More than 65% of social workers in children’s services have seen an increase in the number of referrals and/or their caseload since the return to schools and colleges for autumn 2020, a survey by BASW has found.
At the same time, almost 80% of social workers encountered more difficulties in accessing essential support services for the people with whom they worked, the professional association of social workers found. Against this backdrop of rising caseloads and depletion of support services, 77.7% said that their experience of working under lockdown restrictions had increased their concerns about the capacity to safeguard/protect adults and children.
BASW Chief Executive Dr Ruth Allen 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,” she added.
Dr Allen highlighted that the latest ONS figures showed that, by occupation, one of the highest average death rates among women were social workers.
BASW surveyed 1119 social workers across the UK between 30 November and 31 December 2020, revealing a string of concerns, as well as practice issues.
The Association’s first survey at the beginning of the pandemic revealed that social workers had innovated quickly and largely successfully in response to restrictions by bringing services online, including video calls and more digital contact with service users. The increase in online support was complemented with emergency house and face-to-face visits continuing.
However, the change is taking a toll on the mental wellbeing of social workers, as 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 while 58.8% agreed or strongly agreed that working during the Covid-19 crisis had negatively impacted upon their own mental health.
Furthermore, 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.
The survey found:
- 51.5% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they had encountered more difficulties in monitoring safeguarding access/carrying out safe and effective adult and child protection visits because of limited face-to-face access.
- 51.2% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they were able to carry out their role with the confidence and support they needed; 30.7% disagreed or strongly disagreed.
- 63.5% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they had encountered more ethical and moral dilemmas since the introduction of lockdown restrictions.
- 69.7% agreed that they had encountered more difficulties in communicating with service users because of the digital exclusion experienced by the latter.
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.”
The survey comes after Ofsted warned before Christmas that child abuse could be going undetected as referrals to children’s services had not risen as greatly as had been expected. Children’s commissioner for England this week warned that too many vulnerable children are still invisible to social care.
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,” he added.
Social work during the Covid-19 pandemic: Initial Findings