Social workers’ wellbeing at work lower than that of other professions in wake of Covid, finds research

Quality of working life has fallen further for social workers than for other health and care staff since start of pandemic, finds latest round of research, most of whose respondents work in Northern Ireland

Image of wooden blocks spelling out 'stress' (credit: Andrey Popov / Adobe Stock)
(credit: Andrey Popov / Adobe Stock)

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 and other professionals' views of their quality of working life

Source: Health and social care workers’ quality of working life and coping while working during the COVID-19 pandemic (phase 5 report)

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.

Social workers' and other professionals' views of their own wellbeing

Source: Health and social care workers’ quality of working life and coping while working during the COVID-19 pandemic (phase 5 report)

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.

‘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.

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14 Responses to Social workers’ wellbeing at work lower than that of other professions in wake of Covid, finds research

  1. Lena Dominelli October 27, 2022 at 4:32 pm #

    Interesting to see data focused on UK developments. Thank you. They are worrying, and compound the lack of funding for the sector across the country. With colleagues from Sweden (Wallengren-Lynch et al. 2021 did an international (online) study of social work’s experiences of remote working that you might find useful to look at
    All the best

    • Paula McFadden October 30, 2022 at 11:16 am #

      Thank you Lena. I would be very keen to see the research you refer to. I will connect with you.

  2. Tilly B October 27, 2022 at 5:26 pm #

    Social workers are burnt out.
    Nurses are burnt out.
    Paramedics are burnt out.
    Care workers are burnt out.
    Brokers can’t find care.
    Caseloads unsustainable.
    Services unable to remain open.
    Waiting lists are rising.
    Beurocracy increasing.
    We are on fire and the government really couldn’t care less!
    The local authorities, managers and workers have been scapegoats to a systematic, intentional deconstruction of care services. We should all be raising safeguardings against the ministry for willful neglect and ommission of care to its people…… for at least the last 10 years! Totally obscured from the voters view.

  3. TiredSocialWorker October 27, 2022 at 8:29 pm #

    Try telling that to my managers.

  4. Mike October 28, 2022 at 11:38 am #

    Here’s my take. For years we have been told to develop “resilience” rather than being supported and nurtured to expose some of the more idiotic expectations foisted on us. The inevitable erosion is our belief that we are a profession doing positive things. Our individual worth is nought if our services are just badly functioning bureaucracies. Then we have the pretence that SWE is a necessary entity for promoting social work and improving our practice. A new level of semi-threatening bureaucracy has crept in to stifle any questioning of this narrative. When you strip away autonomy and critical reflection and smack down challenging of this orthodoxy you have not just an increasingly de-skilled workforce but resentful responses too. Our “professional organisations” our regulator, our practice educators, our PSWs, our ‘supervisors’, our service managers, our ‘Leads’, our business managers, our “panels”, and the rest are epitome of group think. If we ever were we are no longer swayed by the narrative of open doors, listening, validating, celebrating, appreciating platitudes. Creating islands of individual social workers to dissipate collective challenges of the orthodoxy is the reason why you have the years of decline in morale and committment. Our bossess do not have empathy for us because they don’t really see us. For them social work is budgets, political expediency, Inspections, service redesigns to disguise failings, maintaining a profile with other ‘leaders’, conformity. Service dependent people rarely intrude into that chamber of self reverence. It doesn’t mean that if we don’t buy into this we are burnt out. Realism isn’t depondency. It is self preservation underscored by anger at what ‘our’ leaders have turned our committment into tick box score card tasks. So I don’t beleive anyone who claims we are a strengths based, justice driven, empowering profession. Words devoid of intent are waffle. Individual social workers do magnificent things and I remain in awe of them. My managers and leaders aren’t even a fleeting thought.

    • Miles October 28, 2022 at 2:43 pm #

      Nail head

    • Xonthweb October 30, 2022 at 8:46 am #

      Mike, good insight on resilience vs lack of support…and good writing too : )

  5. Ex- social worker October 28, 2022 at 2:38 pm #

    I only worked 3 years post qualified in local authorities and although I at times had good experiences. I also felt each team I went into had a toxic culture due to the system. Working within these environments really effected my mental health. Too the point were I burnt out and now im looking at other options. If I could see more support in place and the system getting better I may have stayed. But it only seems to be getting worse unfortunately.

  6. Maverick October 28, 2022 at 11:36 pm #

    During the pandemic and continuing now social workers across the country decided not to go in to work and to stop seeing vulnerable children and adults. Other public sector workers went in to the workplace because it was glaringly obvious that you can’t support most vulnerable people remotely. In some MH Trusts and other organisations for eg you had NHS staff turning up to work yet in the same MDT social workers didn’t because they decided to follow LA policies I stead of NHS ones. And have kept that up to this day.

    My family member was dumped in to a care home out of the NHS rehab facility they were in. Social workers based in this city did this without a single nod to safeguarding or the laws there to protect- which weren’t rescinded.

    Not a single one questioned the safety of dumping an extremely vulnerable adult in to a facility rampant with covid.
    Not one took on board that moving someone hundreds of miles from the family giving active support into a setting where not a single cultural need would be met would be catastrophic.
    No BIA and forced against will and unlawfully to be moved. Social workers wrote to family stating the facility was only over an hour away by train so counted as appropriate and easy to reach. Family already actively supporting 2 other severely disabled relatives.

