It has long been recognised that social work is one stressful occupation.
Research by Bath Spa University described social workers’ working conditions “extremely poor” across the UK, irrespective of job role.
The demands that individuals had on their time was consistently found to be related to increased levels of stress, intentions to leave the job, job satisfaction, and presenteeism.
“Therefore the sheer amount of work, and diversity of work required of UK social workers, was consistently found to influence these outcomes,” said the report which cited comments made by respondents which described the sheer number of cases and too much administrative work.
However, the outbreak of COVID-19 and the measures put in place to try and prevent the spread of the disease have clearly exacerbated the sheer pressure placed on our social workers.
Indeed, in an interview with frontline social worker Rita Long, she revealed that in a team of eight staff, there were two vacancies and two people self-isolating meaning the team were operating on half the staff that should be in place.
While her local authority had urged partnership agencies to only refer cases where there was evidence of abuse or neglect and the number of referrals had actually declined, Rita envisaged that this was only temporary and the volume of cases would not only return to normal but increase. She suspected partner agencies would soon revert back to referring any case regardless of evidence as the local authority had always worked with prior to the corona virus. Lockdown would inevitably see a rise in difficulties among families cooped up in unprecedented situations and lead to a surge in new cases. On top of this, with her team operating at half capacity and those with underlying health issues self-isolating unable to take on new cases, the work would be shared among four rather than the staff of six which was meant to be running with a team of eight.
Some authorities have already reported a rise in referrals for domestic abuse and mental health related cases.
So how can social workers, already working under immense pressure and at risk of burn out, look after themselves during this current challenging time?
The Bath Spa University research found that the only exception to the “extremely poor working conditions” social workers were experiencing was peer support from colleagues. Your direct team are the only people who know exactly what you are dealing with so use peer support time effectively. Discuss difficult cases, talk through any anxieties, share experiences to help each other cope in these strange times. Talking about the situation with people who understand can ease tensions and help you manage the situation.
Ensure you are getting the supervision you are entitled to with the opportunity to reflect on practice and review caseloads. Keep your line manager updated on caseloads, new cases, avoidance tactics used by families not wanting to engage and how the coronavirus is affecting your work and life. Ask for support if you need it.
Be realistic with your management team
With the best intentions in the world, social workers can not “carry on as normal” during this period. As Rita explained, some families not wanting to engage with social workers are using the situation to their benefit, saying they cannot allow professionals into the house in order to protect their families. Like Rita’s team, many social work teams across the UK will be operating with less, sometimes skeletal, staff meaning timescales are virtually impossible to meet. Rita explained that her management team were understanding that timescales may not be met but it is important to keep the dialogue open with managers and make them aware of how the lockdown measures are affecting your workload. If your caseload is becoming unmanageable, tell your manager. The authority may come up with temporary solutions, for example, using technology for parts of your work or they may turn to locum social workers to help teams to function.
At the end of a long day, the thought of exercise can be something we all dread. Coupled with the additional stress that COVID-19 has presented, a workout can feel even less appealing. However, the NHS states that while exercise won't make your stress disappear, “it will reduce some of the emotional intensity that you're feeling, clearing your thoughts and letting you deal with your problems more calmly”.
As part of lockdown procedures, Boris Johnson announced that we are allowed out for one form of exercise a day, whether that be walking, running or cycling. The Body Coach Joe Wicks is live streaming PE for kids every which you can play back after work and partake in. Strictly Come Dancing professional dancer Oti Mabuse is doing online dance classes on Youtube. Or try some yoga to help relax in the evenings.
Our sleep can often become disrupted when we are anxious or stressed yet it is vital with the challenges that you are facing that you are getting a good night sleep to tackle the day ahead. Tempting as it may be to binge watch a box set, save that for the weekend – it’s not like we can go anywhere – and get to bed at a decent time.
Tips for a better night sleep include:
- Having a regular bed time every night
- Avoid going on your phone or iPad an hour before you go to bed
- Don’t have tvs in your room – make your bedroom a place for sleeping
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol in the evenings as this can disrupt sleep
- Exercise can help with sleep
- Write down your worries – if you have things on your mind, write them down before bedtime. Keep a pad and paper by your bed so if something is keeping you awake at night, you can jot it down and confront it the next day even if it is something simple like remembering to put the bins out/collect a prescription
Spending time with your families
Ensuring you are getting a good work/life balance is difficult at the best of times, but it is critical at the moment, despite the additional challenges presented by COVID-19. If you have young children, they may be anxious about the coronavirus and need more attention or cuddles than normal, especially with you being on the frontline. Children of any age may have questions about the situation. Your children may be entitled to key worker status in schools or they may be home educated by a partner, either way, they will be aware of you going out to work and will be worried about you and so getting the right amount of time at home is essential too. You also need the support of your family during these difficult times. If you live alone, use technology or phones to keep in contact with family and friends.
A cliché I know, and as a parent of three children under eight and working full-time, I appreciate the importance of it but rarely get to put it into practice. However, not only do you have an incredibly stressful job safeguarding vulnerable children and dealing with very challenging situations, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated stress levels further on both a professional and probably personal front too. It is vital to take some time to at least try and relax with a book, a soak in the bath, or even a phone call to your friend but something where your needs are placed above others for a time.
NHS Stress Busters
Mind: How to manage stress
NHS 10 Tips to help if you are worried about the coronavirus
NHS: Mental wellbeing while being at home
Mental Health Foundation: Looking after your mental health during the Coronavirus outbreak