By Gerry Nosowska, chair, British Association of Social Workers (BASW)
Social workers and people who need their support across the country already know it: lockdown has made it harder to safeguard adults and children. More people need help. It is more difficult to access essential support services. It’s harder to seek and get help when not everyone has digital technology and face-to-face access is so limited.
BASW’s recent report, based on a survey of 1119 practitioners, shines a light on the truth of the pandemic’s impact. It adds to the mounting awareness that essential services, including social work, are buckling.
Social workers are rightly worried about how they can ensure people’s human rights are upheld, that they are safe from harm and have essential needs met.
But we are also worried about how social workers will stay safe themselves, sustain their mental health and keep going.
Rising need and workforce pressure
We are looking at a combined impact of rising need – highlighted in issues like shortages of fostering placements and ongoing deaths in care homes – and pressure in the workforce. All of this in the context of deep inequality across our communities.
The response of one social worker, Katy, to the report on Twitter captures this well:
I have seen the most resilient social workers experience extreme stress & Vicarious Trauma, beyond anything I’ve before, and this is far and wide across all areas. Social Workers NEED and DESERVE better emotional support. You cannot pour from an empty cup. @BASW_UK https://t.co/vMoo1SdVVX
— Katy (@Katy_Else) January 28, 2021
People do not need to struggle without essential support, and social workers do not need to be forgotten. Instead, we need public recognition, government attention and an influx of essential support.
For people who struggle, we must immediately retain essential social protections including the universal credit uplift; secure school meals and make digital access a reality – as 70% of our survey respondents said it isn’t currently due to digital exclusion experienced by service users.
In the immediate-to-short term, the government must provide a clear path for children back to school, and for adults at risk and carers to be swiftly protected by the vaccine.
All employers must emulate best
For social workers, our survey shows that many employers are doing risk assessments, providing essential equipment, and giving good supervision. We need to help all employers to do this and ensure that they are resourced so social workers can manage home and work demands with the debrief and recovery time they need.
We have also seen the positive impact of peer support to social workers through our forums and Professional Support Service; all social workers should have access to this.
In the long-term, our society’s recovery depends on repairing and strengthening the safety net that any of us may need, including social work. Our Vision for Social Work (now being finalised), and any review or plan for change, must start with the context of people’s lives and how they can thrive, not reduce public services to emergency responses.
In the upcoming Budget, the government has the opportunity to show true leadership and set out on this path by caring about the most at risk people in our society.
If we are to truly ‘build back better’ then we need to start those who struggle most. Our survey shows 79% of social workers encountered more difficulties in accessing essential support services for the people with whom they worked. This is where we must start first, we need to build back the family centres and support units and provide social workers with the resources to help struggling families.
It is an uphill struggle to get social work recognised, understood and supported. But if there was ever a time for public support, this is it. Social workers are out in our communities, risking their health – and tragically we have lost social workers to Covid-19. Social workers are braced for greater pressure when lockdown ends. They must no longer be the forgotten frontline.
- ‘Before, there were peaks and troughs – with Covid, it’s relentless’: social work eight months into the pandemic
- Worsening mental health, domestic abuse and poverty as support falls: social workers count cost of Covid
- Coronavirus: 75% of social workers feeling more negative about their work-life than last year, survey finds