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One third of UK social workers considered changing occupation due to increased pressures

A new study into the health and social care workforce finds ‘continuing substantial pressure’ and staff shortages are leading to professionals feeling overwhelmed.

29/03/23

One third of UK social workers considered changing occupation due to increased pressures

The latest phase of a UK-wide study finds social work and social care professionals are finding it difficult to cope.

Staff shortages and continuing, substantial pressure is creating problems for the wellbeing of the health and social care workforce, a new study finds.

The sixth phase of the Health and Social Care Workforce Well-being and Coping Study explored the impact of providing health and social care in the post-pandemic era from November 2022 until January 2023.

The analysis builds upon the findings from five earlier Phases, beginning during May 2020 following the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK. The study received 14,400 survey responses from social workers, social care workers, nurses, midwives, and allied health professionals; conducting 18 focus groups with front-line workers, managers, and Human Resource professionals.

The findings reflect a difficult time of unprecedented industrial action in the NHS and continuing pressures on health and social care services, researchers said.

During the most recent phase, life was returning to pre-pandemic norms for most people in society, there were few remaining public restrictions, the use of face masks had generally ceased, although still being recommended in health and social care settings. Health and social care services were therefore adapting themselves to a post-pandemic time at the same time as still caring directly for people with illnesses related to COVID-19, and delays in seeking healthcare.

Other impacts of the pandemic were said to have placed increasing pressures on health and care services such as sickness absences, staff vacancies, and retention problems, with mental health problems and new conditions such as ‘Long-Covid’, now affecting workforce stability.

Researchers described multiple workplace factors as a ‘vicious cycle’. For example, increased job-related pressures, exacerbated by staffing shortages and vacancies (increased use of agency or locum staff) add to job stress and this affects staff’s mental health and well-being. Some respondents indicate lasting or new depression and anxiety, or long-standing distress or trauma because of working through the pandemic. While the survey found many staff had made use of employer’s support services, not everyone sees them as accessible or helpful. Investment is still needed here; the report’s authors recommend.

Social workers and social care workers were the most overwhelmed occupational groups in terms of impact measured in this study (68.4% of social workers and 57.1% of social care workers).

Nearly half of the respondents UK-wide (43%) had considered changing their employer, with the highest proportion of these being from England (51.5%), closely followed by Northern Ireland (43.3%), Scotland (41.3%) and Wales (31.9%). Within social work, 48.9% of respondents considered changing their employer.

Over a third of the respondents UK-wide (39.6%) also had considered changing their occupation. Social care workers were the most likely (44.2%) to consider changing their occupation during the pandemic, followed closely by midwives (41.4%), nurses (37.6%), with both social workers and AHPs at 36.2%.

Despite this some (2.9%) respondents said that their service had not been impacted (services stepped down/changed due to COVID-19.

Researchers say the findings suggest robust and reliable support systems/services are needed among all health and social care employers to stabilise the workforce, increase retention, and promote well-being at work. Positive examples of supportive interventions have included working within capacity, safe workloads, supportive working culture, co-worker support, camaraderie, team support, manager support, and support for managers. The reliance on managers to provide such support requires adequate and sustained support for managers themselves. This was confirmed by a focus group participants who confirmed that the main support people benefit from is each other. Therefore, building teams and support for teams are critically important.

“It is time now for employers, and all stakeholders, to take forward the evidence produced in studies such as ours, and use the intelligence provided wisely, to inform authentic supports, interventions, and investment in the workforce,” Dr Paula McFadden, Principal Investigator of the study said, adding: “Otherwise, the current workforce crises will continue to get worse with dire consequences for this workforce and society in general.”

Marian O’Rourke, Director of Regulation and Standards, Northern Ireland Social Care Council, said the research is “critical to develop both a deeper understanding of workforce pressures and how staff are affected.”

“We as the social work and social care regulatory body, benefit from critical insights, which inform the development of appropriate interventions to respond to these issues in a timely manner.”

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