How do you manage caseloads in social work?
By drowning? I remember when I was a student. My supervisor would start telling me about how she managed her caseload.
‘Well, I often eat lunch in the car, before I enter the home of another service user. I make sure I get sandwiches so I can sweep the crumbs off my skirt.’
I remember thinking: are you serious? Is this the life I have to lead for the next few years? Stuffing sandwiches quickly into my mouth, before racing off to see another client, and spending hours in my office trying to finish the required paperwork? Was this what I had signed up for? This clearly wasn’t why I had signed up.
I decided there must be a better way.
That is why I wrote this article, as a compilation of the best way to manage one’s caseload in social work. Please feel free to add your comments below on how you manage your casework in social work.
1. Have fixed schedule productivity.
Recommended by Radhika Nagpal and Cal Newport in his book ‘Deep Work’, fixed schedule productivity is where you keep rigidly to your working hours. For example, if you work from 9 to 5pm, don’t be tempted to squeeze in an additional hour to complete that report due tomorrow.
Fixed schedule productivity is effective because it forces you to prioritise. It forces you to think, what is important and not important today? It forces you to cull activities that are a waste of time. That nice-to-have meeting to learn about the new Human Resources software? Nah. You stop thinking: I will do this later when I stay back after work.
This is key to managing a high caseload. When you fail to keep to your working hours, this fuels faster burnout. We tend to assume that working long hours equates to working productively, but this is seldom the case.
2. Schedule your day
Starting your day with a schedule is important to ensuring that every minute is accounted for. You might think that this is crazy, but if you are managing a high caseload, you need to ensure that each minute is well-used.
Starting your day on autopilot is a definite way to fail. Many of us start our days this way. we walk into the office, say hi, and turn on our computers. Whilst waiting for our computers to be ready, we make our coffee/teas.
We then start opening our email after sitting. This is a definite way to fail. When we start our day with emails, we immediately lose control of what we were planning to do. Our day starts getting led by our inbox, rather than being led by us.
That is why starting your day with a schedule is important. It only takes 5 minutes.
Decide in advance what you need to get done today. Schedule times for it throughout the day. For example,
|0900 – 1000||Complete Child Assessment Report Rest|
|1015 – 1100||Finish court report Rest|
|1115 – 1200||Make call to Adam to ask how he is Case notes|
|1200 – 1300||Lunch|
|1300 – 1500||Home visit|
|1500 – 1600||Case notes from home visit|
It is vital that you have an idea of what you are planning to do. When you set yourself a clear deadline with a plan, we become more focused and productive.
Whilst not everything might proceed to plan, it is much better than being led by whatever crisis lands in your inbox. Being led by crises, reacting to them, means that there is a high probability that you probably would not complete what you were assigned.
3. Schedule 5 to 10 minute breaks.
You are not a superhuman. Having regular breaks between each task ensures that you can focus optimally. It is also better for your physical health when you get up, and take a short walk around. Rather than sitting at your desk all day, this improves your blood circulation. It ensures that you do not end up being at risk of nasty ailments such as deep vein thrombosis.
4. Decide what you need to do, should do, and can do.
Have a master to-do list comprising all the tasks that are expected of you. Take the time to do this! There is great liberation in your mind in doing so, as your mind is no longer bogged down with all the things that it has to remember. Instead, it is now assured that everything is stored on paper.
Breaking each day’s tasks into must, should, and can, you start to be realistic about what you can do each day.
5. Switch on your email only at fixed times.
None of us washes our laundry one at a time. If you do, you might have a rather unusual obsession for laundry!
Why do we clear our email one at a time? I would hazard a guess. It is much easier to take our mind off the difficult tasks we are focused on, and switch it to something easier, like email.
However, this is not effective. In Leslie Perlow’s study of Boston Consulting Group’s always-on, always-connected culture, she forced them to take a day off a week where they were disconnected from messages, email, and calls. She found that they were significantly happier, and produced a better product for the client.
Clearing our email in batches, at fixed times of 11, 2 and 5 ensures that our day is not constantly interrupted by the ping of an incoming email.
6. Schedule meetings at the end or beginning of the day.
James Hilton, a former Head Teacher in England, suffered a nervous breakdown due to the high levels of stress he experienced in his job. In his book, ‘Leading From the Edge’, he shares many ways about how we can better manage the multiple plates that are spinning in the air.
He suggests arranging meetings at the end or the beginning of the day. This prevents interruptions to your day. It improves the flow of the day, rather than having to be constantly disrupted to attend yet another meeting. This gives you uninterrupted time to concentrate on your work.
