Skip to main content

SWU: Social workers are facing new pressures as lockdowns and tier systems become embedded into everyday life

Social workers are seeing the most vulnerable in society going without the care and support they need

The health and welfare of the four nations’ social workers is on the line as second lockdowns and tier systems become embedded into everyday life.

Figures from the Social Workers Union show that half of social workers put their own health at risk as a result of working during the first lockdown [1], with official data showing at least 21 died after testing positive for COVID-19 in the spring.[2]

One in ten (11%) social workers felt threatened with disciplinary measures for raising safety concerns as government and employers neglected social workers’ concerns during the first lockdown and failed to safeguard their well-being, physical and mental health.

The Union continues to ask that the respective governments of the UK and social work employers take immediate steps for well-being support and a social work and social care recruitment drive as the COVID 19 pandemic continues. [3]

Introducing the ‘Working Conditions Toolkit’

Any long-term approach should introduce measures set out in a “working conditions toolkit”, developed by SWU, Bath Spa University and the British Association of Social Workers. [4]

The toolkit is built on the principle that improvement in organisations – for staff and for the people we serve – often needs everyone involved to work together, and that social workers in practice can  be empowered to shape change and use their professional agency and power, individually and collectively.

For social workers in practice, it should help you be more informed and empowered to look after yourself better at work; recognise when you need support and how to access it; develop knowledge and skills to influence your organisation; and know your rights and what you should expect from your employer.

Knowing your rights at work and the evidence of what constitutes a healthy workplace, understanding what is most likely to work in self-care and knowing more about how managers and employers can support you better, are all important and can make a big difference. The toolkit should help you feel more confident to make your workplace needs known to local and national authorities and to act to make changes yourself where you can.

Download the Working Conditions Toolkit

Social workers are seeing the most vulnerable in society going without the care and support they need

Recent SWU research highlighted the impact of lockdown on frontline services with almost a third (29%) of social workers saying they were unable to reach the most vulnerable during the first lockdown. 

Social Workers are continuing to witness those most vulnerable in society going without the care and support they need. Reports have shown that this has led to harm and preventable deaths among children [5], residential homes and across adult social care work [6].

According to new NHS Digital figures reported by Press Association, almost half a million safeguarding concerns about abuse were raised during 2019-20 – a rise of almost 15% from the previous year. [7]

John McGowan, General Secretary of the Social Workers Union, said: “The first lockdown highlighted major issues in the support available to social workers to enable them to do their job safely.

“Some employers have taken positive steps to address the issues our members raised with them, but many have looked the other way. In some areas of the country, social workers now face fresh pressures as the second lockdown comes into force.

“We have long argued that working conditions for social workers need to be drastically improved and sadly Covid-19 has acerbated the problems. Social workers have put their health on the line safeguarding the public, but little has been done to safeguard them.”

Carys Philips, the new Chair of the Social Workers Union, added: “It is now clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has emphasised and is deepening society’s pre-existing inequalities. This reality will amplify the inequalities social workers are encountering both at home and within their working environments.

“All Nations have seen unjustified cuts and retention difficulties in social work jobs as a direct impact of austerity. There must now be an acknowledgement of the inequalities exposed by the pandemic and a pledge to ‘build back better’ not to re-introduce austerity measures.”


[1] 363 social workers completed the survey issued by the Social Workers Union to its members between 21-28 June 2020.

[2] Correct for period 9 March – 25 May 2020 – Office for National Statistics, reported in Community Care.

[3] A full action plan is available on the SWU website and has been sent to politicians.

[4] For more information, visit


[6]  How Covid-19 has magnified some of social care’s key problems by Simon Bottery

[7] There were 475,560 reports raised to or by councils in England about suspected abuse of adults between April 2019 and March 2020, NHS Digital figures show. Reported by Press Association, 12/11/2020.