re trying really hard to keep people safe, but life outside of work still requires energy,’ she says’ ‘We spend much more time just sitting on the sofa, or sleeping, to try to re-energise for the next week.’


The restructuring is the crux of the dispute Lawrence and her colleagues are engaged in with the now Labour-led Barnet council. Organised by Unison, some 15 members of the mental health social work team have been striking intermittently since late September, recently completing their 64th day out on the picket lines. They are calling on the council to supplement their salary with a recruitment and retention payment to help hold onto and attract experienced staff. Currently, only social workers in family services receive the financial supplement, and the council is refusing to pay up for mental health social workers.

The strike came more than two years after the restructuring first took place, and a year after Labour won Barnet council in August 2022. ‘They did the transformation without any consultation process, and it didn’t really work from the beginning,’ says Lawrence. ‘My colleagues and I raised a number of concerns about things that needed to be changed.’ Lawrence and her colleagues were hopeful that they would be listened to and that, following a review, the service would be brought back up to standard, but this didn’t happen. A year later, a consultation report consisting of the team’s concerns about the safety of the service, increasing weaknesses and pressure on staff was produced, and the council committed to addressing the issues. But nothing was done.

Amber Edwards, 30, also got her first social work job with Barnet council. While completing an NHS mental health graduate programme, she saw social workers coming to the ward and liked what they were doing, so she decided to do the NHS postgraduate social work programme, Think Ahead. That programme gave her a much more ‘picturesque’ idea of what social work would be like, compared to the reality. ‘Budgets aren’t big, there’s not a lot of resources,’ says Edwards. ‘So, in your head, you think you can make such a difference, but the reality is, you end up kind of having a high caseload and not much resources really to be able to put in place the things that a certain person needs.’

Edwards, who is a duty worker, often feels the brunt of long waiting lists. ‘Really urgent work and referrals come through, and the reality is that there is no one to allocate that work to because the social workers already have far too much,’ she says. ‘So you’re in a situation where somebody needs something urgently and there’s very limited things that you can do on duty.’ It’s difficult for Edwards not to hold onto that anxiety. ‘You see something come in that needs urgent attention and you already know that there’s no one who can give it that,’ she says. ‘The reality is, in mental health, people need quite a long, consistent relationship with social workers in order to make intervention work, and that’s being prolonged by workloads and waiting lists.’ Unfortunately, says Edwards, she is acutely aware that, after 17 months on a waiting list, the majority of people seeking help are going to deteriorate, likely needing to be admitted to a psychiatric ward.

Of course, this is causing overwhelm outside of work. Lawrence notes that, with the waitlist so high, she finds it difficult to log off. ‘I feel that if I don’t do this next thing, that I’m not going to reduce the risk enough for this person, and I’m worried that if I don’t do that thing, that something might happen to them, so I’ll stay late,’ she says. While this feeling is a difficult one to name, says Lawrence, it’s something along the lines of ‘moral guilt’.

Edwards says that it is ‘soul-destroying’ waiting for the council to acknowledge a problem that everybody is aware of. ‘It’s very frustrating being stood outside knowing that [the council is] not willing to talk about it,’ she says.’ It feels like there’s a lack of respect for what we do, and just a sheer lack of understanding of the extent of the work we do in the mental health teams.’

Scab Labour

This has been made worse by the council’s decision to employ agency workers to do the work of those on strike, which, in a letter to the council, Unison has claimed may be a criminal offence. Originally, the council planned to work with social care agency Flex 360. However, after Unison’s legal challenge, the agency pulled out of the contract. Now, the council is employing contractors from Imperium Solutions to fulfil the work of its striking employees. John Burgess, the branch secretary, says this amounts to strike breaking and union bashing. 

The union originally demanded a 20 percent recruitment and retention payment, but refused to go lower than 10 percent. The council’s decision to bring in agency workers, says Burgess, has taken the pressure off. ‘We don’t know where this dispute is going to go,’ he says, adding that the council is showing ‘complete disregard’ for the union and for the dispute. 

For Edwards, the council’s decision to bring in agency workers was the real ‘kicker’. ‘That they’ve decided to pay extortionate money to get a private agency to essentially do our work, instead of talking to their social workers who are passionate about their jobs and really want to create a good service is mindblowing to me.’

Thankfully, support and solidarity on the picket line, and from the local community has been strong and Edwards feels that the team has become closer and more bonded since taking strike action. ‘It’s been excellent,’ she says. ‘I have a relationship with my colleagues, hence how we got here – we have a really strong team and a lot of respect for each other, and the strike has solidified that.’ Burgess adds that rallies have been attended by other trade unionists and, importantly, the residents of Barnet, who are in full support of the strike.

But even still, Lawrence has thought about leaving the service and finding work elsewhere if things don’t improve. I was really committed to seeing it through until the last couple of months, when we’ve been going into these negotiations with the council,’ says Lawrence. ‘They acknowledge that there’s a problem but they’re not willing to do anything about it and, if they’re not going to change anything, then I don’t think I can stay, for my own wellbeing.

‘It’s not the type of social work I want to do.’