    2 1/2 yrs later they are still dumped there against their will and clearly held unlawfully. The social workers allocated – the same ones that claimed how easy it was to get to see our loved one- refused to visit in person for over 2 yrs as claimed they were now only working remotely so weren’t required to. Attempted BIAs over the phone ,delegating this function to unqualified care home staff who repeatedly told the LA they couldn’t do this as not skilled enough and overwhelmed with care work .On someone with such severe cognitive impairment they can’t even manage telephone calls to very close family and have severe memory loss.

    As a direct result these same social workers failed to assess adequately or at all. They didn’t even pick up on the basics and refused to listen to family, to care home staff. They have wrecked the life of someone of working age who needed and wanted to be close to the family providing essential support and culturally appropriate care.

    To claim victimhood when the profession actively defended not doing face to face work is to our family pretty abhorrent under the circumstances. The profession has failed so many because the profession didn’t want to go in to work – when the Coronavirus Act specifically stated that statutory services were required to continue. Where there were no amendments to the MCA. Where there was no easement of the Equality Act. Where to refuse to comply with with the Care Act required set legal steps. Steps this LA never took.

    You can’t do social work remotely. How many reports about vulnerable children and adults being failed throughout the pandemic will it take before the profession takes responsibility for the horrific mess now in. Yes there are pressures that couldn’t be mitigated for but a lot of harm has been caused by the decisions social workers took when decided not to do what society expected and to go in to work. It is unacceptable for social workers to work remotely. They cannot do the job needed and the victims in this are not the professionals.

    • Opal Lady November 5, 2022 at 8:58 am #

      Unsure what planet you are on Maverick..As a Children and Families SW, hroughout the pandemic I continued with my role as best I could. That meant visiting children. Yes, there were times I couldn’t go into a home.

      Colleagues and myself worked tirelessly to do our very best.

      I cannot speak for Adult Services.

      Last year I spent 5 nights in intensive care with COVID, not ideal I know. However, on the whole my care was fantastic.

      Try looking at the positives more.

      At present I have an excellent manager..(rare I know).

      For me, now a combination of working at home and office suits me just fine. Before we had to go on ‘bended knee’ to even get one day!

  7. Xonthweb October 30, 2022 at 8:44 am #

    There are senior managers out there who fight the right fight to protect, support, value and respect staff on the ground. In addition to the current difficulties found in social care (never a political priority, low salaries, etc) we are working under Tory leadership. New kid in town Steven Barclay’s dislike of public services funding is clearly evidenced on As a locum SM I have been working with a Council who has been under Tory leadership since May’s elections.. It is AWFUL. Before them Labour weren’t effective but didn’t bully anyone. You have to put your hand up to beg for crums. If you speak up immediately you are asked to apologise to whoever as they don’t like being told how their practices impact staff and the targets they so much want my service to meet.
    The problem also is management, who, trying very hard to advocate for their staff while trying to identify ways to improve practice and strategy, only have numerical value. So you push for more results, otherwise you’re out! You’re only as good as the savings your service delivers! I love a challenge so I still love my job. But I am witnessing the erosion of the Council’s workforce’ mental health, their enthusiasm wavering, their interest in the profession disappearing.
    A word of support for locum staff: you often rescue departments and bring fresh ideas. You are resilient due to having to work to earn. You know you need to deliver to stay in the job. I am sorry that you have always been seen as a problem rather than a solution.
    In any case, Kippling’s advice rings true always: Be the captain of your ship! Font like it, move on. Want the challenge? Stay and find solutions.

    • Craig October 31, 2022 at 9:29 am #

      How does “Want the challenge? Stay and fight” square with the ease with which “locum” staff walk away if their personal expectations aren’t met? We all eork to earn so nothing unique there. As for “delivering to stay in the job” and “rescu(ing) departments and ” fresh ideas” I think you forget that permanent staff stick around longer, commit harder if for no other reason that we have to give at least one month notice to leave and don’t walk out after 2 weeks on the job as the last 3 agency workers have in my team. I don’t like pitting worker against worker but I also know that irrespective of their individual qualities agency workers erode our pay and conditions, are more likely to be risk averse, ” deliver” what managers want rather than challenge them. If you as a SM advocate use of agency wirkers rather than agitate for filling your vacancies with permanent staff than I think you are unable to ensure our mental wellbeing and keep up our enthusiasm.

  8. M Loughrey November 4, 2022 at 9:46 pm #

    Why is this a surprise? Since I joined the profession social workers have been at the lowest rung of the statutory professions .
    We don’t rate even a mention when the media do the usual reports on the govs latest wheeze on pay increases – it’s always nurses, police and fire crews. We don’t get to retire early unlike those professions – 67 for me as a female born in 1961? What’s that all about then if not value led decisions by the government and society on the professions wort. And don’t get me started on the regulator……

  9. Opal Lady November 5, 2022 at 9:19 am #

    Couldn’t agree more with you Xonthweb.

    Over many years of being a locum worker I have witnessed the ‘sicky, sicky brigade’ taking copious amounts of time off…Some of it genuine, other times not!

    As for eroding pay – utter nonsense!

    If it wasn’t for locums most LA’S would not have a service. As for your comment about ‘permanent staff stick around longer’ that’s your choice and of course there are benefits too.

    If we don’t work, we don’t get! Not all that glitters is golden.

    There’s also 20 years of work; Then of course, 20 years experience. I prefer the latter and haven’t completely burnt out. I feel being a locum has helped with this. I also take social work very seriously indeed. In 20 years I have never ‘just walked away’.

    My advice, if you can’t beat us join us and come out of your comfort zone!