The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on the way that we live and work. Health and social care workers have been under particular pressure, as demand for their services has increased, working conditions have become more challenging, and there are many changes and uncertainties to cope with. Many social care practitioners are working at home – while this protects them from contracting the virus, a lack of physical and psychological boundaries between domains can make work-life balance challenging.
Social workers were at high risk of stress and burnout before the current crisis – research conducted during the pandemic indicates that this has generally increased. For example, 61% of social workers who responded to a recent survey reported deteriorating mental health due to increased workloads, lack of management support, feelings of isolation, and the death of people accessing services. Nearly three-quarters (74%) reported an increased workload during the pandemic with a marked rise in the volume and complexity of referrals.
It is therefore crucial for employers to support the resilience and wellbeing of workers during these challenging times. As recently highlighted, practitioners need psychological as well as physical personal protective equipment (PPE).
In partnership with Research in Practice, we have developed the Social Work Organisational Resilience Diagnostic (SWORD), a survey and accompanying workbook to improve organisational resilience in child and family and adult social care. This framework was co-produced with practitioners working in different contexts. It aims to help social care leaders and managers create a workplace climate that builds the capacity for resilience and promotes optimum social care practice. The diagnostic survey provides organisations with bespoke feedback in five key areas (known as Key Foundational Principles): secure base, sense of appreciation, learning organisation, clear mission and vision, and wellbeing.
The findings from the first wave last Autumn (based on responses from 1,171 workers) has been shared with participating organisations and will help social care leaders and managers in implementing targeted interventions to improve resilience and wellbeing. Although the framework was developed before the COVID-19 pandemic, we were able to include some questions about the current crisis related to each of the five key areas. We focused particularly on people’s experiences of support when working at home. The findings provide insight into how social care workers feel their organisations are supporting them through these challenging times.
The diagnostic tool uses a ‘traffic light’ system to highlight areas where organisations are doing well (green), where there is some need for improvement (amber) and where significant improvement is needed (red). The initial findings highlight areas of good practice as well as those where some improvement is required:
GREEN: positive experiences when working remotely during the pandemic: the highest levels of agreement with the statements provided were as follows (in reverse order of agreement):
- My manager trusts me to do a good job.
- I am clear about what co-workers and managers expect of me.
- I can access the information systems I need to do my job effectively.
- I am supported by my team members and feel connected to them.
- My managers keep in touch, even if we are unable to meet in person.
AMBER: moderate levels of agreement with the statements provided were as follows (in reverse order of agreement):
- My organisation has developed clear policies and practices for managing organisational change during the pandemic.
- My managers and co-workers are aware of my personal circumstances and needs and accommodate them wherever possible.
- Communication with managers and colleagues is effective.
- My manager ‘checks in’ with me regularly to ensure I am coping well.
- My organisation helps me develop the knowledge and skills I need when working remotely.
RED: areas for improvement when working remotely during the pandemic – the lowest levels of agreement with the statements provided were as follows (in reverse order of agreement):
- My organisation ensures I have the appropriate equipment and space I need to work safely and effectively.
- Support is available to help me manage the effects of any grief, loss, and trauma I may experience in relation to the pandemic.
- I am happy with my work-life balance when working remotely.
- My organisation is committed to prevent and manage any secondary trauma I may experience.
- My workload and job tasks have been adjusted to enable me to do my job to the best of my ability.
The findings highlight many areas of good practice during the current crisis – few people strongly agreed that any of the potential sources of support were unavailable to them. Social care practitioners feel trusted to do a good job when working remotely, they feel the expectations of them are clear, and they are generally satisfied with the support they receive from managers and colleagues. Social support is a key resource for maintaining resilience and wellbeing during challenging times and is particularly important when work is emotionally demanding and complex.
Attention is needed, however, to some issues where the strength of agreement was weaker such as the effectiveness of communication when working remotely and the management of change. Some practitioners also feel the need for more support to help them manage the effects of grief, loss, and trauma they have experienced during the current crisis.
The statement that was rated the lowest by practitioners related to a failure on the part of their employers to adjust the expectations of them to accommodate the challenges they are currently facing. The difficulties people experience when working remotely and the emotional and cognitive fatigue of the pandemic can mean they are unable to function as well as they did previously. It is important for managers to involve the workforce in re-prioritising tasks and deadlines and rebalancing work among team members to ensure that expectations are realistic. Nonetheless, the increased demand for services means that managers may find this challenging without additional employees.
Working at home can be socially isolating and limited opportunities for interpersonal contact and support may threaten health and wellbeing. Our findings show that many practitioners are struggling with work-life balance when working off-site. Maintaining effective boundaries between ‘work’ and ‘home’ is challenging when there is no physical demarcation between domains. Difficulties ‘switching off’ from work psychologically can also deplete physical and mental resources and increase the risk of burnout.
Training sessions we are currently delivering with organisations on resilience and wellbeing highlight the challenges they are facing when trying to achieve a healthy work-life balance while trying to meet increased demand. Nonetheless, many feel well supported by their managers and colleagues and value the opportunities they have for emotional and practical assistance. Although some practitioners are using creative strategies to craft boundaries between their work and their personal life, our findings highlight the need for more input from employers. The SWORD workbook provides leaders and managers with guidance to support work-life balance among their staff and the need to protect their own wellbeing, but Research in Practice will be launching a new Leaders’ Briefing later this year to help them with this key issue.
The SWORD survey and COVID-19 response survey – next opportunity to participate
The SWORD survey is open twice a year for organisations to participate. The survey next launches on Tuesday 13 April for a six-week period.
Organisations must nominate a lead contact in a senior role (such as a Principal Social Worker, Head of Service) who will administer the SWORD survey across the workforce. Nominated contacts should get in touch with email@example.com to ensure their organisation can access the survey.
The lead contact will disseminate and work with teams and individuals to ensure workforce participation in the survey. Individuals will complete the survey online and your organisation’s data will be collated and analysed by Research in Practice. Your nominated contact will receive their organisational data returns once the survey is closed and work with management in implementing the tasks and strategies from the workbook. The COVID-19 response data will be sent to organisations as a supplementary readout of data.