Solidarity in action: casework as support for colleagues

What is casework?

It’s rare we want to think about distressing experiences that could happen to us at work – for instance, questions asked about our capability to perform a role; concerns raised by colleagues or students about our behaviour; or a health condition making our established pattern of work temporarily unachievable. However, despite a natural aversion to considering them, such things do happen, and while clearly shaped by individual circumstances and conditions, they are almost invariably stressful, painful, and difficult.

At these points of challenge, there is union support available. This takes the form of casework supporta trained colleague who has experience of institutional processes working with a member to offer information, advice, and a listening ear.  It may be that you will reach the end of your career and never need to draw on caseworker support, in which case your good fortune should be celebrated. But if you do find yourself in a position where things are going less well than you hoped, having an effective casework structure in the local branch can be invaluable.


Casework support within Sheffield UCU

In our branch, we have a team of talented caseworkers, with rich experiences and strong connections to other aspects of the branch’s work.

There are around 18 colleagues involved with casework, and in the twelve months up to October 2022, the branch received 89 requests for casework support.

If we were to divide this equally, that would result in around 5 cases each, and it represents a significant increase from the twelve months before this point.  Even brief consideration of the current working conditions in higher education broadly, and this institution in particular, might offer some indications as to why.


What does a caseworker do?

The kinds of thing that a caseworker can do include accompany members to meetings, support them through institutional processes such as around disciplinary matters or sickness absence, offer information and guidance to help contextualise individual circumstances, give personal and moral support, and, when required, put members in touch with regional union officials as a step towards engaging legal representation.  It is work that is frequently challenging but also rewarding, as the impact it has on colleagues at the sharp end of uncomfortable experiences can be significant. It is also work that makes a material difference to colleagues’ working lives and experiences, as it is partly through understanding the difficulties individual members are facing that the branch determines priority areas for policy development.


Join our Casework Team!

As strong as the current casework team is, we are always open to new colleagues who would like to join. You might want to consider it if you are good at working with people, you are willing to become familiar with volumes of HR policy and semi-legal documentation, and you’re comfortable with questioning those in positions of authority. There is full training and support available locally, regionally, and nationally, and a mentoring and shadowing structure in-place to ensure that no-one takes on work for which they do not feel prepared. Facility time is available at certain points in the year, so this is a responsibility that can be workloaded, and time spent training can also be recognised by line managers.  If you are interested in becoming a caseworker, please email, and we can discuss the options from there.


Contact us early if you think you might need casework support

And one final, different, request:

if you feel that you might be entering a situation of difficulty – if you’re not yet in the storm, but you can see the clouds approaching and feel the wind rising – we would encourage you to make contact with the union sooner rather than later.

That might be through your departmental rep, or by emailing the branch; the main thing is the more we know earlier on, the more likely we are to be able to support you if the storm breaks. This is particularly true if something like an Improvement Support Plan (ISP) has been discussed in your working context, or concerns have been raised about the amount of sick leave you are taking. Both of these – and more – are areas where even members confident in their managers might be well-advised to seek support, as the institutional processes around them sometimes have momentum that override the good intentions of individuals involved.


Casework is one way of making tangible the solidarity we profess as a union.  Whichever end of the process you are involved with at different times, we would encourage you to be engaged, both for your own benefit, and the collective benefit of all members.