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Headshot of Ying-Ying T. Yuan, PhDUnderstanding the Time it Takes to Do our Work: APS Workloads and Caseloads

by Ying-Ying T. Yuan, PhD, APS TARC Consultant

One of the most common statements by caseworkers is that their caseloads are too high. A second common statement is that “I am not doing the work that I want to do for my clients.” The APS Technical Assistance Resource Center (APS TARC) frequently receives questions about caseload standards. This blog discusses the difference between caseload and workload and why this difference is useful. 

Why Examine Workload?

One of the core issues in APS practice and policy is that we do not have a consistent taxonomy of the work that APS workers actually conduct.  While we can identify services provided by APS, such as information and referral, investigation, and service provision, we do not have shared terminology that describes the multitude of tasks and activities conducted under each of these services.  

Why is this important?  The potential value of obtaining information on what case workers actually do and how long it takes them is great. By understanding these dynamics, we can:

  • help workers provide better services,
  • help agencies understand the actual types and numbers of work force they need to provide services to clients, and
  • provide a foundation for achieving desired outcomes by developing common parameters of work and expectations.
Although sometimes used interchangeably, workload and caseload are two different concepts.
  • Workload is the time that is spent by a caseworker in providing services to new or ongoing clients,   and in conducting other activities pertinent to the job, such as training or documentation. It also includes nonwork related activities such as leave.
  • Caseload can be considered from two points of view: current caseload and an estimated caseload. The current caseload counts the number of clients that a caseworker is responsible for at any point in time or over any given length of time.  The estimated caseload is the estimation of the number of cases that a worker can serve based on the amount of time it takes to conduct case related activities and the amount of time that is available.  The estimated caseload is determined by conducting a workload study.

In other words: workload is the time it takes to serve clients and caseload is how many cases are served. Nationally, the number of APS intakes vary little from month to month, but there is a slight uptick in in January and May (see 2018 NAMRS Report, page 29) We do not know as much about workload.  The amount of time spent on specific activities can vary across cases, workers, and agencies. Systematic data collection is needed in order to ascertain how workers spend their time and how many cases can be handled within the parameters of available time.

What Basic Information is Needed?

The first step is to understand the services, tasks, and activities that caseworkers conduct.  Some examples are described below.
  • What are the services within the APS program? —For example: intake, investigation, service planning, service monitoring, service delivery
  • What are the specific tasks for each service? For example, case-related tasks include: face-to-face contact with clients and caregivers; other communication with clients and caregivers; communication with other providers, collaterals or agency staff; case reviews and planning meetings; documentation; court hearings; travel.
  • What activities comprise these tasks? For example communication with collaterals includes identifying the appropriate collaterals, scheduling, meeting, and recording the results of these discussions.
  • What are the non-case related tasks conducted by caseworkers?  Some examples are community outreach; training; leave.
  • What other duties might caseworkers have that are unrelated to APS? What are the tasks associated with these responsibilities? For example an APS worker may also conduct CPS investigations.

In order to develop this typology of services, interviews of knowledgeable staff are conducted. It is imperative to include worker duties outside of APS work in order to get a full picture of the scope of activities that are conducted.  In some programs, especially those in rural areas, APS caseworkers may have additional duties for other programs.

Even conducting just this first step can help an agency identify areas for training and improved management and oversight. For example, during such discussions it could appear that two workers have the same number of cases, but one worker has many more clients who live at a great distance requiring more travel time, or may have cases that involve more activities such as cases involving  financial exploitation allegations.  The primary purpose of these discussions, however, is to develop a draft typology of the types of services, tasks, and activities workers actually conduct.

How to Use Qualitative Data to Understand Workload?

Once a typology is established, some agencies can decide to conduct qualitative interviews with their caseworkers. The discussions would cover both caseload and workload. Some examples of discussion questions are provided below.

  • How many cases do you have open at this time? Is this normal or unusual?
  • Of these cases which ones have you seen in the last 2 weeks?
  • Of these cases how many have you not seen in 4 weeks?
  • Which cases do you plan to close in the next 2 weeks and why?
  • In looking at the various tasks and activities workers conduct, how much time do you think would be ideal to spend per case? Or rather than an average ideal amount of time, perhaps the range of time that would be ideal?
  • How are you affected by turnover of caseworkers?
  • Would you say you spend about the same amount of time on the tasks and activities we have discussed for on all your cases or do you spend more time on some cases than others?  What case characteristics make the difference?
  • In addition to case characteristics what else do you think impacts how time is spent on cases? For example do you  think that characteristics of workers or the specificity of policies contribute to differences in how time is spent?

While worker perception of utilization of time cannot replace quantitative data collection on how time is actually spent, it can help to understand how people think work should be conducted and how they perceive it is being conducted. This understanding is useful for case supervision, policy setting, and training.  

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