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.
- One in eight councils moved to ‘life and limb care only’ for at least some people over Christmas, warns ADASS
- ‘Grim, difficult and relentless’: stark social care staffing pressures revealed in latest data
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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.