Coronavirus: 75% of social workers feeling more negative about their work-life than last year, survey finds

Community Care survey captures pandemic's harsh impact, with 70% of practitioners reporting worsening mental health while majorities say size and complexity of workload have increased as need mounts

Image of young woman home working and looking tired and stressed (credit: StratfordProductions / Adobe Stock)
(credit: StratfordProductions / Adobe Stock)

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) England, also said she was concerned about “levels of fatigue, a sense of isolation and the longer term sustainability in terms of people’s wellbeing”.

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.

Dwindling contacts

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?”

Rising need

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.”

12 Responses to Coronavirus: 75% of social workers feeling more negative about their work-life than last year, survey finds

  1. Bre looking for an exit December 11, 2020 at 7:37 pm #

    Once again an article tells us what we already know and continue to experience, which is the high and complex caseloads, and the lack of managerial and organisational support. All of this not only takes a toll on our physical and emotional health, but it is not sustainable long-term. A work / life balance in statutory social work – I have not had that in the last 10 years!!!!

    The real elephant in the room is if we stay and continue to accept the ‘crap conditions’, we only have ourselves to blame. I know that sounds harsh, but it is the truth, as at best we ‘burn out’, at worse, we are judged incompetent (and a risk,) for not being able to manage, an unmanageable caseload, and we will likely be reported to the regulator, who will not only publicly shame us, but also have the power to put an end to our social work career – permanently. I am sure all of the poor Social Workers who were reported to the regulator around workload issues (and not clear cases of misconduct), wished they had listened to their gut instinct and left before this happened.
    The regulator has become ‘judge and jury’ for the employer, and they do not care about the appalling and inhumane conditions we social workers are exposed too everyday. SWE needs to ‘drain the swamp’, & start with corrupt service and team managers, particularly in local authority teams.

    After 22 years of frontline CP Social Work, I faced the ‘harsh reality’ that if I stayed, conditions were going to get worse, and this would be to my own physical and emotional detriment, and I would be facing a lonely and isolated existence, as there is no work / life balance. I use to spend my ‘work hours’ conducting visits, telephoning clients & professionals, and attending meetings. My ‘real work’ of writing case notes, assessments, and reports were all done -for free – in my evenings and weekends, for no pay, recognition, or time-in-lieu. Even all these unpaid hours were never enough, and what I had to do at a minimum, just to keep my hand in, and not let my cases get out of control.

    You can dedicate your life to social work, and the minute you leave, you are forgotten by the organisation. After some internal self-reflection, I wondered what was keeping me in the job, and I realised if the pay (as agency) was not as good, I would have left years ago. I decided life is too short to spend it unhappy or at work, so I left.

    It took me several months of living frugally and on limited savings, but I obtained a job totally out of social work. Although I am paid a lot less, I don’t have to spend an extra 30 + unpaid hours per week, doing my employers business or bidding. The system is at the point of collapse, and it is always the workers left behind who have to deal with the workload. I would rather be out of it, than in it. I hope those of you who are feeling the same are able to summon the courage and leave, as the only person stopping you, is YOU.

    • Andy Cole December 13, 2020 at 3:30 pm #

      I took the plunge in early ’19 and left SW after twenty or so mostly gruelling years. Gradually built up my business (totally unrelated to social work) over the next year; currently taking a hit because of the virus but just about managing and looking forward to the challenge of getting going again in the next few months. Not been easy at all but I value my emotional and physical well-being far too much to remain in SW. We’re trained to think and required to work analytically: I’m surprised more SWs don’t apply that skill in the most reflective way possible and develop less onerous ways of earning a living.
      I remain in awe of all those SWs who genuinely manage themselves and their clients well in these difficult times.

    • kat December 14, 2020 at 5:33 am #

      Well said, it utterly scares me that by simply pushing ourselves we could be deemed unsafe. There never seems to be any safety net for us.

  2. Mike December 12, 2020 at 12:19 pm #

    No surprises here….social work is in crisis with no real direction, workloads are increasing along with significant cuts in funding services. We are also expected to take on a multitude of roles incl safeguarding, best interest/MCA work on top of care act work and care coordination and you wonder why so many social workers either quit the profession or go off sick.

