Social workers in every sector have a front-row seat to the devastating effects the pandemic has had on interpersonal relationships, individuals’ mental and physical health, and social interactions. Individuals have experienced difficulties such as financial hardships, job loss, and deterioration in mental health. Social workers have expertise in interpersonal relationships and an understanding of how the system works. Social workers can see their clients in person and examine how they deal with their environment. They also have a systemic understanding of policies and organizations as well as expertise in health and professional support that is invaluable in helping their clients. Now, more than ever, supports need to be put in place to help social workers deal with client needs that have emerged because of the pandemic.
The role of social work during the pandemic
Social workers possess the necessary skills and competencies that are important to the needs raised by the pandemic. Such skills include:
- assessing risk
- crisis management
- advanced care
- therapy for individuals and groups
- managing individual cases
- navigating systems
- problem solving
- allocating necessary resources
- community engagement
- policy development
Social workers practice across several levels from micro to macro and commit to advocating for their clients as well as communities in need. They have been committed to advocating for social justice in the areas of racism, stigmas, poverty, and availability of resources. Social work is recognized as an invaluable resource and that is why workers are routinely called for their involvement in policy changes and decision-making. One issue that is unique to the pandemic is the need for social services and communication during lockdowns. Mental health issues have been exacerbated by the social isolation imposed because of Covid-19. Social workers follow standards of practice that focus on interventions for groups, individuals and families and maintain accessible service delivery. The delivery of services has changed dramatically because of the pandemic and understanding what the changes are is critical in creating policies to support these professionals during a period of rapid change.
Overnight switch to virtual care
The pandemic required those in the medical and social services community to switch to virtual care overnight. With strict public health guidelines to follow and the use of PPE, social workers jobs became much more challenging. The physical distancing requirements, the closure of non-essential services, and the switch to online communication meant that social workers needed to find creative ways to connect with their clients. In the case of elderly clients, using technology was not an option so social workers needed to get in touch with them over the phone. Unfortunately, for those who needed regular visits in person, this became a very isolating time because of the strict protocols. Before the pandemic, virtual consultations were used in very rare cases, so social workers needed to learn the programs and teach their clients to do the same. However, some social workers have used virtual care in their practices even prior to the pandemic for group therapy, counseling sessions for clients in rural areas, and case management.
There is still a wide gap in virtual care with the education and training of social workers. Social workers have had to integrate virtual care into their practices despite having little training or access to technology without interrupting the level of care of their clients. They need to learn how to use technology ethically and effectively in their practice, so the client is getting the most benefit out of the service. For those who are entering the profession now, or working towards enhancing their education, there are schools where you can pursue an accredited online msw program. Online programs such as those provided by Keuka College offer students an accelerated course that can be done on a flexible schedule while they are still working. The curriculum teaches the most advanced principles of social work and considers the current mental health environment.
Ways in which the pandemic affected social workers and how they do their jobs
Social workers faced several challenges due to the pandemic including:
- Building trusting and honest relationships with clients without the ability to meet them face to face. Virtual meetings or phone calls were needed and there were issues with privacy and confidentiality.
- With resources being stretched and not enough social workers to fill the need of their clients, the need to prioritize user needs and demands became a challenge. The ability to fully assess each client and develop a treatment plan based on the assessments became nearly impossible to do with all clients.
- The need to balance the personal risk to the social worker with the needs of the clients.
- Trying to decide which policies to follow, national or organizational where they differ. Where to use professional discretion when policies seem confusing or inappropriate.
- Acknowledging the need for self-care and understanding how to handle emotions, recognize fatigue and take a break when overwhelmed, and take precautions when working in an unsafe environment.
According to a study done by the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW), social workers have been restricted in the way they can provide services which has generated new needs and demands. The study shows that Covid-19 and the protocols implemented to prevent the spread of the illness have made social workers get creative in meeting the needs of their clients while staying safe themselves. Recommendations on how different stakeholders need to proceed in the wake of the crises left by the pandemic include:
Social workers need to:
- Debate how to apply professional values and principles in the new context of the pandemic
- Engage colleagues in deliberations about ethics
- Be self-aware and know when their judgment might be impaired by exhaustion or emotion or both. A social worker must always understand the full implications of their actions in every situation.
- Treat clients, their families, and the community at large with empathy, compassion, and respect.
- Engage with employers and policymakers to educate them about the harms and inequities experienced by individuals during the pandemic.
- Advocate for better social work services and improvements to the policies and programs to better provide for their clients.
Social work employers should:
- Ensure all workers are supported with supervision and open communication
- Develop protocols on safe work practices while also working ethically on the frontline
- Monitor stress levels of staff and encourage self-care often so the social workers can rest and recuperate
- Provide staff with hygiene equipment, personal protective equipment (PPE), and other safety measures
- Advocate for policymakers to focus on gaps in the welfare system and educate on the need for improvements.
National associations of social workers have key roles in:
- Educating on factors that put some communities at risk and the vital roles of social programs that act as safety nets for individuals
- Increasing efforts in the data collection of work conditions for social workers and their clients
- Advocating for recognition of the importance of social workers and their place in the community. This will guide policymakers in their decisions to maintain and improve services
- Improving ethical guidance for social workers and provide a place for peer support.
