Months of working in the shadow of coronavirus have left most social workers in England feeling worse about their work-life than they did a year ago, research by Community Care suggests.
A survey of almost 500 qualified practitioners working in England found three-quarters felt either slightly (39%) or significantly (36%) more negative about their work-life than at the same point in 2019.
The proportion was near-identical between adults’ and children’s social workers. Troublingly, almost as many survey respondents (69%) said their mental health was slightly (43%) or significantly (27%) worse than it was 12 months previously.
The survey, carried out during November 2020, aimed to examine the ongoing impact of the coronavirus pandemic – which has seen social work jobs change beyond recognition.
Much previously face-to-face contact has become virtual, though with the prioritisation of visits to service users, some also worry about being subjected, or subjecting others, to increased levels of risk. A similar exercise conducted in the spring found most practitioners were concerned about Covid-19’s effect on their service’s ability to function properly, and on people they support’s capacity to cope.
The new survey found:
- 74% of social workers had seen their workload go up compared with the same time last year. This was closely matched by proportions of workers who said there had been an increase in the volume (74%) and complexity (79%) of referrals into their team over the same period.
- 92% felt the period since the start of the first national lockdown in March had driven increased levels of need among people they support, taking into account changes to society as a whole and to social work practice.
- 65% were satisfied with how their service had responded and adapted to the ongoing pandemic context, including via implementing practice changes. More than eight in 10 social workers said they were still home working by default and were using technology to replace meetings and visits.
‘We need to consider workforce fatigue’
Gill Archer, national officer at Unison, said Community Care’s findings “really chime with what social workers have been telling us and their worries about their mental health, ability to provide services, the new ways of working and how they impact both on them and the people they work with”.
Archer said that with those conversations in mind, Unison was discussing publishing a digital guide on wellbeing and online working over the coming months.
Rachael Wardell, chair of the workforce development policy committee at the Assocation of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), acknowledged that social workers had already faced “immense pressure” since the outbreak of the pandemic, with the need for their support rising as its real impact on children becomes apparent.
“Supporting [social workers’] health and wellbeing is a priority for all employers,” Wardell said “As employers we do not underestimate the challenges practitioners are facing because of the pandemic, 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.”
Even before Covid-19, councils across the country were struggling to recruit and retain enough high-quality social workers to manage workloads, Wardell pointed out. “We need to consider the fatigue that many of our workforce are already experiencing and which will also increase as we face our peak,” she said. “This reinforces the need for a national recruitment and retention campaign which emphasises the positive work that social workers do and their key role in responding to Covid-19.”
Maris Stratulis, national director for the British Association of Social Workers (BASW
She said BASW had created a variety of forums for children’s and adult social workers, including the Professional Support Service, a safe online space for members where they can talk one-to-one through specific issues.
When asked about their employer’s ongoing response and adaptation to coronavirus, the majority of social workers who replied favourably highlighted both organisational shifts and the efforts of humans to go the extra mile.
“The managers have adapted amazingly as well the senior managers – communication has been spot-on, advising us how we should work,” said one adults’ social worker based in the West Midlands. “We were going back into the office for duty but that stopped when it was no longer advised – I feel all professionals are in the same position and we are all a lot more empathetic.”
Nonetheless, a number of respondents emphasised that while their services had done well, this was a case of making the best of a bad situation. There was no shortage of remarks relating to social workers feeling worn down by several months’ separation from colleagues.
The scale of the shift, for professionals used to performing roles based on interaction, was laid out starkly in responses to questions about their levels of contact with others. Perhaps predictably, a majority of respondents (55%) said their contact with teammates – across all methods – had dropped off significantly, despite comments noting attempts to digitally recreate office-kitchen chats and payday pints.
Meanwhile almost half said the same about contact with their manager (40%), and with partner agencies (39%). The findings suggest that the optimism some social workers voiced in spring, about the pandemic ushering in an era of more-frequent, less-formal digital communication in place of tiresome meetings, may be waning.
‘How can we reclaim relationship-based social work?’
Asked about contact with service users, social workers’ responses demonstrate the effort and creativity that have been put in place to ensure that relationships are maintained. Just under half (48%) said they had at least kept up their former levels of contact, with 11% increasing communication significantly compared with this time last year.
It’s clear though that even for these practitioners, supporting people has been a long way from business as usual. Asked to grade on a scale of one to 10 the extent to which face-to-face contact with people they support had declined, six in 10 (59%) of social workers gave responses of seven or above.
“Going forward, we need to find the right balance between managing the risks of the virus and engaging with others in person – for both people in need of support, and staff,” said Jenefer Rees and Simon Homes, co-chairs of the Adult Principal Social Worker Network. “We need to carefully consider what we all want the ‘new normal’ for social work to look like, listening to both groups.”
Stratulis added that the sector needed “to think about how we reclaim relationship-based social work”.
“Social workers have done an incredible job trying to be creative and dynamic in relationship with the people they work for, but nothing can replace that human contact,” she said. “How do we support staff safely within the home and outside of the home to do the job they came into social work to do?”
Social workers, of course, represent only one service area that interacts with families and with vulnerable or disabled adults. Many of those who responded to our survey noted that since the onset of the pandemic, other services had withdrawn to a greater degree than social work had, one factor driving the overwhelming opinion that levels of need had risen since England locked down on 23 March 2020.
“[Service users] are not receiving the support they need,” commented one children’s social worker in the South West. “Drug and alcohol, domestic abuse and mental health services, early help [and] direct family support are severely lacking and everything is falling to social workers.”
Over in the East of England meanwhile, a senior adults’ practitioner noted that GPs had stopped home visiting. “Preventative services such as therapy have been scaled back,” they added. “Reablement care providers are concentrating on hospital [work], but are too stretched and taking a doing for rather than a doing with approach, deskilling adults.”
The impact of other services being less available has been magnified by the pandemic’s ongoing structural effects, social workers said. While some praised the resilience of service users, many observed that financial strain, loneliness and isolation were driving increases in mental ill-health, substance misuse and domestic abuse.
The thrust of those comments correlates closely with practitioners’ statements as to the volume and complexity of work they are taking on compared with 12 months ago.
More than nine in 10 (92%) also said they expected their service to be under greater pressure this winter than the previous one, with two-thirds (65%) saying they expected this increase to be significant.
“If we are going to try and reduce these demands on social workers, there’s the underlying issues that need to be tackled – poor mental and physical health, poor social care provision and poverty,” said Unison’s Gill Archer. “That can only be done if councils are given additional funding to bring back healthier, happier communities.”
‘No meat left on the bones’
With some local authorities instead warning that November’s stopgap spending review may still leave them cutting services to balance Covid-ravaged budgets, the ability of the workforce to cope, as the second wave of coronavirus breaks, remains to be seen.
Despite the steep drops in face-to-face interactions during the pandemic, a slight majority of social workers (54%) told us they had carried out duties over the past month that had caused anxiety that they, their families or service users could be put at risk of infection.
Recent Department for Education (DfE) research found the proportion of councils reporting high numbers of children’s social workers absent due to Covid-19 had risen in October following a sustained fall since May.
Asked to consider the previous month at work, a third (33%) of respondents said their service had been significantly hit by staff who were sick with Covid-19 or were self-isolating. A further 41% said their service had been slightly affected.
Asked about what worries them most as they look to the next few months, huge numbers of respondents mentioned service capacity – either because of its impact on exhausted workers, or on people being supported, or both.
“Given all the years of lean – very lean – resources, there is no manoeuvrability or contingency at the time we need it most,” said one North West-based children’s team manager. “In butchers’ parlance, fine filleting has left no meat on the bones.”