How wellbeing has decreased for social workers and care staff as the pandemic has progressed

The second wave of a major study finds challenges have increased for health and social care practitioners and highlights the importance of promoting positive coping strategies, says Dr Paula McFadden

Research results post-it note on mouse
Photo: Artur/Adobe Stock

By Dr Paula McFadden, senior lecturer in social work, Ulster University

Social workers were again foremost amongst those who participated in the second wave of a UK-wide survey on the wellbeing of health and social care professionals during the pandemic, which ran from November 2020 to the end of January 2021.

This followed a similar survey from May to July 2020.The winter survey provides crucial evidence of what has changed since the first survey, in summer 2020 (open May to July 2020).

The major change is that overall wellbeing scores have decreased across all occupational groups since the summer. This matters because wellbeing scores indicate an increase in the levels of depression and anxiety, which increased from 9% of respondents in the ‘likely’ to have depression and/or anxiety category and 33% in the ‘possible’ category to almost 18% ‘likely’ and a further 22% in the ‘possible’ category in this second survey.

Wellbeing levels were lowest among respondents who said their services were overwhelmed, as reported by many social workers. There is a need for caution here as the two surveys were not completed by the same staff – but overall the numbers of respondents were very similar in both surveys.

Positive and negative coping strategies

What helps us all during a possibly distressing and worrying time such as a pandemic are positive coping strategies,  for example, active coping, positive reframing, acceptance, exercise. Among the survey respondents, these were all associated with higher mental wellbeing, better quality of working life and lower burnout scores.

Not surprisingly, negative coping strategies, such as venting (pouring out a strong emotion), substance use, and self-blame, were associated with lower mental wellbeing, worse quality of working life and higher burnout scores.

Ways of coping changed between our first and second surveys. Respondents appeared to be using positive coping strategies less and negative coping strategies more in the second phase; employers, HR teams, managers and colleagues must keep a look out for their colleagues at whatever level of social work they are involved in.

Support for your wellbeing

In recognition of the acute challenges facing the sector, and to thank all social workers for their incredible work, Community Care has joined forces with UNISON, the public service trade union, to produce a free expert-written resource, full of advice, tips and guidance.

Supporting Social Workers in 2021 is an interactive digital guide, specifically designed to provide social workers with tools to help support their mental health and wellbeing.

Broadly, for social workers there was some pick up of face-to-face meetings with service users and moves back to the office, sometimes as part of a rota over the winter months. But home working remained common and there were reports of good and not so good communication, in terms of quality and frequency with colleagues and managers.

Implications for social work managers

There are several related implications for social work employers and managers from this winter survey’s findings. These include making sure that communications and connections are maintained even though the impact of the virus may be decreasing.

Future communications will need to address working at home arrangements and other flexibilities to ensure staff get consulted about their own needs and preferences and that they are fair and perceived to be fair. Taking breaks and holiday leave are also helpful but may need encouragement.

We measured burnout in the winter survey and found that those reporting higher burnout were also thinking of leaving the profession.”

Employers will need to respond to this risk by ensuring interventions to mitigate leaving, including workforce wellbeing supports with actions plans and psychological interventions that target those most in need.

The next study will take place in early summer and Community Care will again be supporting this major opportunity to hear the voices of UK social workers.

About the research

The second wave of the Health and Social Care Workforce Wellbeing and Coping during COVID-19 study received 3499 responses; out of which 1172 were from social workers.

While respondents spanned social care workers, nurses, midwives and allied health professionals, social workers were the main professional group taking part in Northern Ireland and in England, with high numbers also in Scotland and Wales where there were slightly more social care respondents. This second survey was open November 2020 to the end of January 2021.

Read the full report here, and the executive summary here.

The research team is led by Dr Paula McFadden and also includes: Dr Patricia Gillen (Ulster University and Southern Health and Social Care Trust), Dr John Moriarty (Queen’s University Belfast), Dr John Mallett (Ulster University), Dr Heike Schroder (King’s College London), Dr Jermaine Ravalier (Bath Spa University), Professor Jill Manthorpe (King’s College London), Dr Denise Currie (Queen’s University Belfast), Patricia Nicholl, Daniel McFadden and Dr Jana Ross.

They are hugely grateful to all respondents and to those organisations across the UK in social work that promoted the study.

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