Omicron infections in wider workforce ‘adding pressure’ to ‘exhausted’ social workers

Sector bodies say staff absences in residential and home care provision have led to practitioners taking on more work, as assessment workload also mounts

Image of PPE mask resting on laptop (credit: raquel / Adobe Stock)
(credit: raquel / Adobe Stock)

Social workers are under increased pressure because of Omicron-related staff absences elsewhere in social care and rising assessment workloads, sector bodies have warned.

Already “exhausted” practitioners were having to step in to carry out welfare checks on adults going without the care they need due to mounting staff shortages in residential and home care, said the British Association of Social Workers (BASW).

At the same time, the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS) said adult social workers were facing “significant increases in assessment and planning work” due to an “ever-growing” number of people needing care at home and going in and out of hospital.

Meanwhile, UNISON is seeking a meeting with the Department for Education to address a “crisis in child safety” linked to “soaring” children’s social worker caseloads.

Mounting staff shortages

Vacancies across adult social care rose from 9.2% to 9.4%, from November to December 2021, up from 6.1% in May, while the number of posts filled in services fell to 3.7% below March 2021 levels, shows data released this month by Skills for Care.

A BASW spokesperson said staff shortages in the wider workforce had been exacerbated by Omicron, resulting in a lack of provision “to facilitate hospital discharge or to support a preventative approach”.

“This crisis in staffing levels for provider services adds more pressure and work to social workers, who find themselves taking on additional new work alongside existing workloads, such as completing welfare checks and risk assessments for people who are not receiving the care and support they need,” the spokesperson added.

Social workers were also having to work with public health, commissioning, and quality teams to tackle business continuity issues related to provider shortages, they said.

‘Significant increases in assessment work’

The Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS) said local authorities were taking “extraordinary steps” to ensure people continue to receive the care and support they needed amid shortages in the wider social care workforce.

“Social workers are undertaking significant increases in assessment and planning work with people to organise care and support for an ever-growing number of people needing support at home, going into and needing to leave hospital, in undertaking Mental Health Act assessments and in constantly prioritising those whose needs are greatest,” said Cathie Williams, ADASS chief executive.

“The situation has worsened over winter, compounded by increasing numbers of staff sick or isolating due to contracting the virus, as our most recent survey has shown, leading to incredibly difficult decisions being made about who gets care and support, and how much of it.”

Williams said that while the spread of the Omicron variant had exacerbated staff shortages, central government’s failure to fund adult social care over the last decade, and to reward social care workers, were at the root of the current crisis.

A recent ADASS survey of directors found 13% of councils had rationed care to “life and limb” only – limiting help to eating, hydration, toileting and changing continence laundry – over Christmas, while 43% were re-prioritising support to those most at risk and for essential activities only.

‘Firefighting’ – current work pressures

BASW said the situation meant people were reaching “crisis point” before they were assessed, with social workers and managers reporting that they were in a constant state of “firefighting”

“[This] compromises their ability to undertake their role effectively and maintain their ethical and professional standards,” BASW’s spokesperson said.

They said the longer-term impact of working in this way was starting to present itself in reports of social workers leaving the profession “earlier than they may have otherwise planned, which has far-reaching implications for future workforce planning”.

Gill Archer, UNISON’s national officer for social work, said her union had requested a meeting with the Department for Education to discuss a current “crisis in child safety”, to which the pandemic had contributed.

She said “soaring” children’s social worker caseloads and cuts to early help services had “undermined what social workers do”.

“That meant for heavy and complex workloads, which the pandemic exacerbated. Members have said they have got worries about their mental health and their ability to provide services. They say that they are just firefighting rather than being able to understand the issues families have,” she said.

One senior social worker in Northamptonshire said around 10% of staff were absent from some social work teams, either from having Covid and isolating or through stress due to the intense pressures staff were under.

The county, issued a critical incident earlier in the month due to Covid-related staff shortages in hospitals, care homes and other services.

Home working ‘stemming Covid spread’

However, Rachael Wardell, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services’ workforce development policy committee, said that, “anecdotally”, there were not “significant difficulties” in children’s services due to Covid.

She attributed this to the workforce’s adaptation to home working – while resuming face-to-face visits to families – during the pandemic, reducing the risks of infection within offices.

She said this meant that while practitioners were testing positive, it was not then spreading across whole social work teams.

Overall, she said, children’s social work teams were experiencing “fairly usual workforce pressures for this time of year”.

Difficulty accessing tests

BASW said social workers in some areas had reported having difficulty accessing lateral flow tests (LFTs).

“Lack of access to regular testing impacts on social workers’ ability to be able to carry out face-to face in person visits to people in their own homes or in care settings which creates additional pressures in the already overloaded and stretched system.,” the spokesperson said.

But they said some employers had supplied lateral flow tests (LFTs) to staff when they were unavailable on the government website and social workers had priority access to PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests.

