Dates:  2019 – August 2022

Research Team: Dr Laura L. Cook, Sara Carder and Dr Danny Zschlomler

Funders: The British Academy and Leverhulme Trust

The retention of experienced child protection social workers is a significant issue across child welfare systems in the UK, the USA and Europe. Failure to retain experienced practitioners has serious implications for the protection and support of vulnerable children. In the UK, the average working life of a social worker is around eight years, and this figure is thought to be significantly lower for child protection workers (DfE, 2022). There is some evidence to suggest that a strong sense of professional identity can sustain social workers in the profession. However, existing research and workforce interventions have tended to focus on early-career social workers to prevent exit. Few studies have examined what can be learned from experienced social workers who have remained in the profession long-term. 

The study aimed to understand how we can support and retain experienced social workers by:

  • Capturing the voices of experienced stayers to better understand the phenomena of long-term retention.
  • Exploring the relationship between Professional Identity and retention in child welfare social work.  

Key Recommendations

  1. Professional identity work continues across the career span. Experienced social workers require ongoing opportunities for professional development as a way of sustaining them in practice. This includes specialisms, generativity, and mobility into other areas of practice. 
  2. Local authorities need to consider the development of specialist career pathways, particularly for those that do not wish to progress via a management route. 
  3. It is important that employers recognise the impact of Critical Career Episodes on social workers and their vulnerability to exit the profession during these times. Social workers require coordinated support from colleagues, teams, managers and the wider organisation to make sense of and resolve these experiences. 
  4. Experienced social workers’ voices are central to understanding longer-term retention in child welfare work and should continually be involved shaping policy and workforce development.  


Read the Research Briefing