Social workers’ wellbeing and quality of working life have decreased over course of pandemic, study finds

Social workers more likely to feel overwhelmed than other health and social care professionals, finds third phase of study into how practitioners are coping with Covid-19

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

Social workers’ mental wellbeing and quality of working life have decreased over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, a study has found.

Phase three of the Health and Social Care Workforce Study, covering May to July 2021, found social workers were more likely to feel overwhelmed, than social care workers, nurses, midwives and allied health professionals, with 69.4% reporting this.

Researchers found social workers were more likely than they were earlier in the pandemic to use substances, self-blame, vent, and disengage behaviourally as a way of coping with the pressures of work.

Social workers also reported being significantly more burnt out in the latest study than earlier in the pandemic.

Declining wellbeing

The survey received 753 responses from social workers across the UK, as well as 1,968 from other professions.

Scores from the latest study were compared to those from phase two, covering November 2020 to January 2021, and phase one, from May to July 2020.

Researchers assessed respondents’ mental wellbeing using the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale, with the average score for all respondents in phase three being 20.25.

Social workers’ mental wellbeing was lower than all other professions on average except midwifery in phase three, with a score of 19.31, which had declined compared with phases two (20.07) and one ( 21.14).

Respondents’ quality of working life was assessed using the Work-Related Quality of Life (WRQOL) Scale, with an average score of 72.45 across all professions in phase three.

Reserachers found social workers’ quality of working life decreased throughout the pandemic as well, with scores of 69.92 on average in phase three, compared to 73.67 in phase two and 80.63 in phase one.

Most other professions’ quality of working life declined throughout the pandemic as well, apart from nurses, who reported an increase in phase three.

Increased burnout

Social workers reported feeling significantly more burnt out in phase three compared with phase two, with an average personal burnout score of 67 compared with 62.87.

Researchers measured how respondents had coped across different phases using mean Carver coping scores and found social workers were less likely to try and accept their situation or positively reframe it as time went on.

But social workers were more likely to self-blame, vent their frustrations, disengage, and use substances to help them cope than they were earlier in the pandemic.

One of the report’s authors, Jill Manthorpe, said “a long period of stress takes its toll” and that social workers found it harder to cope in the first half of 2021 compared to earlier in the pandemic because it was no longer seen as a “short-term” emergency.

Struggling to work from home

Social workers reported struggling to do their job as effectively at home because they missed out on face-to-face contact.

“The task which is almost entirely ‘relational’ cannot be effectively done in this way. I am still expected to meet targets and keep standards within this exceptional situation,” one community social worker from Northern Ireland said.

And social workers, more than other professions, said they missed sharing their thoughts and concerns with colleagues at work after a bad day before going home. But this was likely to be because social workers were far more likely than others to work from home, with 42.2% doing so all the time.

One social worker in Scotland told researchers that working from home “negated it being my ‘safe place’ after a difficult day”.

Out of those respondents who had been redeployed during the pandemic, social workers were most likely to report that they felt unprepared.

Social workers were also most likely to have taken up employer wellbeing support while midwives were least likely to take up support.

Challenge of remote assessments

Manthorpe, who is professor of social work at King’s College London, said assessments were a particularly difficult task for social worker to undertake remotely.

“The professional task of doing an assessment isn’t just a verbal one, it’s about seeing where people are living, how they’re managing, what their body language is and the home environment that you see on a home visit,” she said.

“Social workers value home visits as this real opportunity to talk to people but also to listen.”

Manthorpe said there were advantages and disadvantages to working from home and that social workers would likely retain an element of remote working longer term.

She said some social workers relished not having to “find a carpark or spend a massive amount of time travelling” but it was difficult for people with less ideal home office set-ups “dealing with very distressing things from [their] bedroom”.

But social workers in the study were the least likely to have Covid-19 related sickness, whereas nurses were the most likely.

‘Not surprising’

Carolyn Ewart, national director of the British Association of Social Workers Northern Ireland, said it was “not surprising” that social workers reported feeling more burnt out in the study than in earlier stages of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The increased complexity of the problems social workers are supporting people to overcome points to why they are more likely to feel overwhelmed than their healthcare colleagues,” she said.

“And, more than anything, good social work is relationship-based, so it is no surprise that social workers reported they were struggling to do their job as effectively when working from at home because of a lack of face-to-face contact.”

