Social work is buckling under the pressure of lockdown: government – and the public – must respond

Practitioners are feeling greater stress as need rises and their ability to respond reduces. Ministers must give them the resources they need to keep their communities - and themselves - safe, says Gerry Nosowska

Tired social worker attending online meeting
Photo: Mike/Adobe Stock

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:

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.

Budget priority

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.

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16 Responses to Social work is buckling under the pressure of lockdown: government – and the public – must respond

  1. Sandy February 3, 2021 at 2:39 pm #

    Would be really helpful to hear from BASW how they link this to the Independent Care Review.

    • Daniel diel3d February 4, 2021 at 5:48 pm #

      Here in Brazil it is no different. The pressure is very high and serious cases of domestic violence are increasing, especially sexual violence against children.

  2. Claire February 3, 2021 at 10:20 pm #

    Sadly we have been the forgotten front line. However this lack
    Of recognition has not halted the hard work, commitment and determination of many front line child
    Protection social workers. As a Team Manager I have observed the team I support work
    Tirelessly to help, protect and support children and families. They have gone above and beyond their normal working hours and reached out to charity groups to help and support. Some
    Fine examples of community spirit in a struggling City. I echo the added pressure this is having on social workers and hope that more is published to acknowledge this and look to solutions.

    • Hilary Lowe February 4, 2021 at 12:53 pm #

      Sadly foster carers, who take on the vulnerable children in our own home and work alongside social workers as specialist carers are never mentioned.. Throughout the pandemic we ate invisible, working 24/7, no weekends off, no evenings off, no bonus, no extra funding for all the additional costs. A year with not one hour off and yet we are never ever mentioned, maybe as a afterthought….

  3. Carlton February 4, 2021 at 8:28 am #

    BASW late to the debate again. None of these pressures are due to Covid-19. Fewer resources, disaster of UC, unrealistic expectations on us, bureaucracy, emotional impacts of our work and the rest were there and will continue to be there post pandemic unless we have real social change. I really admire BASW for its superb ability at publicising itself but belief in self defined leadership isn’t the same as leading though is it?

  4. Laura February 4, 2021 at 8:33 am #

    I concur with the above. Mental resilience in this profession is tough in normal circumstances, but the impact of lockdown and social work cannot be ignored. Peers among the front line have spoken about feeling a disconnected from the families they are supposed to be safeguarding. Furthermore the on going pressures from governments and inspectorate bodies for performance indicators has a negative funnelled down effect. Lockdown has been used as a opportunity for social workers to feel even more pressure to complete the already over dominant administrative tasks. There needs to be another way. Social workers want to help the families they are working with, our intentions and morals are good, but we need support from the wider bodies above to help us. Mental health is hugely important for us all.

  5. June February 4, 2021 at 9:45 am #

    I would also like to give a shout out for all council workers, not just social workers, but Occupational Therapists in social care who are unable to avoid contact with people in their homes, care workers, day centre workers and council staff such as the libraries and other usually office based staff who have been redeployed to help support vulnerable people in the community. They are all on the frontline doing an amazing job with little thanks from the public or press who are dazzled by the NHS. I completed the BASW survey although I am an OT, but it is geared to social workers not workers in social care.

  6. Delores. February 4, 2021 at 10:13 am #

    Central government have never demonstrated much regard or respect for the social work profession. I think more must be done to remind them that all social workers are front line workers and often face and experience far more abuse and hostility than many of the other professions and therefore need to be regarded and protected and to be supported equally as the other front line workers/professions.

  7. Michelle white February 4, 2021 at 10:16 am #


    Yes let them pay us to complete more work every quarter because for some reason we want to act nonsensical to system already in place

    SW union needs to step up and address this ASAP

  8. Karen February 4, 2021 at 1:02 pm #

    Yes totally with you thousand per cent bad enough it lonely job but all added stress is total nightmare we always d our best we never get recognised for our good work but always hit headline if there bad outcome we in this job because we card not for any pat back but just for government to remember us karen

  9. Irene Dayer February 4, 2021 at 3:10 pm #

    Our team was decimated after a poor council management response to Care Inspectorate evaluation. New managers were brought in with temp agency workers, with no care for original staff and a real lack of supervision we were under so much pressure, none of the original team coped.
    I resigned so did others, still recovering from the reaction on my health from extreme stress…

  10. Anon February 7, 2021 at 1:02 am #

    I have worked in child protection for 8 years and the limited colleague contact, no office space, no contact with my friends and family has had an Impact on my well-being, my only daily human contact I have is with service users and now I am starting to feel burnt out. Although prior to the pandemic I did not have a good work life balance now my life is only work. I am leaving child protection as can’t do it anymore. If this pandemic has taught me anything it is life is to short to always put others before your own health and well-being.

