The vast majority of social workers in England believe coronavirus has diminished the capability of their service, and that people they support have been adversely affected, Community Care research has found.
Over three-quarters (77%) of respondents to a survey we conducted in early May indicated that restrictions necessitated by the outbreak had significantly hit the ability of their service to carry out its role. Meanwhile, nearly 90% said they felt the pandemic, or restrictions associated with it, had negatively affected service users.
Just under 500 people working in adults’, children’s and mental health services – 92% of them qualified social workers – completed the in-depth survey about practice during the pandemic. We found:
- Most practitioners endorsed councils’ and NHS trusts’ response to Covid-19, with 76% of respondents satisfied with how their employer has reacted – and adapted – since the onset of lockdown in late March turned social work on its head.
- Nonetheless, just under 40% said their ability to meet statutory responsibilities had been compromised, either because of rising demand for services or due to colleagues getting sick or having to self-isolate.
- More than half of respondents (55%) said they have had to carry out duties that caused them anxiety because of potential infection risk, while just under half were unsatisfied with the access they have had to personal protective equipment (PPE).
- More than a quarter (30%) said colleagues had been seriously ill or died due to Covid-19.
‘A hard role, now even more difficult’
Rachael Wardell, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services’ workforce development policy committee, said the survey provided “helpful insights” into social care’s response to Covid-19.
“As employers we do not underestimate the challenges practitioners are facing, not least because their care for the children and families they support sits alongside the concerns they will have about their own safety and that of their own family,” she said.
Meanwhile Beverley Latania, co-chair of the Adult Principal Social Worker Network, said of the findings that it was “good to have evidence to back up what is being discussed verbally” within the network.
“Adult social workers have a hard role to carry out and often visiting individuals and families in crisis or with complex needs which increases the stress factors on workers,” she said. “It is even more difficult now, working remotely and being at great distance from colleagues and managers.”
A spokesperson for the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS) said the survey “clearly shows the enormous efforts that are being made on the social care front line to meet the needs of our communities”.
“Social care has never been needed more than it is now,” the spokesperson said. “Central to this are skilled, dedicated and caring social care staff who have sacrificed so much to provide continued care and support to those in our communities who need it most.”
Tipping the scale
Community Care asked all survey respondents to grade on a scale from one to 10 the extent to which the transition to pandemic operating conditions had affected the work of their service.
Rather than linking to specific practice changes, we asked social workers very broadly about whether they believed the coronavirus pandemic, or measures associated with it, had taken a negative impact on people they provided services to.
The answer was unequivocal, with 96% of people working in mental health, 88% in adult social care and 87% in children’s services answering ‘yes’.
Adults’ and mental health practitioners warned that being forced to stay at home, with some services suspended due to the need for social distancing, was fuelling clients’ social isolation, ramping up distress and heaping pressure on carers.
“The loss of routine and activity for people with learning disabilities and autism has increased anxieties and [issues around] behaviour,” said a senior social worker in the East Midlands.
People working in children’s services voiced similar fears, adding that they worried about the impact of lockdown on children’s education, rising levels of domestic abuse and the corrosive effect of increased poverty.
“Lots of parents are very open about struggling – with their children inside all day, with having lost work, compounding the difficulties that had us involved in their lives in the first instance,” said a London-based consultant social worker. “And they are scared of the future.”
Cathy Ashley, the chief executive of Family Rights Group, said the findings echoed those from a survey the charity conducted of kinship carers and from families contacting its advice line. “Poverty is a huge factor, with families already struggling with reduced income, higher bills, including on food, cramped accommodation and a lack of access to computer equipment and Wi-Fi,” she said.
Seventy seven per cent scored the impact of coronavirus as six out of 10 or higher, with 25% rating it nine or 10. The results were consistent across children’s, adults’ and mental health social workers.
Inevitably, many practitioners commented on how relationship-based practice had been undermined by a steep reduction in direct contact with people they support, especially those with whom they had not developed a rapport, or where disabilities presented barriers to virtual contact.
“I am unable to be the trained observer and social worker I would like to be,” said one adult social worker based in the North West, capturing the feelings of many.
Across all types of social work, respondents said routine tasks, including assessments, were suffering due to being carried out remotely, causing concern to some that they were not able to do their job to the best of their abilities.
“We’re doing the best we can, and are meeting bare-minimum statutory obligations, but we are not able to build the relationships and make the change children and families need,” said an advanced practitioner at a London borough.
Respondents also worried more broadly about their department being less capable than usual, often because partner organisations that support people or provided intelligence are not operating as standard, ahead of an expected rise in referrals post-lockdown. “There is the known unknown of how many children are in need or at risk, who we do not know about given the usual means of us discovering these children are stunted,” the London-based advanced practitioner added.
‘I constantly worry about passing anything on’
The risks of practising in the shadow of Covid-19 was also on the minds of many, with 55% saying they had carried out duties that had caused them anxiety that they, their families or people they work with could be put at risk of infection.
