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The coronavirus crisis has heaped pressure on social workers by blurring the boundaries between their professional and personal lives, a Guardian event heard.
An online discussion, chaired by Guardian public services editor David Brindle, to launch the findings of Guardian Jobs’ latest Social Lives survey highlighted the impact of a widespread shift to working from home during the pandemic.
The research, conducted by Ipsos Mori before coronavirus struck, found work/life balance was a concern for half of almost 2,200 UK social workers surveyed; many called for more flexible working options. But frontline social worker Jennie Hale, a panellist for the online event, said she had worked very long hours during the past six months as she tried to keep up with her caseload.
“Being based at home should in theory mean more access to your family. Your working hours should be more manageable, you are not commuting,” said Hale, a children in need and child protection social worker in Wandsworth, south London.
“The reality for a lot of people, particularly someone like myself is [that] it is 9 o’clock at night and my laptop is still open.”
Colum Conway, chief executive of new regulator Social Work England, which partnered with the Guardian on the research, said those who took part in the survey at the start of the year could not have imagined how their professional lives would change during the pandemic. Those who were keen to work more flexibly would not have anticipated that difficult conversations with service users would be brought into their own homes.
But he said the past six months had demonstrated that a move to sustainable flexible working was possible. “So let’s not bring back the stuff that we don’t want [after the crisis is over],” he said.
Diane Galpin, an independent academic and associate member of the centre for seldom heard voices at Bournemouth University, agreed that working remotely meant the “emotional labour” of social workers was now taking place in their homes.
“For some people it is fine,” she said, “but for others it is literally having those problems at home with you, and the reason you go home is to get away from that.”
Hale said social workers had also missed the support of their colleagues.
Since lockdown was imposed, Hale has been seeing nearly all the children on her caseload via video, replacing the face to face interactions that would normally be the bread and butter of social work.
Working via video has been challenging, said Hale, particularly for professionals handling new cases, but there had been some advantages. Many families had found video meetings less intimidating, while liaising with colleagues in other professions – particularly those in health – had been easier, with a noticeable increasing of people attending multi-disciplinary meetings.
Managers and employers should recognise the efforts of their workforce during the pandemic, said Wayne Reid, professional officer for England with the British Association of Social Workers. “Quite often, people are working above and beyond their normal hours,” he said. “They are going outside their normal remit, they have got higher caseloads.”
Galpin said the debate about work/life balance and pressures on social workers diverted attention away from the impact on individual professionals. “That might mean sleepless nights, anxiety, depression, not being emotionally available to their own family, let alone the families they are working with,” she said.
Addressing the root causes of the issues faced by service users – such as housing problems, poverty, inequality, and drug and alcohol misuse – was essential to reduce pressure on social workers, she added.
Reid said 10 years of austerity had had a huge impact on health and social care services, and the situation had been exacerbated by coronavirus. He called for concerted campaigning urging investment in social work.
One in five people who took part in the Social Lives research said they planned to leave the profession within the next five years.
Galpin said some social workers were leaving before clearing their student debt, while Hale said some were resigning without a new job to move on to. Both suggested exit interviews would help identify why professionals were quitting. Conway said more energy and effort should be put into keeping people in the profession.
Looking to what lies ahead for the profession, Reid said he could not see a return to normality any time soon and while social workers continued to be adaptable, it was essential they had access to the support they needed.
Covid-19 could be a catalyst for change, said Conway. “No one solution will help address work/life balance issues, the caseload, the stress social workers are under,” he said. “It would be a terrible shame if we wasted this opportunity to really get under the skin of some of these issues.”
For more details about the Social Lives survey, contact email@example.com
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: ‘Nine at night and my laptop is still open’: social work in a pandemic | Society