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“Everyone pulled together to do what we needed to do”

Team manager in adult services Kelly Wareham explains how World Social Work Day in 2020 changed her team’s way of working overnight amid COVID

World Social Work Day in March 2020 at signified a monumental change for us at Essex County Council. Adult Social Care s were directed to work from home in response to the national lockdown introduced as a result of COVID-19.

Due to the pressures in NHS hospitals to tackle delayed discharge to free up beds for COVID patients, there was a huge pressure on adult services’ social workers to discharge older adults to a safe place in communities and this meant huge changes to the way social workers in adult services worked.

"The social work teams needed to align with the working practices of the health authorities to enable health and social workers to work together to implement the new national requirements around the discharge of patients from hospital. We had previously worked 9am to 5pm but we were given three  days notice to adapt our working practices to providing social workers for 8am to 8pm shifts. We introduced a six-week rolling rota and as a team manager I had to plan the rota for the team,” said Kelly Wareham Team Manager in Older Adults Team at Essex Council.

Shift patterns

"In addition, to best deal with the challenges we faced and the needs of the adults in our care, our shift patterns had to quickly change to accommodate this - changing from Monday to Friday shifts to a seven day work where we  were on the rota to work one weekend in three,” she added.

“We were really proud of how our teams responded and adapted to the change in working patterns. We know this was an incredibly pressured period in Adult Social Care, but our teams supported one another and worked very flexibly in order to give the very best care to our residents,” said Kelly.

"Death rates were high locally and nationally and we were hearing of adults we support who were dying. So everyone just pulled together to do what we needed to do,” said Kelly.

After the intensity of the first wave, the working procedures were reviewed and changed so social workers were then working one weekend in six, Saturdays only. This year, the local authority then put the decision to staff as to whether they wanted to carry on working compressed hours over 4 days a week or to return to 5 day a week working with some preferring the four longer days and others preferring to return to Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm working hours.

“We had never been offered this degree of flexibility before and staff expressed feeling valued and appreciated by being given the choice and opportunity to work more flexibly,” said Kelly.

“When COVID first hit us, the main challenge was getting adults into the right setting with the appropriate support and freeing up beds,” said Kelly. “ “However, we know that one of the largest and long-lasting challenges in our society resulting from the pandemic is the increased feelings of loneliness and social isolation experienced by many vulnerable people. This is something the council is working hard to address and improve for our residents.”

“Day centres and support groups all closed during the height of the pandemic and for some people, the only contact they had with anyone was the basic care visits they were receiving from carers. Befriending services were set up to provide phone support to adults but it is not the same as human contact.”

We had never worked virtually before

Furthermore, people in residential homes were having to spend the majority of their time on their own in their rooms because of social distancing, especially when they first came out of hospital.

“Social workers stepped up to do the work that needed to be done. We had to be very careful about visits and carry out risk assessments before each one. Most vulnerable adults we work with have health conditions so we had to be really careful around them,” said Kelly.

She added that there was a massive transition to new ways of working for the team, with work being carried out online with visits being conducted virtually through Microsoft Teams and WhatsApp to enable face to face discussions where possible. Where families were supporting adults, they would help them to access technology but for others who had no internet access it was more challenging and risk assessments had to establish whether a visit could be carried out. Working from home divided Kelly’s team. Some embraced it and naturally took to the new procedures whereas others were unhappy to work from home and enjoyed the structure that office life provided.

“Some feared the isolation from their colleagues and the emotional support that provided. While of course you can email or ring a colleague to discuss a case, it takes more effort to ‘reach out’ rather than a natural effect of working alongside a team in an office,” said Kelly.

"sing technology alongside health teams has also massively strengthened the relationship between health and social care in Essex. “Social work and health have really benefited from working so closely together during the pandemic. Whilst  strong partnership working is something we’ve always strived to achieve, the pandemic accelerated it,” said Kelly.

Communication is key

Kelly agrees that there are positives and negatives to working from home. Some appreciate the opportunity to work more flexibly and juggle their family commitments. Everyone has a different set up and some are more conducive to home working than others.

“There is also the need to be disciplined when working from home as it can be tempting to carry out work into the evening which can affect  work/life balance. For me and many colleagues, utilising the time that would be spent on commuting for more positive outcomes is a huge plus.”

Communication is key when working from home and Kelly admits this can be more challenging. At the start of new working practices, the team would have daily check ins with staff to ensure they were coping and to ascertain whether they needed support. Over time, this reduced to twice weekly check ins as people became more comfortable with the arrangements. While some team members disliked the prospect of working from home to start with, they soon adapted.

Kelly added: “It has definitely been a challenge managing new starters and those in ASYE who need closer supervision and more support. I’m a practice educator and it was also difficult for students with placements being stopped during the first lockdown, and when they do resume placements, students are not experiencing the same type of placement and learning experience as they previously would have."

“ECC has invested so many resources in virtual training and supporting staff wellbeing. They have also given staff an hour aside each week for us to focus on our wellbeing and this still continues today.”

“It is very difficult for the public to get a true sense of what social workers encountered throughout the pandemic. The NHS and carers were rightly applauded, but as social workers, we continued to -go out and visit vulnerable adults. Social workers had to massively adapt our working practices to ensure vulnerable adults got their needs met, and I’m incredibly proud of what our teams have achieved during the most challenging times,” concluded Kelly.

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