The people who are the most in need of social services such as children, the elderly, individuals with physical disabilities, or those with learning disabilities are the most vulnerable in society. These people are the ones who face the most challenges during a pandemic such as physical abuse, poverty, discrimination, and social isolation. Social workers are there to work with these people and their families to put systems in place to help them improve their lives. This is a challenge without covid restrictions, but the addition of the safety measures put in place during the pandemic makes it doubly challenging. Social workers often must make difficult choices so they can adhere to their ethical duties while maintaining covid protocols. They need to do this quickly without much preparation time, so they need to be adaptable.
Changing the system overnight
The researchers of the study found that switching from in-person meetings to virtual care overnight had a huge effect on the social workers and the clients. The negative effects were obvious immediately:
- Some clients didn’t have access to the internet
- Social workers were not familiar with the electronic meeting programs and needed to learn them
- Making assessments of individuals became impossible
When the lockdown occurred, social workers needed to rely on telephone or video chat to provide services ordinarily done in person. Some social workers felt that the quality of the service decreased because they were unable to spot any problems because they only saw what the client on a computer screen. The in-person aspect of social work is important in seeing if care is being taken or if there is a cause for alarm.
Being able to examine the living conditions of a client, their physical and mental well-being, and whether more support is an important tool in doing the job of a social worker. If the worker can’t meet with the client and get a full picture of what is happening in their lives, the service suffers. A prime example is in the case of a domestic abuse victim who now must communicate with their social worker over the phone or online. The abuser may be in the same room with them which limits what they say, and they are able to hide the evidence of abuse easily when they control what the social worker sees.
The social workers who continued to see clients in person relied on the clients being honest about their physical health and whether they were suffering symptoms of covid. In some cases, social workers were put at risk without proper safety measures available. They would show up for a meeting with their clients and have them coughing in their vicinity without any prior indication that the client was feeling unwell.
Positive outcomes of online social work
The quick switch wasn’t all bad, there were some positive outcomes of introducing technology to the job. The social workers who conducted their interviews online liked the freedom and flexibility this new work system offered. The clients who were younger were more receptive to talking to their social workers on video chat so the relationships with those individuals and their families improved. Young people benefited the most from online interactions.
Some groups did not benefit from the technology such as low-income households, the elderly, and individuals with learning disabilities. These people were left behind or neglected because of their inability to access technology.
Effects to the bottom line in virtual social work
Services that are delivered over the phone or by video chat reduces the need to travel for social workers which is a big cost to the organizations that provide social services. These cost-savings may seem like an unexpected bonus, but at what cost to the client? While it may be convenient and cheaper to have social workers meet virtually with clients, the users of the service may not be getting the most benefit out of it that they can. Some social workers worry that the cost-savings made apparent by the pandemic will continue beyond the covid restrictions and service will suffer as a result. The move to permanent online services is the opposite of what professionals say is needed.
Investment in long-term solutions to the most critical problems such as more social workers in the field, better community resources, enhanced accessibility, and more focused programs is what is needed most rather than reducing the effectiveness of the service by keeping it online.
Self-care for social workers during the pandemic
According to the National Association of Social Workers, social workers can take steps to care for themselves during the pandemic, including:
- Check in with yourself by writing down sources of stress and triggers
- Keep a note to remind yourself of why you chose to become a social worker
- Learn to recognize negative self-talk and replace it with messages of positivity
- Learn how to set boundaries
- Become an advocate for yourself
- Turn off the phone, computer, and television when you are at home.
- Read, listen to music, write, or listen to a podcast while at home
- Take a day off for mental health occasionally, to recharge and reduce stress
Focus on meaningful work
Focus on projects and work that means something to you and you feel passionately about. Work for the greater good on issues such as advocating for equity in certain communities or working to provide better services for the impoverished.
When you are advocating for your socially isolated clients to connect with family and friends, remember that it is important for everyone, including yourself. The importance of connecting with those in your support system includes changing perspectives and revitalizing a workplace. Starting monthly support groups for clients and getting to know their families and friends can help the client by providing emotional support.
It is startling what a little bit of sunshine and fresh air can do to the mental health and physical well-being of an individual. Staying inside all day can affect mood which in turn can make you feel aches and pains that ordinarily would not bother you. Getting outside for a brief walk can do wonders to clear your mind, improve your mood, and enhance your outlook. Not only will you benefit from this break in the day, but so will your clients who will get you at your best.
The Covid-19 lockdowns changed the way social work is viewed and performed forever. In some ways, the need to communicate electronically facilitated the system for younger clients who were not easy to track down. These clients were able to get in touch with social workers and other services more easily on their phones, tablets, or laptops and could report problems quickly.
Another facet of social work that improved because of the pandemic is the focus on the need for more support workers in the field. Mental health, social isolation, depression, and illnesses have become priorities because of the intense impact the lockdowns had on individuals. This focus allows those involved in social work to advocate strongly for increased services and programs.
The pandemic highlighted many issues in social services and shed light on how some of the most vulnerable members of society need extra support so they don’t get left behind should another lockdown occur. Social workers are integral in providing the necessary services to those individuals, while also advocating for better programs, resources, and policies to do their jobs effectively post-pandemic.
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