Social workers provide vital services and support to people in communities across the UK. Like all professionals, social workers need the right context and resources to do their job, ongoing support, and development opportunities. They need respect and recognition from multi- professional colleagues, enough control over their workload, and enough autonomy to use their professional skills to the full.
The Social Worker Wellbeing and Working Conditions: Good Practice Toolkit (2020) was developed from research undertaken in 2017/2018 by UK Bath Spa University, the Social Workers Union (SWU), and the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) into social worker wellbeing across the UK – in which over 5000 social worker respondents provided rich detail about their work circumstances, their views, and feelings about their jobs.
Our findings showed coordinated action is needed to improve social workers’ working conditions across the UK to enable social workers to thrive, to prevent burn out and loss of staff, particularly from statutory roles. This finding is not new, but our research evidence helps define the changes social workers need. We have further consulted social workers and stakeholders to develop this resource.
This toolkit is aimed at accelerating action across all parts of the workplace. It is built on the principle that improvement in organisations – for staff and for the people we serve – often needs everyone involved to work together, and that social workers in practice can be empowered to shape change and use their professional agency and power, individually and collectively.
Bath Spa University, BASW, and SWU are not alone in their determination to improve the context and experience of social workers in the workplace. We believe our toolkit is a valuable and powerful contribution to joint efforts across our sector and we will signpost on the website to other key resources that also can make a difference.
Social Worker Wellbeing and Working Conditions: Good Practice Toolkit
Dr Jermaine M Ravalier, Reader in Work and Wellbeing (Psychology) Bath Spa University
Dr Ruth Allen, CEO, British Association of Social Workers
Foreword by John McGowan, General Secretary, Social Workers Union
Who is this toolkit for?
This toolkit is aimed at social workers in practice, social work supervisors, workforce development leads, managers, and leaders.
For social workers in practice, it should help you be more informed and empowered to look after yourself better at work; recognise when you need support and how to access it; develop knowledge and skills to influence your organisation; and know your rights and what you should expect from your employer.
Knowledge is power. Knowing your rights at work and the evidence of what constitutes a healthy workplace, understanding what is most likely to work in self-care and knowing more about how managers and employers can support you better, are all important and can make a big difference. The toolkit should help you feel more confident to make your workplace needs known to local and national authorities and to act to make changes yourself where you can.
Given the worrying findings from our research, we believe improvements in working conditions and wellbeing for social workers require major developments in the quality and consistency of management, leadership, organisational culture, and employment practices. Readers with operational, workforce development, and strategic responsibility for working conditions should use this toolkit to work together with staff to achieve shared vision and actions for change.
Recognising this, the toolkit is holistic and integrated. What we mean by this is that it has key messages and signposting for all of the following people, parts of organisations, and bodies providing support to social workers:
- Social workers in direct practice
- Social work supervisors and practice leaders
- Teams and first line team leaders and managers
- Senior managers and organisational leaders
- Professional organisations/groups for social workers
- Trade unions
It is also holistic and integrated in recognising social workers’ experiences at work, their tasks, and pressures are strongly shaped by national and local socio-economic and other policies and factors that affect the living conditions, incomes, safety, and wellbeing of the communities they work with.
The toolkit will also be useful for educators of social work students preparing social workers for qualifying and entry into practice and providing continuing professional development.
This toolkit is for the long term. But we are still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and this is changing aspects of social work practice and population needs now and will continue to do so for many months if not years. The pandemic brings additional challenges of heightened health inequality, the need to adapt social work practices including increased use of remote working, and take opportunities to learn for the long term from rapid innovations and new collaborations.
During the COVID-19 crisis, social workers have made huge changes in how and where they work. Although designated essential workers, social workers had little or no governmental or public health guidance on how to adapt their work and little access to personal protective equipment at the start of the outbreak according to results from the BASW COVID-19 survey of 2000+ social workers during March-June 2020. Social workers and their employers had to manage changes and devise local protocols in the absence of a comprehensive, national pandemic plans and in the absence of identification of the specific and distinctive roles of social workers in national public health strategy.
BASW and SWU have provided guidance and information to support decision making from the start of the pandemic. Maintaining contact with people during lockdown and maintaining safeguarding and rights protection activities has been challenging for social workers. Amongst other challenges, social workers in services for adults have been hampered in safeguarding people in care and supported living homes, particularly because of the national drive for hospital discharge without testing in early weeks. Children’s services have been challenged in maintaining support to those most at risk particularly as school places for vulnerable children were not well taken up and wider support services closed. Rises in domestic violence and online abuse risks in lockdown are thought to have significantly built-up hidden harms.
As of June 2020, BASW’s additional survey questions of 250 respondents found that 60% believed their ability to safeguard children or adults was worse during Covid; under 50% reported good access to PPE; 60% reported more moral and ethical dilemmas; and notable minorities of respondents reported breaches of rights for people using services (27%); against themselves (16%) and against other staff (13%). More positively, 60% reported good support from managers and 73% reported more effective use of digital. The vast majority of survey respondents from March 2020 onwards reported working from home all or much more of the time – which has worked well for many but brings new risks of isolation and lack of team connectedness if not well managed.
As lockdown eases, social workers have concerns about being protected from risks in moves back to offices and having the right advice, support, and equipment to undertake more face-to-face work again. There is also considerable concern about capacity to manage expected steep increases in referrals to all social services post-lockdown.
The social work workforce is changing as a result of COVID-19 across the UK with implications for staff support now and in coming months. In Northern Ireland, social work students have qualified earlier and taken up jobs; in Scotland social work students have come into paid assistant roles; in England social work students are continuing their studies but placements have been disrupted. Newly qualified social workers across the UK will need additional ‘bridging’ support after the disruption and crisis of COVID-19. Social workers have also re-joined the register and come back into practice, needing additional professional development.
Supporting the wellbeing and professional development needs of the workforce over coming months and into next year requires tailored responses from employers. This includes recognising the extra support needs of new staff brought in in crisis and the possibility of additional distress, trauma, and worry amongst staff overall. BASW has set up an online professional support service for members in response to this need. You can find out more about the Professional Support Service on the BASW website.
Bibliography and further reading on the evidence base
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