One social worker completed Community Care’s second coronavirus survey at the end of a week of long days attending court virtually:
“I haven’t seen my own child as a result. I haven’t seen any of my colleagues face-to-face and all my visits are out. I have done a hideous four-day sexual abuse final hearing from my own bedroom. I struggle to see anything good resulting from the pandemic. For a little while I thought maybe the powers that be had realised that meaningful contact with a family could be more than just forcing home visits on them, but as soon as [the first] lockdown was lifted, we reverted straight back. You can talk to a difficult to reach teen 12 times a week on the phone but if you haven’t caught them at home and forced your way into their bedroom, you haven’t met your KPIs.”
While court work of such intensity may not be routine, the strain, blurred boundaries between work and home, and disenchantment with policies and guidance described by this children’s practitioner were echoed by many who responded to the survey last month. Three-quarters of the adults’, children’s and mental health practitioners who answered questions about their working life felt worse about it than this time a year ago, and they frequently referenced the same concerns.
Coronavirus: three-quarters of social workers feeling more negative about their work than a year ago, research finds
Community Care first surveyed social workers about the impact of Covid-19 back in May. While that research sounded many warnings about the risks to service users and practitioners, it also struck a few optimistic notes about newly introduced ways of working – some hoped more frequent informal online communication and creative use of technology would improve relationships, others anticipated stress declining with hot-desking and travel reduced.
However, the vast majority of comments in the November survey expressed only worries about the future and revealed some less obvious implications of practising for months under pandemic conditions – the longevity of which was not anticipated in the spring. What social workers said about the impact of the virus and associated restrictions on vulnerable people they support, and on their own working lives, made the stark finding that 70% believe their mental health is worse than this time last year unsurprising.
Organisations representing social workers told Community Care the findings reflected what their members were saying. Gill Archer, national officer at Unison, says that “support for mental health came out as one of the top concerns” in a survey of social workers the union carried out about working during Covid-19. The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) England’s national director, Maris Stratulis, is also increasingly hearing about fatigue, struggles with isolation and work intruding on personal and family life. “We’re concerned about longer term sustainability in terms of people’s wellbeing,” she warned.
‘Weary and overwhelmed’
When asked what worried them most when thinking about the next few months, as well as commenting on the needs of their service user group, many social workers talked about their own or their team’s mental health and fearing unmanageable workloads if staff contract the virus or need to isolate.
While their practice concerns might range from increased social isolation for disabled people to the closure of family contact centres, social workers in different fields made strikingly similar comments about their exhaustion with the current situation and their anxieties about what will happen next:
“Before, there where peaks and troughs in referrals and work. [With Covid] it has been relentless and I worry more now about burnout than ever in the past… In a front door team, no increased capacity was given to deal with the increase in referrals whilst simultaneously having a decrease in partners such as schools etc to support children and families. It has been six months of firefighting. … How long will this go on for!? As a service we hadn’t recovered from wave 1 or the spike in referrals from young people returning to school. Staff are going into this [November] lockdown weary and overwhelmed.” (Children’s social worker, South West)
“Our role in assessing and providing support has been restricted with few available options open to those that need support. No day centres, no respite care. Family and carers are struggling. Older people are so isolated at home and in care homes and we can’t help… I’m very anxious for the winter as we have no clue how we might be deployed, what will happen to our services. We’re all worn out, sort of feels like a battleground and managers and seniors just keep saying ‘it is what it is’.” (Adults’ social worker, South West)
‘Work is home now’
The most common reason social workers gave for worrying about their own mental health or feeling negatively about work was the length of time they had been working from home. A minority of respondents commented on the benefits of saving time and money on their commute and found their wellbeing and productivity had improved – with time for exercise and healthier lunches, and fewer interruptions during the working day.
“Skype chats with colleagues and team meetings helps you feel connected and sometimes I don’t mind the isolation!” (Children’s social worker, Yorkshire and Humber)
However, the majority told us they were struggling with the fact that, in the words of one advanced practitioner, “work is home now”.
It wasn’t just virtual court cases bringing sometimes extreme levels of service user distress into what was previously private space and making work/life balance difficult. Social workers in all roles commented on the many impacts of the shift to homeworking.