7. Say no to manage caseloads in social work better.
There’s no point in pretending that you can take on more work if you can’t. saying no to more work that may be assigned to you is an indication of your willingness to do a good job, rather than your weakness.
If you are flooded and struggling to manage, take the time to say ‘no’ to the next task that might be coming your way.
I hope these tips help you to better manage your caseload. Remember, none of us are robots. We are human. Acknowledging sometimes that we can’t do everything is key to ensuring that we are best-placed to continue helping, rather than too burnt-out to do anything.
When I was a student social worker, I used to have a 40 minute bus ride before I reached my placement. I would take out my phone, and start listening to a mindfulness meditation track by Headspace. Mindfulness has many benefits. I won’t belabour the point.
But for you, the biggest benefit is the ability to stay present as you are managing your caseload. It helps you to stay in the here and now, rather than worrying about the future or the past.
9. Use the two-minute rule from David Allen
David Allen, a productivity guru, has a deceptively simple rule. If something takes less than 2 minutes to complete, rather than slotting it on your to-do list or in your calendar, just do it.
For example, as you are typing a case note, if you suddenly remember that you have a reminder to send to a client, send it. Don’t try to jot it down in your diary for memory.
10. Clear things in batches.
Following on from David Allen’s great book Getting Things Done, he also recommends that we clear things in batches, rather than drips and drapes. Rather than putting everything you need to do on a single list, split it up according to its type and what I need in order to perform it.
For example, if you had to send some emails, but you were without your computer, there’s no point having a reminder about that. You cannot act on it.
For example, I tend to split my tasks as follows:
- At home
11. Write things down.
Think of the brain as an ideas factory, rather than a place for storing ideas. The brain is a great place to process thought, but not a great place to store thought. Whenever you have a thought, write it down.
Don’t try to remember it, because the likelihood is that you will forget it.
You probably have had the experience when you had to bring an important document or item to work. Where did you place it? At your front door, probably with multiple reminders to ‘BRING THIS!’
Similarly, rather than trying to remember the next great idea that comes to mind, try to write down a reminder for it.
For example, when I am reading, I occasionally come across a great idea to help a client. I know that I will forget it. I end up putting it in my diary.
12. Remove distractions like the Internet when trying to focus
Switch off your internet when you’re trying to focus.
What?! You must be crazy! How can you switch off your internet? Try it. I’m confident that you wouldn’t regret it. When you switch off your WIFI connection, you realise for the first time that you can’t be distracted. You can only do your work.
There’s no running away now. You must do your work.
13. Ban yourself from distracting websites like Facebook with Chrome extensions like Self-Control and DF Tube.
You’ve probably been in that place. It’s a lazy Thursday afternoon, and you’re feeling bored from all the casework you have to do. You take a little break.
Before too long, you find yourself having spent hours on the likes of Facebook.
How can we stop ourselves when we are trying to focus? I find the Chrome extension (Self-Control) great at helping me to focus. It automatically blocks sites that you have added. When you try to access it, it comes out with a warning message that you set previously.
The DF Tube also blocks out the YouTube feed, preventing you from going down yet another rabbit hole of cat videos.
14. Work in 25-minute blocks.
This is one of the most effective ways towards increasing your focus. Called the Pomodoro Technique, it acknowledges that humans are not robots and we cannot focus forever.
Start your stopwatch for 25 minutes. After working for 25 minutes, take a 5-minute break. It can be a simple walk outside the home, a cup of coffee, or a break in the washroom. You will return to your work recharged, and ready to rumble.
15. Put your phone far, far, far away.
Our phones are possibly the worst companions to have whilst working on your caseload. They buzz, and try to grab our attention in every possible way. Social media apps like Facebook and Instagram are designed to be addictive.
Have you ever thought about how the scroll to refresh button seems like a jackpot lever, designed to give you yet another rush of dopamine, and keep you glued to your screen? Keep your phone in a place where you cannot reach it. Even better still, if you are trying to focus whilst writing a case-note, keep it at home.
16. Listen to Mozart.
The Mozart effect, where there is an enhancement in brain activity and focus when classical music is played in the background, has been researched and evidenced by many studies, such as Lesuik (2005).
In Lesuik’s study of developers from Canadian software companies, she found that quality of work and positive effect were lowest, and time spent on the task was longest for those who were not listening to any music.
So, how do you manage caseloads in social work now? It’s your choice.