“I’ve been undertaking Mental Health Act assessments – each day I’m on duty I don’t know where I may be asked to attend, and whether the person may have Covid,” said an approved mental health professional based in the North West. “I have asthma and am a mother – I constantly worry about passing anything on either at home or work.”
Several social workers who deal with adoption said they were concerned that in-person introductions had been allowed to continue after lockdown. “It seemed at odds with public messaging, and I was left feeling I was no longer part of the solution, because we were encouraging unrelated households to mix,” said one team manager working in the East Midlands.
Official statistics released earlier in May said 10 social workers have lost their lives after contracting Covid-19. But, shockingly, 30% of people who completed Community Care’s survey said they knew social workers, or other colleagues in frontline social care roles, who had become seriously ill or died as a result of the disease.
In all, 52% of respondents said that staff absences, either because of colleagues being sick or having to self-isolate, had affected their practice. For 40%, that was to the extent of causing difficulties in meeting statutory duties either because of depleted staffing or rising demand for services, with 64% reporting that their workload had increased.
“I am sorry to hear that nearly a third of social workers have had colleagues become seriously ill or died as result of Covid 19, and our thoughts go out to our friends, colleagues and families who have been affected,” said Latania. “With workers off sick, self-isolating or with caring responsibilities, it is not surprising to hear that caseloads have increased.”
‘We were as prepared as we could be’
Despite the gloom, across all service areas there was broad approval as to how social work employers have responded to an unprecedented crisis.
‘Guidance has been vague’
Employers’ responses have not happened in a vacuum but have been shaped by guidance, legal changes and decisions on resourcing. The government scored an approval rating of just 22% from social workers and their colleagues, when asked about its handling of the coronavirus crisis in relation to their service area.
Many children’s social workers were unhappy with guidance – which was only released in early April and was widely criticised, before being updated in May to address the impact of the controversial relaxation of duties to children in care.
“[It] has been very vague, and very much leaving it to councils to do their own thing – as it ordinarily does,” said a consultant social worker based in Yorkshire.
Among adults’ practitioners, there was predictable anger around how some of the government’s decision making – especially around discharges to care homes – had affected practice and harmed service users.
But there was also some measured appreciation for changes made to changes under the Coronavirus Act that have enabled councils to suspend certain duties under the Care Act to manage demand.
“I was impressed with the revisions to the Care Act – they are proportionate, pragmatic and thoughtful,” said an advanced practitioner working for a London borough.
Eighty three per cent of respondents working in adults’ or mental health services, and 69% of children’s services practitioners, said they were ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ satisfied with how their organisation – which in 90% of cases was a local authority – had adapted.
Where people were happy, this stemmed from a range of factors, including how capably their employer implemented procedural changes, the availability of guidance (see box), access to PPE and considerations around staff wellbeing.
“They acted swiftly – we were as prepared as we could be. Extending hours and boosting staff numbers on the front door, and working as one team across the council has stopped or limited silo working and given us all a greater perspective on what is important,” said one adults’ team manager based on Humberside. “It was the expected chaos of learning new ways to work, but I feel management have tried hard to keep us abreast of situations.”
Where people voiced frustrations, they often related to the pace at which changes had been made, mixed messaging from senior staff and patchy risk assessments – around the use of offices, as well as visits – all of which fed anxieties.
“On 17 March, with C-19 already causing care providers to lock down, I was publicly criticised by my manager for discussing safety measures with my colleagues,” said an adults’ social worker from an East Midlands council. “Six hours later they were mandatory.”
‘Less need for stupid panels’
With change now well bedded-in, albeit still evolving, across the social care sector, the majority of survey respondents said that some of it had been for the better.
Seventy three per cent said that some of the alterations made to practice had been positive and should be kept as the country moves out of lockdown. In many cases these related to procedures, driven by bureaucratic custom, that had been quickly discarded with the onset of lockdown.
“[This has] reduced the need for stupid panels and things that can be done virtually or as a paper exercise,” went the blunt response of one children’s social worker.
A significant proportion of social workers expressed a preference for virtual meetings to continue in at least some circumstances, both in terms of time saving and convenience, and in order to offer greater choice and flexibility for the people they support.
With hectic office environments and hotdesking perennial sources of stress – even before the prospect of infection – many others simply said they preferred working flexibly from home, and that the argument for doing so had been made categorically by what had been achieved during lockdown. Some commented that relationships with colleagues and partner agencies had in fact been strengthened by more frequent, less formal checking in from wherever they all happened to be.
“The survey outlines some positives, including improved ways of working, which I’m sure local authorities will want to continue even when the pandemic is over,” said ADCS’s Rachael Wardell.
“We are really interested in exploring with citizens, social workers and fellow PSWs what has worked that we can take forward in day to day practice and what do we need to change,” added Latania. “Digital skills and competence need to be embedded in social work courses and ASYE programmes, as we move forward into a new arena of practice.”