“My ability to switch off has significantly decreased. Sat inside the house I share with my family, I am discussing severe sexual abuse, assault and injury that feels like a violation into my family life. I can never escape it and even when my computer is off, it is a constant physical reminder.” (ASYE in a children’s service, North West)
The laptop is in my home and it is easy to continue over my normal working hours. I also do not feel that I have proper breaks and feel an unconscious pressure to do more work.”
(NQSW in an adults’ service, West Midlands)
With constant access to their computers, without time spent travelling to work or visits, many social workers commented that they were expected to always be available for phone and video meetings, which could now be scheduled back-to-back.
While it is obvious how some of these changes in the working day can cause ‘digital fatigue’, some of the additional emotional pressures might happen unconsciously, says Dr Peter Buzzi, director of Research and Management Consultancy Centre and the Safeguarding Research Centre, who chairs the Social Work Practice and Digital Network:
“Working from home has collapsed many of the boundaries we had set between our personal and professional life. For example, you might be on a video call in your bedroom, but knowing your child is at home and wants to be with you. You have to insist on boundaries, while your child may not understand them. This becomes a heavy emotional demand: while on the video call, you’re also thinking about being in the same physical place but unable to support your child and meet their need to be with you. It can create a strong sense of guilt and responsibility; that adds to the feelings of pressure and anxiety.”
Buzzi highlights that worsening mental health may also be due to homeworking influencing practitioners’ circadian clocks (biological rhythms regulating sleep, eating, hormonal activity and other processes). Being in the same environment constantly, without routines such as travelling to work and changing clothing, can confuse the circadian clock, leading to depressive mood, feelings of fatigue and pain. It can also affect diet and eating habits, in turn impacting on health and emotional wellbeing, Buzzi says.
‘No ad-hoc discussions’
Practitioners also routinely cited the lack of spontaneous conversations with colleagues reducing their ability to share ideas and seek peer or managerial support. While the likes of Microsoft Teams and Zoom were valued as ways to hold meetings and supervision and there were examples of teams using them creatively to try and capture having a ‘kitchen chat’, they were generally viewed by respondents as a poor substitute for being ‘in the room’.
“Working from home since March and the long-term impact for me personally means I feel isolated: no ad-hoc discussions, no face-to-face with service users. The lack of human interaction is having an effect on me and virtual meetings, consults, supervision all the time I am finding really a personal strain and feel worn out by the emotional impact of not seeing people in reality”. (Independent reviewing officer/child protection chair, East of England)
“I do find it harder to read staff – in the office if someone is stressed, I can pick up and support in seconds. It’s difficult online and people/staff can avoid. So I spend time [to] check all ok. It often means that I can’t catch when people start to present as stressed and have to pick up the pieces which isn’t proactive.” (Team manager, adults’ service, South West)
Jenefer Rees and Simon Homes, co-chairs of the Adult Principal Social Worker (PSW) network, say they are worried about the isolation and longer working hours resulting from continuous homeworking and that their members are prioritising promoting staff wellbeing and self-care with support from the network. They highlighted that, “PSWs are particularly aware of the challenges for students, NQSWs and staff newly in post”.
‘Feeling very deskilled for direct work’
It was clear both from the comments of managers who responded to the survey, and the reasons given by the two-thirds of social workers who said they were happy with their employer’s response to the pandemic, that the impact of working in isolation on wellbeing is widely appreciated, even if it cannot be mitigated.
However, many social workers also remarked that working primarily from home, coupled with new policies and practices, had fundamentally shifted their roles to become more administrative than relationship-based, and that this was not being fully acknowledged. Comments referred to the combination of less face-to-face contact with service users, increased bureaucracy to risk-assess visits in line with Covid-19 guidance, and a change in emphasis in some roles – for example, those involved in supporting hospital discharges or co-ordinating services in the community. Practitioners described being left concerned about the future of their skills and the social work function within the wider system.
I also spend most of my time at a computer instead of with people now, and it’s making me feel very deskilled for direct work.”
(Children’s social worker, South East)
“Risk assessments, reports and tick boxes for every interaction and assessment, feel like we can’t do anything without approval, much less freedom.” (Adults’ social worker, South West)
Stratulis believes the changes to day-to-day work since the start of the pandemic make it increasingly urgent for the sector to address the balance between direct work and administrative tasks. She highlighted BASW’s 80-20 campaign that aims to reverse the proportions of time spent on relationship-based practice as against process-driven activities and says a focus on this should also encompass how social workers work with each other and investment from organisations in relationship-based support for staff wellbeing.