Ewart said governments across the UK must fund improved working conditions for social workers so staff can remain in their roles “without negative impacts on their health and mental wellbeing”.

She added that the survey also showed the “enormous pressures” experienced by social workers in Northern Ireland, where just under half of social work respondents  (315 of 753) worked.

She said these reflected demands related to increased numbers of children in the care system and the requirements of recently introduced mental capacity legislation.

‘More tough times ahead’

The Association of Directors of Adult Social Services said the report’s findings reflected the fact that social workers “have been pushing themselves for a long time now and that this takes a personal toll”.

And a spokesperson warned that the pressures on social workers might not be easing yet despite the vaccine rollout.

“This invaluable research flags up some real concerns as we head into a winter that is unlikely to be any easier than the last one,” they said.

Manthorpe said it was important that formal support services and counselling for social workers introduced during the pandemic do not “disappear” even if work pressures ease.

“I think they now need to be there for the long haul,” she said. “The emotional impact for people who are burnt out is going to be around for a long time.”

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8 Responses to Social workers’ wellbeing and quality of working life have decreased over course of pandemic, study finds

  1. Withheld October 8, 2021 at 1:32 pm #

    To attribute blame of the demise of social workers mental health and wellbeing to stressors due to Covid is ridiculous!! The issues are there are not enough social workers to manage the high caseloads and having unrealistic targets to meet, With systems and interagency barriers that fight against common sense.. working under ethos of stats being more significant than safeguarding and where social workers carry intolerable responsibility working all hours outside of what they get paid sacrificing quality time with their own families, and carrying intolerable responsibility where their jobs and registration are constantly at risk because there is not the time to do what is required and if anything goes wrong… which it does because social workers are constantly dealing with crisis where no resources to deploy early intervention strategies with families to prevent matters escalating and where it is always the fault of the social worker!!…

    • Johnny Walker October 8, 2021 at 6:01 pm #

      Well said. Constant fudging of the real issues is tiresome and insulting

    • Stace October 8, 2021 at 9:10 pm #

      Spot on!

  2. Al October 8, 2021 at 11:06 pm #

    Personally my emotional turmoil stems from the sudden daily presence of my manager at Zoom meetings. 3 months before we started working from home, he set foot in our office precisely once. He is at the cutting edge of management though as he believes teams should group supervise themselves, leaving him to communicate with us by e-mail.

  3. Whinger October 9, 2021 at 10:27 am #

    “Social workers were less likely to try and accept their situation or positively reframe it as time went on.” A more apposite summation of how managers regard workers will be hard to find. Insult us, discipline us, burden us, deny us resources, don’t supervise us, ignore all this and more then blame us for not coping. There is an unpicking of this in domestic violence literature. If I wasn’t going through my self indulgent “burn-out” phase I might recall it.

  4. Kim Sharp October 13, 2021 at 9:23 am #

    Ongoing dismissive behaviour from management pointing out every fault while ignoring their accountability and getting defensive when you point out their misgivings in practice. No reflective supervision but a draconian style, unsupportive environment where you are worked like a machine and treated with complete disregard.

    I’m totally dismay in a profession I have loved for almost 3 decades.

  5. DeeJay October 13, 2021 at 9:28 am #

    Hahaha – fantastic response @ Whinger.

    Could not have said it any better, but does this make me a Whinger?

  6. Burnt Out October 13, 2021 at 10:20 pm #

    Well I agree with previous comments and after working through a pandemic, trying to consider individuals in need not myself, i thought in the not to distance future things would ‘get back to normal’. However, my mental health etc isn’t helped when your manager backed by the HR Department tells you to work harder because you are ‘lucky to have a job’! Wonder why they can’t recruit and keep staff, wouldn’t be this Corporate attitude by any chance? As well as this, we’ve been told don’t bother coming back to the office or your ‘hot desk’, for if you work in Adult Social Care you won’t have a desk, unless you book it to collaborate, but who the hell with, were will my team mates be? but hey this is OWOW (Our Ways Of Working) but that’s from ‘Corporate’ not the actual workers. So if your heading to see the lights of Blackpool, don’t stop on the M6 before turning onto the M55 or you’ll get caught in all the nonsense and Corporate speak! Who would want to work for such an authority, I am a SW please get me out of here!

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