  3. Matt December 13, 2020 at 3:05 pm #

    I have the upmost respect for all my social work colleagues who get up every day with the intention to help others. 👏

  4. Gill Thompson December 15, 2020 at 10:28 am #

    It’s so demoralising and just plain wrong we have to work past 60 or risk losing a huge chunk of our pensions. This is putting ourselves at risk of catching the virus and not living long enough to reach retirement age. After over 20 + years of service it feels like experience counts for nothing as we are all expendable. Very true we give hours of our free time to keep on top, as far as possible, of our caseloads so we can quiet our minds to enable us to grab a few hours sleep at night. Police, firefighters and NHS workers are able to retire much earlier without any penalties and are highly regarded professions. Do we not work as hard and put ourselves at risk everyday? Surely we deserve to be treated equally and deserve more recognition for the good we do for society as a whole. Social workers are the unsung heroes battling every day to make people’s lives better and for social justice for all but not for ourselves!

  5. Neil December 16, 2020 at 9:23 am #

    Perhaps the difference between social workers and other workers is that we have a useless self serving regulator more interested in fads and collecting our fees while the others have regulators that keep up a constant public profile and campaign for their workers. Rather than envy other workers we should demand more from our bureaucrats.

  6. Katey December 16, 2020 at 10:10 am #

    I read that in China, Italy, Sierra Leone and New Zealand, social workers have moved to more community based working in response to the pandemic and away from stunted and over buraucratised case work we are overburdened with. If British social work was capable of dynamism, we in our nations would also be able to take a step back and look at creating more useful and satisfying ways of working. Instead we have wasted a whole years energy on a pointless CPD process, with no evidence that this will improve our practice, to justify the shoddy SWE, and been assailed by pointless missives from BASW that contribute zero improvement to the life of the average social worker. Self care gets us so far, what we really need is to rescue social work from out of touch academics, self serving leaders and the mentality of unthinking rule following to make it relevant to users of services and give us the autonomy to use our full skills.

  7. Chris Sterry December 16, 2020 at 1:58 pm #

    Who would be a Social Worker for you spend so many years obtaining the starting qualifications and then enter a Local Authority. (LA) with so much enthusiasm and good intentions, only for these to be dashed pretty soon. due to the lack of senior managerial support, excessive workloads, the huge bureaucracy and more.

    In the public perception you are dammed if you do and dammed it you don’t.

    It is true that Social Care is in crisis, not only for those in need of care, those providing care work in the community, care homes, etc and those within LAs and any others.

    As well as all the stated above, finance or the severe lack of it is another major contributory factor, which this Government and all previous Governments, be they be Labour or Conservative, are responsible for. Many Governments have promised to solve the crisis, but when they have done changes, they have created more crisis, but funding is one they have not solved, for Care has never been sufficiently.

    Much work has already been done and the Cameron Government (2010-2016) was ready to produce a solution, but instead decided to delay this until April 2020. April 2020 came, but concentration was on the COVID-19 pandemic, but it that had not occurred would the crisis have been solved. Well, from past experience I doubt it, for would they have even done anything, except defer it further down the road.

    The petition Solve the crisis in Social care,

    https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/solve-the-crisis-in-social-care, is not about the problems with regards to Social Workers, but to Social Care in general. especially the dire state with regards to finance and the Governments lack of response to the situation.

  8. Mary Mary never so contrary December 16, 2020 at 8:58 pm #

    I appreciate all of the comments above, as they are all valid and to be respected. I totally agree with the view that we have a shaming and blaming regulator, highly paid yet un-influential academics (who are a waste of time), a Government which finds ‘extra’ tax money by slashing social care budgets, and Social Care organisations (i.e. LA) and the public who hate us alike.

    What chance do we as Social Worker’s have of winning? Next to nil. The reality is Social Workers have nothing to gain, and everything to lose, by staying in this professional long-term.

    The only ‘happy’ Social Workers appear to be NHS and Charity Social Workers, and those jobs are rare and few and far between. #

    I think the UK has to be the worst place to practise as a statutory social worker; I use to think it was the USA, but I was told by a former American colleague (who has since returned to the USA) that whilst it was not easy working in the US, there were less cases, more managerial support, and paid overtime. He was from Georgia, and returned, after seeing how bad the workload and standards were here in CP in London.

    I remember when I use to run into Social Workers from ‘all over the world’ when I practised as a CP Social Worker in London; now it is rare to run into one, as they have returned home (i.e. to Australia, NZ, Canada, USA etc) , due to the awful working conditions. This should tell the Government and organisational employers something, but no, they stick their heads in the sand.

    We all need to Unite as a whole, and leave this toxic, abusive, punishing, and un-rewarding field.

  9. Lucy in the Sky December 17, 2020 at 10:37 pm #

    Not all local authorities are out of touch and lack a sense of humour. Ours has overwhelmed us with love and appreciation for all that we have endured. Our reward? One card for the whole service and, I kid you not, a tangerine each. Shame on the cynics who say social workers are demoralised.

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