Social workers’ wellbeing at work is lower than that of other health and social care staff groups, in the wake of Covid, research has found.
The profession’s quality of working life has also fallen further than nurses’, midwives’, social care workers’ and allied health professionals’ during the pandemic, found the latest and fifth round of an ongoing study into Covid’s impact on health and care staff. The majority of the 1,737 respondents to the UK-wide survey from May to July 2022, as well as of the 380 social workers who completed the research, worked in Northern Ireland.
As in previous rounds, the health and social care workers’ survey assessed respondents’ quality of life using the Work-Related Quality of Life (WRQOL) scale. This asks professionals how far they agree with a series of statements on career satisfaction, stress at work, general wellbeing, home-work interface, control at work and working conditions.
Social work is the only profession whose score has declined in each successive round and wellbeing at work for the profession has now fallen below that of midwives, which had the lowest score in phases two, three and four.
Social workers more burnt out
Social workers were also more burnt out than was the case during the phase 4 study, which ran from November 2021 to February 2022, on a scale of 0-100, based on how exhausted they felt personally, in relation to work and in relation to their work with clients.
Personal burnout rose from 65.08 to 66.94, work-related burnout from 63.45 to 67.03 and client-related burnout from 32.90 to 35.76. The latter two were the highest of any profession in the phase 5 research.
Across the five phases of the research, there had been a decrease in social workers’ propensity to use positive coping strategies for burnout – such as positive reframing and acceptance – and an increase in their use of negative strategies, such as self-blame, venting and behavioural disengagement.
The study also assessed professionals’ overall wellbeing, finding that, though social workers’ was not as low as midwives’, it had declined since phase 4. This measured practitioners’ responses to questions on how optimistic, useful, relaxed and close to other people they felt, how clearly they were thinking, and how able they were to make up their minds and deal with problems.
One in five social workers working entirely from home
Researchers found that social workers had been particularly affected by the reduction in contacts with colleagues, in the context of remote working during the pandemic.
The study found that 18.5% were still entirely from home at the time of the phase 5 research this summer. This follows concerns voiced by Ofsted about the impact of ongoing remote working in England on the availability of peer support and the quality of practice.
Social workers’ struggles appeared to be having an impact on retention, with 58.5% of study respondents reporting they had considered changing their employer, and 40% changing their occupation altogether, during the course of the pandemic.
About a quarter of social workers said they had considered changing their occupation because of the impact of their job on their health and wellbeing, with a further 10% attributing this to job-related stress.
More on Covid’s impact on social work
‘Worrying trends’ show need to boost pay and conditions
“These are worrying trends,” said the phase 5 report. “It is worrying because of the very real risk of mental and physical health problems developing among many members of this workforce. It is also worrying because this level of job dissatisfaction might lead to even higher staff turnover, with many leaving their health and social care work for less stressful or more fulfilling (or higher paying) jobs in other sectors.
“Our evidence shows that the health and social care workforce is already hard to replace with insufficient applicants, and this trend will affect the quality and availability of services in health and social care for years to come,” it added.
Researchers concluded that their results showed the need for employers to invest in improving pay, recognition and working conditions for staff, particularly in the context of the mounting cost of living crisis.
In response to the study, Noeleen Higgins, professional officer for British Association of Social Workers Northern Ireland, said the results reflected both the “significant pressure” social workers were under pre-pandemic, and the exacerbating impact of higher client need and less peer support as a result of Covid and lockdowns.
Social work vacancy rate ‘masks true extent of problem’
While the social work vacancy rate in Northern Ireland stood at 7.9% at the end of June, down from 9.6% at the end of March, Higgins said this “masks the true extent of the problem in critical areas of service provision”.
She said BASW had heard of there being vacancy rates of up to 50% in some children’s teams, amid rising demand, and a “heavy reliance” on agency staff was having a negative impact on service users.
Higgins added: “It is also deeply concerning that social workers are working without adequate support and carrying often unmanageable workloads, no doubt contributing to the finding that more than half have considered leaving their employer.”
She also said that home working posed “a significant threat to the relationship-based practices that social work has traditionally relied upon”, creating difficulties for practitioners due to a lack of resources and team support, and the blurring of boundaries between working and home life.
‘Need for safe staffing legislation’
Higgins urged employers to provide staff with support services to deal with stress and said there needed to be safe staffing legislation across Northern Ireland “to ensure social work services are provided in a manner that upholds the best interests of the individuals and families who use services, and those of the social workers who deliver them”.
A spokesperson for the Northern Ireland Social Care Council, which regulates social workers in the country, said: “The pandemic undeniably gave an unprecedented challenge for the health and social care sector, which included the social work and social care workforce.”
They said innovations put in place during the pandemic to help practitioners in the role “will be of long-term benefit to the profession”.
The spokesperson added: “We are engaging with social workers and social work employers about the challenges that the post-pandemic era presents, including understanding how supports for social workers can be further enhanced.”
Health and social care workers’ quality of working life and coping while working during the COVID-19 pandemic: findings from a UK survey & focus groups phase 5 report was published in September 2022. Author and funding information can be found in the report.