Social work and social care workforce ‘overwhelmed’ by increased pressures

A new study of the social care workforce across the UK finds that more than six in ten social workers are overwhelmed by pressures resulting from COVID-19, with social care workers and social workers being the most impacted occupational groups.

13/10/21

Social work and social care workforce ‘overwhelmed’ by increased pressures

The study, now in its third phase covering May-July 2021, was conducted by researchers at universities in Northern Ireland and England and aimed to explore the impact of providing health and social care during the COVID19 pandemic in the UK on the health and social care workforce, including nurses, midwives, allied health professionals (AHPs), social care workers and social workers.

The “Health and social care workers’ quality of working life and coping while working during the COVID-19 pandemic” study finds that, overall, respondents have been working more hours overtime since the start of the pandemic compared to before.

When asked about the impact of COVID-19 on their work, more than six in ten (62%) of respondents UK-wide felt overwhelmed by increased pressures, while more than a third (35%) felt impacted but not significantly. Only 3.4% reported that their service had not been impacted and/or that it was stepped down. Social care workers and social workers were the most impacted occupational groups.

The data came from a survey questionnaire, which received more than 2,700 responses, measuring mental wellbeing, quality of working life, burnout, and ways of coping in the UK health and social care workers.

Open-ended questions sought further detail, with answers analysed to identify common themes. The overarching themes that emerged were similar to previous iterations of the study, with “changing conditions, communication and connections” being frequently brought up.

Respondents reported that their services were (again) affected by staff shortages, leading to increased workloads, burnout and impacts on health and wellbeing. However, this was tempered by some positive developments, including greater flexibility around working from home and a better work-life balance.

Respondents also highlighted that communication with employers and managers had worsened since the beginning of the pandemic; both negative and positive experiences were reported around moving from face-to-face interaction to communicating on the phone or online.

Connections were highlighted by respondents as something that constantly changed during the pandemic, with relationships with colleagues and managers worsening as the pandemic continued. Additionally, those who had been redeployed by managers also struggled at times to maintain their routines for work life balance because of new work schedules alongside other home commitments.

Although the trajectory is downward from Phase 1 to 3, between Phase 2 and 3 both mental wellbeing and quality of working life increased slightly. The analysis, however, revealed that burnout increased in the latest phase across the UK, with the vast majority of respondents saying they were experiencing moderate to severe levels of personal (78%) and work-related burnout (70.9%).

Principal investigator of the study, Dr Paula McFadden, Senior Lecturer in Social Work at Ulster University, said the research shows that employers and policy makers need to take an informed approach to workforce support and sustainability to maintain staff wellbeing and retention.

“We have seen a clear relationship between burnout and intention to leave which threatens the human infrastructure of the health and social care sector. The only way we can protect the workforce is to listen to them and act on the evidence. We hope that our research and learning from this period can be applied to ‘business as usual’ service delivery and in planning for future pandemics or disasters.”

As a result of the findings, the authors have developed 15 good practice recommendations at individual, organisational and policy level to support the health and social care workforce. They argue that staff wellbeing and retention policies should take into account the risks of staff burnout and the need to help staff to recover. They also recommend that evidence-based, good practice guidance on communication needs to cover the broad range of needs of health and social care services with strong input from the frontline; as well as increased management visibility and supportive supervision.

Dr John Moriarty, Lecturer from the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at Queen's University, said the results should be troubling for organisations.

"Our findings indicate that both mental wellbeing and quality of life of the health and social care workforce deteriorated from Phase 1 to Phase 3, further emphasising the concerning levels of burnout. Workplace burnout is, at its core, a health care system and organisational problem – not just an individual concern."

The report from the Health and Social Care Workforce Research Study follows previous analysis from the Department for Education (DfE), released in July, which showed that three quarters of children and families social workers say they are working more than their contracted hours either ‘all the time’ or ‘most weeks’, working an average of five hours per week more than contracted.

Speaking to DfE researchers, one team manager said she needed to move to a new job without supervisory responsibilities due to feeling ‘burnt out’ by her experiences in the pandemic. “What I've struggled with more than anything is the dynamics within teams, the virtual working, the being able to support people virtually has been difficult. But it creates a lot of complexities as well in terms of managing people's performance,” she said. “Managing the dynamics of a team, in terms of [people saying]: ‘They're doing this, they're not doing that,' and created a real imbalance for people with regards to welfare.”

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