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Starting out in social work during a pandemic

What must it be like to begin your career in the profession in the current time? Retired social worker John Fitzgerald spoke to a newly qualified worker about their experience and finds much to reflect on

Photo of article author John Fitzgerald

Published by Professional Social Work Magazine - 24 June 2020

Over the last few months not surprisingly media and political interest has focused on NHS frontline staff as they put their lives and health on the line while making life and death decisions.

Social work is another part of our workforce that has had barely a mention from politicians or the media apart from the occasional throwaway line when belatedly remembered. I found myself wondering what it must be like being a newly qualified social worker coming into post during this climate. I organised a  discussion with a social worker in exactly that situation to try and increase my understanding. I am not going to name her or the authority she works with for reasons that will become clear as you read what I learnt from the discussion.

For this new social worker:

  1. Her caseload is predominately safeguarding work, in other words dealing with some of the authority's most difficult and anxiety provoking families.
  2. Along with her colleagues, she is working from home without the mutual support that comes from being part of a stimulating team.
  3. Most meetings are via conference call facilities with both professionals and families.
  4. Conference calls with families have advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that for the families with the greatest concerns, contact can be daily. The disadvantages are substantial. For example, discussion with a child cannot be on their own because a parent maybe operating the technology, the house cannot be seen or its smell experienced or other conditions observed. An abusive or coercive parent can stay out of sight, all of which adds to the stress of trying to assess accurately the circumstances within the family.
  5. The worker is aware of clear evidence of an increase in domestic and coercive abuse which can go unaddressed, giving way to rising anxiety. With coercive abusers COVID has been added to their armoury of weapons and used to oppress children and mothers.
  6. Some visits must be made to a family’s home either because they do not have the technology or because concerns are so great. Video conferencing is then ineffective and adds to stress levels. For example, it’s difficult to assess whether it’s necessary to wear full PPE and if you do there’s the stress of having to search to find it when you are dealing with some incredibly vulnerable or in some cases potentially dangerous people. In the latter case this can mean going to a house or flat with police officers and trying to conduct an interview on the doorstep wearing full PPE gear.

I asked this newly qualified social worker what were the most pressing organisational problems that brought by COVID. These were listed as:

  1. Coping with the anxieties of managers who seem to have no sense of direction because they are unclear how social work should be practiced in the COVID world we live in.
  2. Coping with her own mental health needs when out of touch with her peers and lacking managerial support. Having got used to good quality supervision in which she was confident about the support and expertise of her supervisor she now finds herself in the current COVID situation with a new manager who fixes meetings, cancels and does not rearrange, and is not readily available to consult and unclear in giving advice.
  3. Coping with the anxieties of other professionals such as teachers who like social workers are struggling within this alien COVID world.
  4. Coping with a case that previously had caused serious concerns around abuse and has now gone quiet and the family not being easily available as they claim to be “self- isolating”.
  5. Lack of clarity by managers about what realistically comes next regarding COVID.

Having listened carefully to this newly qualified social worker what conclusions can be drawn? It would be wrong to make sweeping general conclusions - the experience described above may or may not be a minority one but it is unlikely to be isolated. So, here are some matters to reflect on:

  1. I am full of admiration for this young social worker and all her colleagues who are as much part of the COVID frontline as other professions as they try to carry on working in the most testing area of social work, protecting children and families from the risk that all forms of abuse bring, without any meaningful recognition.
  2. Social work has been bedevilled for decades with great inconsistency when dealing with supervision and support to frontline workers whilst some senior managers do not seem to understand why this is necessary or fail to ensure it is part of a social work culture. COVID brings it into sharp relief. Will we learn from this experience?
  3. A need to look after the mental health needs of social workers in times of great stress is essential if we are not to see too many casualties amongst our professionals. I have been struck listening to health workers talking about how they come together every day to support each other, something that ought to be second nature to the social work profession. It is right that managers should be concerned about the physical care of staff to prevent problems of physical health or even death in relation to COVID but we ignore social workers mental health needs in these troubled times at our peril.
  4. Because of what we are asking social work colleagues to do, when we are through this pandemic, what will we find in relation to children and young people at risk? Will there be an increase in deaths or life changing injuries caused by attacks by abusers on young people and their mothers which politicians and the media will be quick to blame on the brave social workers such as the young worker at the centre of this article?

Do you have experiences, thoughts or feelings of social work during the COVID-19 pandemic you would like to share with Professional Social Work magazine? Click here to find out how

This article is published by Professional Social work magazine which provides a platform for a range of perspectives across the social work sector. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the British Association of Social Workers.