By Dr Paula McFadden, senior lecturer in social work, Ulster University
Social workers and social care workers were foremost among those who participated in a recent UK-wide survey on the wellbeing of the health and social care workforce during the first few months of the pandemic.
Broadly, we found recurring messages about working conditions, feeling connected (or disconnected) with colleagues, service users and employers, and what was good or not so good regarding communication, in terms of quality and frequency.
Three groups were identified across all responses. These include those who had generally positive accounts, and those who admitted some work-related challenges during the pandemic whilst also citing areas for improvement.
While some of this second group provided examples of good IT support, this was not always the case initially, as one social worker remembered:
At the outset the software we were using was poor. We learnt quickly but there should be a permanent tested electronic backup to hold meetings and secure conversations.”
A final group reported generally negative experiences relating to working during the pandemic such as increases in workload and inability to take a break. One social worker reported that:
Service demand was higher but no increase in staffing levels.”
This social worker also reported experiencing a change in working times, covering seven days rather than five, and working 8am to 6pm on a rota basis.
For others, the difficulties were home/work related, such as the impact of problems at home that had been severely affected by lockdown and the pandemic and how these were affecting their own wellbeing and their work:
My partner has (diagnosis) and concerns about Covid and the restrictions have severely affected his mental health.”
Two-thirds of social care worker respondents reported that home care responsibilities changed due to lockdown and three-quarters of social workers had changing caring responsibilities. These related to caring for family members and/or home schooling. Rapid change, therefore, was felt in both work and personal lives by these staff.
Better and consistent communication was highlighted as critical for staff, although respondents acknowledged that much of the confusion they experienced in the earliest days of working with Covid-19 came from changing government guidance and was unavoidable on the part of their employers.
Examples of good communication included frequent ‘check-ins’ by management and regular virtual contact with colleagues. A social worker reported being helped by:
My manager being very clear in saying that the expectations are that everyone can only do their best in this period – not being micro managed – ensuring that we have team meet ups regularly to check in with one another.”
Good communication and levels of trust from managers were related to how valued or undervalued staff felt at critical periods.
About the research
Health and Social Care Workforce Wellbeing and Coping during COVID-19 – May to July 2020 is the first of three surveys that a team led by Dr Paula McFadden are conducting from May 2020 until October 2021. Social workers and social care workers were the largest group of participants in this first survey, which received 3290 responses in total. Of the responses, 1282 were social workers and another 1245 were working in social care, generally in care homes or home care workers.
The team is running focus groups with key stakeholders during the study period. Research participants spanned nurses, midwives and allied health professionals (AHPs), as well as social workers and social care workers.
The full report can be found here and the executive summary with good practice guidance can be found here. The research team included: Dr Patricia Gillen (Ulster University and Southern Health and Social Care Trust), Dr John Moriarty (Queen’s University Belfast), Dr John Mallett (Ulster University), Dr Heike Schroder (King’s College London), Dr Jermaine Ravalier (Bath Spa University), Professor Jill Manthorpe (King’s College London), Dr Jaclyn Harron (independent researcher) and Dr Denise Currie (Queen’s University Belfast).