Buzzi says social workers’ professional identity is often based on the fact that they do their work via relationships. While contact may have continued either online or in a physically distanced way, practitioners frequently don’t feel the same sense of connection or ability to use their relational skills, which can lead to a feeling of diminished competence in the role and loss of identity.
“Also, because of the uncertainty practitioners are experiencing due to the pandemic, they might anchor onto the clarity and simplicity of procedures. This, combined with losing relational and professional identity, can reduce the sense of meaning in the work. It can make them feel it’s all just repetitive tasks,” he continued.
‘It’s hard enough having to interpret government guidance as it is’
Increased risk assessment to establish whether face-to-face contact should take place has not necessarily correlated with practitioners feeling safe to carry out visits and meetings – some who reported more paperwork due to the virus had also felt anxious in the past month about their exposure to Covid-19.
Social workers who expressed overall dissatisfaction with their employer’s response to the pandemic often commented on unclear polices on the use of PPE or having to buy their own masks and hand sanitiser. Some felt they were stigmatised if they expressed concern about transmission, for example wanting to wear a mask in the office or on visits. In many cases, discontent with their employer stemmed from practitioners feeling policies around face-to-face meetings and PPE since the first lockdown ended were confusing or at odds with general social distancing guidance.
Current Department for Education guidance on children’s social care under Covid says that virtual visits to children and families should be “the exception” across all local restriction tiers and that visits should be held face-to-face where possible. Separate guidance on safe working in children’s services states that, where a family has a confirmed or suspected case of coronavirus, or any member has been contact with a confirmed case, a risk assessment should be carried out. PPE should only be worn if a family reports symptoms, with equipment taken as a precaution if the practitioner is uncertain on this point.
There is no specific guidance for adults’ and mental health social workers around home visits – guidance on mental capacity and Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards (DoLS) says that face-to-face visits “can occur if needed, for example to meet the person’s specific communication needs, in urgent cases or if there are concerns about the person’s human rights.” However, this is in the context of the higher risks that surround professionals visiting care homes.
Clear local policies and feeling appropriate safety measures were in place were often mentioned by the two-thirds of respondents who said they were satisfied with their employer’s response.
Organisational protocols and cultures appear from social workers’ responses to vary widely, regardless of which tier an area had been in prior to the November lockdown.
“We have now been told that face-to-face visits are the default position which I feel goes against government guidance and whilst managers have all meetings etc remotely, they are insisting that frontline workers visit. We will always do essential visits but there are times when this is just not necessary and our professional judgment has been taken away from us.” (Adults’ senior social worker, South East)
“As a manager I feel conflicted and confused with all the changes, guidance and the fact we need to continue seeing our service user group face-to-face. I am scared I make the wrong decision and team members die as a result of my actions, if they contract coronavirus. That weighs on my mind daily. Little support in regards to this for me.” (Mental health team manager, north east)
“I feel we need to do more face-to-face with service users, I feel we are letting them down. We are told to do emergency visits only, but no definition of this.” (Mental health social worker in a North West local authority)
As noted in our main article on the survey findings, many social workers highlighted that other services normally supporting children and adults had withdrawn to a greater degree than social care. As well as this disparity contributing to increased need and workloads, a children’s social worker in the North West questioned whether the policies that expected social workers to continue face-to-face work were fair:
“We’re under the same pressures but it seems worse since other partner agencies aren’t doing face to face and seem to rely on us to do more, even though we don’t have any special protections they wouldn’t have access to. How can a mask protect us for a visit but not be enough for them? This isn’t working together.”
‘A train with no stops’
As the country edges towards an unusual Christmas, some social workers know their frontline and duty work will continue regardless of bank holidays, supporting those in need while other agencies are closed. This survey suggests that many who don’t need to work over Christmas will be summoning any remaining energy to get them through to a much needed break.
“The pandemic feels like an ongoing train without any stops. Feels like we need to stop and think and reflect on what we’ve done so far and the personal impact, also have some time to rest and recharge and to be able to get motivated to get going again.” (Independent reviewing officer, North East)
But with respondents citing the additional pressures of this time of year on those at risk of abuse at home or struggling with mental health, and their expectations that need will spike alongside further lockdowns in the New Year, it’s questionable whether the festive season will really give social workers the break they need.