Story updated 12 July 2020
A third of social workers are considering quitting the profession in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, a Social Workers Union (SWU) survey has found.
The poll of 363 union members, carried out in the last full week of June, found that 23% were now considering leaving social work based on their experiences of practising through the pandemic, with a further 11% saying they were already considering leaving before Covid struck.
Behind this figure lay significant dissatisfaction with access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and the quality of risk assessments carried out by employers, but also the significant impact of working through the pandemic on practitioners’ mental health.
Worsening mental health
Sixty one per cent said their mental health had worsened as a result of work during lockdown, with respondents citing the feeling of isolation, increased workloads, lack of management support, the impact of the deaths of service users, general anxieties about Covid and the significant challenge of balancing work and home life.
On PPE, 54% said provision had been inadequate – with a quarter saying it was “totally inadequate” – and almost two-thirds said they had had to supply their own equipment. In relation to home visits, 51% said they thought risk assessments for carrying these out had been inadequate.
Social workers also reported concerns about the use of virtual contact, with 49% saying this had not been appropriate for most of the people they work with.
There was also widespread anticipation of a surge in referrals as the lockdown eases, with two-thirds expecting a “massive” increase and a further 27% a slight rise.
On the back of the survey, the SWU, which represents 13,000 social workers across the UK, called for a six-point plan to tackle the issues raised:
- Adequate PPE and risk assessments: the government must ensure social workers are supplied with adequate PPE, and employers must make this available to them for work and commuting; employers should also be made responsible for carrying out effective risk assessments for face-to-face contact with service users.
- Better mental health support: the government must ensure that employers provide counselling for social workers experiencing heightened stress because of the pandemic, and managers should have the training to identify and respond appropriately to stress in social workers.
- Employers must plan for a surge in workload: a nationwide recruitment campaign must be implemented urgently and new social workers given better mental health support, including meaningful supervision.
- Better treatment for agency staff: amid concerns raised by one-tenth of survey respondents that agency staff have been used as a “human shield” to protect permanent staff from unsafe situations during the pandemic, employers should ensure there is parity in the way agency staff are treated.
- Better funding of social work and anti-poverty measures.
- A better balance between on and offline support for service users: employers should arrange outreach to enable social workers to meet with service users in locations in a physically distanced way, and provide practitioners with guidance on contacting people through other means.
What research says about Covid impact
The SWU survey is the latest in a string of pieces of research to examine Covid-19’s impact on social work and practitioners themselves. Findings so far include that:
- The vast majority of social workers say that Covid-19 has diminished the capability of their service and adversely affected the people they support, according to Community Care’s survey of practitioners in May.
- Our survey also found that children’s practitioners reported bigger problems than adults’ counterparts, including on access to PPE, the extent to which they have felt anxious for themselves or the people they support and on workloads.
- Concerns about PPE and a lack of clear guidance on areas such as managing infection risk and prioritising work were raised, in late March, at the start of the pandemic, in the British Association of Social Workers’ ongoing survey of practitioners on Covid.
- Social workers’ propensity to take risks during the pandemic is driven by a number of factors, including access to PPE, availability of IT provision for staff and families and the interpretation of government guidance, according to Birmingham University research.