    Nearly all the social workers that I have worked with go above and beyond for the families they support and at times this is to a detriment to their own families as they don’t get to spend quality time with them. We make these sacrifices because we are so invested in making a positive difference for children and their families. To achieve this we have to work many additional hours outside of our working hours for free so we can make this happen. However this results in burn out because we are so emotionally exhausted. Social workers have worked harder than ever throughout this pandemic and all I read on daily basis is the hard work and sacrifices made by other key workers. They do deserve recognition and support but so do we.

  11. Karis February 7, 2021 at 9:13 am #

    I have read this with increasing annoyance. Appeals to the public to “love” social workers, appeals to a Brexit obsessed government for more money. Good luck with that. Perhaps if BASW actually broke away from its obsessive over reliance on social media in the pathetic belief that tweets, podcasts, validation from pals and the occasional letter to Ministers equates to campaigning, we would have a “professional association” worthy of the claim. I may be a bit bitter by the way as I have used their Professional Support Service and was more depressed afterwards with the peer reinforcement of how awful things are and so on. Take a risk where it matters rather than constantly repeating the same narrative. It took the pandemic to induce Vicarious Trauma did it? Silly me, I thought our work was always vulnerable to Transference and Counter Transference. Where is the Social Work Union by the way?

  12. Arnie February 11, 2021 at 10:16 pm #

    May I ask why when BASW repeatedly tells us it represents, promotes and advocates for social workers, that it has influence and access to Ministers and communicates effectively with Chief Social Workers, and Social Work England regales us with their supposed success in ensuring public confidence in our practice through their regulation of us, it’s remains a “struggle to get social work recognised, understoood and supported?” Can it actually be that neither are the beacons of influence they think they are?

  13. Paul February 12, 2021 at 7:05 am #

    The Social Workers Union claims that 11% of social workers have been threatened with disciplinary action for raising health and safety concerns. Then silence. When our own organisations abandon us, it’s hardly surprising that others do also.

  14. Jeff February 12, 2021 at 1:01 pm #

    Whilst I think the phrase ‘it sucks to be us’ is often an easy hat to grab when it is raining problems, the reality is that overall, the resilience and commitment shown by all essential workers during the pandemic has quite frankly been phenomenal. Whilst I am not a supporter of clapping hands or, banging pans on the doorstep, I absolutely applaud the need for meaningful support which promotes and drives social change and recognises all social care professionals and the work we do. As a social worker, I first became aware of the ‘hanged if you do and hanged if don’t’ view of social work 25 years ago and there is still no hiding from the fact that much of the positive work we do is never seen outside our client’s groups, teams, and support bubbles. The concerns raised within the linked posts are valid opinions and views linked to individual experiences which occurred at an unprecedented time and as such, they should be accepted and respected. If those members of BASW have no faith in their trade union and its capacity to support and protect its members, I respectfully suggest that the easy solution is merely to cancel your membership! However, any trade union is only as strong as its membership and, for all the right reasons, health and social care staff are widely known for their reluctance to take direct action.
    The post-Brexit needs of vulnerable groups were already set to be a significant staffing challenge and the pandemic has significantly added to the challenges faced by social care. As the government moves to getting more people vaccinated, it will develop its plan for a gradual ‘back to business’ position. It goes without saying that, because of this global event, the needs of society’s most vulnerable groups will not have reduced and may well have significantly increased since Jan 2020. Equally, there may be more now in need as a direct consequence of the virus and an already over stretched service will be asked to dig deeper. If so, we may be moving towards a possible expediential rise in referrals at a time when there would have been a reduction in workforce capacity due to social care staff retiring/leaving, students failing to qualify, foster carers not being assessed and/or the impact of Brexit upon European care workers. Equally, whilst the government attempts to support businesses during the pandemic should also be applauded, the offer was not universally available and those on zero hours contracts, essential transport, shop workers, essential health, and social care staff, etc were not afforded the same protection. Accordingly, the mental health impact of continuing to provide essential service to vulnerable people without adequate PPE, advice guidance, support, control etc within a backdrop of trying to maintain individual safety, protecting clients, colleagues and wider family members is yet to be quantified.
    I joined my profession not because of its power, pay and conditions, perks, equipment or, it is profile amongst professional peers but, despite those issues. What we do is not to everyone’s taste and what others do is not to my mine. As the quote goes, ‘life is under no obligation to give us what we expect’ and the post-pandemic review of the UK performance and how we individually and collectively responded to meet the needs of our most vulnerable will not make easy reading for some. However, it will present the UK with an opportunity to reflect, learn and, if possible, rebuild social care and its workforce to better manage any future similar events. The key question will be at what cost, to whom and will the commitment remain once the threat has subsided? As a mature social care professional, who has worked throughout the pandemic and both contracted and recovered from Covid-19, my thoughts go out to all those who have been less fortunate than myself and I am immensely proud of the response from all essential workers and sincerely hope that you: ‘don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but, by the seeds that you plant’.