The senior social worker from Northamptonshire said their public health team had helped to ensure that social workers had better access to LFTs after some of the children’s teams reported having access issues.


10 Responses to Omicron infections in wider workforce ‘adding pressure’ to ‘exhausted’ social workers

  1. Alison Tucker January 26, 2022 at 8:03 pm #

    Are Registeted Social Workers preparing meals for adults needing care? Are they bathing people? Are they changing incontinence pads? Toileting people? Running a vacuum cleaner in between giving out medication? If yes they are “exhausted”. I suspect though filling in a pro forma “assessment” form probably from a telephone “interview” is a tad different in the tired all the time race. Our job is difficult but we don’t need to trample on the realities of our social care colleagues to get to the head of the praise us que.

    • Loretta February 2, 2022 at 10:20 pm #

      Unfortunately due to the severe shortage in social care staff, We do have several incidents where registered social workers are having to be deployed to provide personal care to people. My teams have done this without question because they strive to keep people safe and ensure that they are able to have their basic needs met

      • Ali February 9, 2022 at 9:58 am #

        If your social workers are bathing, preparing meals, feeding, cleaning, shopping and dispensing medication I applaud you. If your social workers ate popping in to say hello are you OK and then getting on their way than that’s not exactly personal care is it? In my authority we face censure if we attempt anything other than shopping because apparently “we” are not insured to do personal care. Genuinely interested in a response.

  2. Laura Shakesby January 26, 2022 at 8:49 pm #

    Maybe its not a competition of praise and weve all worked hard in different ways. The amount of pressure and mental stress and exhaustion many of us social workers have been through over the past few years, and before that. Its completely valid. That mental stress also tends to contribute towards physical ill health. The amount of sleepless nights, extra unpaid hours, worry about service users an caseload.

  3. Jane January 27, 2022 at 8:34 am #

    Social workers and their ‘leaders’ need to check their privileges before grabbing the coat tails of minimum wage workers to bleat on about “exhaustion”. And yes some social workers are leaving because of extra assessment demands.
    I am one if them. My reason? I cannot reconcile my personal and professional ethics with my authority instructing us to do telephone assessments of people we’ve never met. That’s not exhaustion, that’s disgust at all the team leaders, managers, PSWs, education leads and sundry policy staff still working from home who are apparently too ‘indispensable’ in their substantive posts to chip in. Better to leave before a new wave of nausea that the inevitable congratulations for “our” all hands on deck response hypocrisy e-mails ping in. BASW, UNISON ADASS, ADCS don’t represent me. It’s their constant crass responses that exhaust me not the extra work I have to do to make a tiny dent in ameloirating the ‘challenges’ people on low pay and benefits have to navigate daily. No MBE for me thank god.

  4. Obi January 27, 2022 at 8:44 am #

    Answer this BASW and Unison: why are you colluding with employers to blame the pandemic for our exhaustion? We have had years of our bosses enthusiastically implementing cuts and maintaining vacancies. We’ve been bullied and threatened with disciplinaries, suspensions and the sack for whistleblowing. Omicron is not year zero. Sacrifice your seat on the far end of the top table for once and put the pressures we face in an honest context. Our bosses shouldn’t be your bosses too.

  5. Percy Hotspur January 27, 2022 at 9:53 am #

    Social workers have a unique form of exhaustion brought on by pointless bureaucratic brain scrambles and the endless nonsense spouted by supposed management and ‘professional” leaders. It’s a social work only recognised syndrome: Tired All The Time.

  6. MatildaMade in London January 27, 2022 at 9:31 pm #

    Rachael Wardell, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services’ workforce development policy committee, would like us to believe that, Overall, children’s social work teams were experiencing “fairly usual workforce pressures for this time of year.”

    Rach, are you sure about that!

    We are living in unprecedented times with social care practitioners bearing the brunt of global PTSD and all that this brings to safeguarding! Increased sickness, caseloads, and staff shortages are having a significant impact the likes we have NEVER seen, and the wellbeing of its dedicated workforce (many of whom have little left to give whether working from home or not) is flatlining!

    Rach, I’m not sure where you are getting your intel. Do your due diligence. Get out there and actually talk to practitioners. I doubt they’d say they are all experiencing “fairly usual workforce pressures for this time of year!”

  7. Rosalind January 27, 2022 at 9:34 pm #

    I suspect the acronym will be lost in the endlessly woe is me narrative though Percy Hotspur.

  8. Full of Beans February 1, 2022 at 10:20 pm #

    Now that Omicron related staff absences have turned out not to be as overwhelming as predicted and mandatory vaccination policy is being ditched, are we to look forward to a new “exhaustion” narrative? BASW, UNISON, Social Workers Union, Chiefs, anyone? Give us hope that we are getting something for our subs.