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Survey unveils the heavy toll on social workers – a “forgotten frontline” – as restrictions limit their capacity to safeguard vulnerable adults and children

A survey of 1119 social workers across the UK by the British Association of Social Workers has revealed a string of concerns, as well as practice issues.

‘Social work during the Covid-19 pandemic: Initial Findings’ shows that intervention and early help for vulnerable adults, children and families is still not readily accessible, as 79% agreed or strongly agreed that they had encountered more difficulties in accessing essential support services for the people with whom they worked.

This situation is compounded by the finding that more people are requiring social services, with 67.6% of respondents who worked in children’s services agreed or strongly agreed that they had seen an increase in the number of referrals and/or their caseload since the return to schools and colleges for autumn 2020.

Against this backdrop of rising caseloads and depletion of support services, 77.7% agreed or strongly agreed that their experience of working under lockdown restrictions had increased their concerns about the capacity to safeguard/protect adults and children.

Commenting on the survey, Dr Ruth Allen, BASW Chief Executive said: “This survey provides timely recognition of the crucial work social workers do and their continued commitment throughout the pandemic.

“Social work is often more hidden and less well supported nationally in policy, funding and public regard than some other essential services. The findings reflect this as they highlight the ongoing difficulties in reaching people, safeguarding and providing support and social care services.”

Dr Allen added: “With this week’s ONS data tragically showing one of the highest average death rates among women by occupation were social workers, social work can sometimes feel like the forgotten frontline.”

Commenting on what BASW would like to see from Government and employers, Dr Allen said: “What we need is the social services workforce to be supported to continue to work effectively alongside the doctors and nurses we hear much more about in mainstream media.

“Social work, and social workers, are key to the UK’s recovery from this pandemic and we need to see this reflected in ongoing pandemic planning as well as the upcoming Budget.

“If we are to build back better then we need to start with the most vulnerable adults, children and families and ensure we give social workers the resources to be able to help them, as well as the support they need so they don’t themselves face burnout.”

Mental toll

We have seen from our first survey at the beginning of the pandemic that social workers innovated quickly and largely successfully in response to restrictions by bringing services online, including video calls and more digital contact with service users.

This digital leap forward ran parallel with emergency house and face-to-face visits continuing.

However, we have now learned that this change is taking a toll on the mental wellbeing of social workers, for 68.3% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that working from home during the Covid-19 crisis had made it more difficult for them to switch off from work.

Dealing with highly emotive issues daily takes a large toll on social workers and without safe spaces and colleagues to reflect and share, the likelihood of burnout increases.

BASW ‘Social work during the Covid-19 pandemic: Initial Findings’

View the full report here - ‘Social work during the Covid-19 pandemic: Initial Findings’

Commenting on the results, John McGowan general secretary of the Social Workers Union said:

“The findings from the 'Social work during the Covid-19 pandemic report' clearly illustrate that it is more important than ever that SWU and BASW work together, and to use this survey as an important step in our path to recovery, serving as a basis for collaboration as we plan for the future challenges and opportunities facing the social work sector.

“The survey report highlights not only the immense challenges faced by social workers in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic, but also the unusual opportunities and the clear responses from the membership.  

“Moving forward, the unsung daily effectiveness of social workers in protecting lives has been hearteningly presented. Unsurprisingly the new 'working conditions' that are generating more mental health issues are also creating a changed working environment, challenging the greatly needed services of those who can help most, like social workers. Although most social workers still have their jobs, for some, interactions and the workplace has changed beyond recognition. Social distancing rules, PPE and COVID health regulations affect how we interact with service users and colleagues at work.  Altered working patterns comes with its own challenges, such as changes in communication, technological difficulties, interference of private life and higher self-organising demands, to name just a few. All of these changes demand a great deal of adjustment in the social work role, requiring an extra amount of effort, grit and creativity to make them work.”


Notes to editors:

‘Social work during the Covid-19 pandemic: Initial Findings’ was conducted between 30 November and 31 December 2020 across the four nations of the UK.

It examined whether the working situation for social workers had improved over the course of the year and the challenges and areas of concern social workers had confronted operating on the front-line during that time.