Building Back Better – Social Services Around the World and Through the Pandemic

Our CEO, Carolyn Housman, has pulled out the key findings from the recently published State of the Social Service Workforce Global Report that will be most relevant to social workers, as well as a few predictions for the future.

The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 placed great strain on the social service workforce - everywhere. The virus, as well as the measures adopted to contain it, caused social service organisations and social service workers to swiftly adapt their operations to protect and to assist their local communities. The State of the Social Service Workforce Global Report details how social services have responded to the pandemic around the world, as well as highlighting what we can expect in the future.

We know how busy social workers in the UK are, therefore, we have pulled out the key findings from the Global Report that will be most relevant to them, as well as a few predictions for the future. So social workers can spend more time doing what they do best – helping those who have suffered the most from the pandemic and those who will be pushed to the side-lines by the deepening inequalities that follow.    

Key Points

  • In many countries, the roles and functions of the social service workforce were deemed essential during COVID-19 lockdowns and there was a significant increase in workload on these workers. In countries where workers were not deemed essential, social service professionals were often unable to perform many of their key roles or they were required to adapt to new ways of ‘virtual’ working —including conducting home visits, completing case assessments, ensuring beneficiaries’ access to services, providing counselling, or attending court cases.  
  • To overcome the challenges presented by remote service delivery, social service workers sought innovative, new ways to facilitate connections and build trust. For example, social workers in Ireland innovated a new way to maintain in-person contact with older people by offering ‘walking appointments,’ meeting the clients outside and walking at a physically safe distance, thus also encouraging physical activity and decreasing social isolation. When social workers from the non-profit organization DOROT in New York City, USA, were forced to reduce home visits to older persons, they set up a telephone bank of student volunteers available to talk once or twice a week with seniors living alone.
  • Social service workers also faced their own mental health challenges, with increased need for psychosocial support. The stress experienced because of the pandemic was compounded by feelings of inadequacy from not being able to carry out their usual essential duties, such as investigating cases of abuse. Stress caused by conflicting personal and professional demands, and anxiety from the increased workload, combined with the increasing needs of their clients and local communities, had a significant impact on the workforce.  
  • Social service organizations commonly experienced either a loss of funding or received no additional funding, despite having to deal with substantially increased caseloads.  In response to this, a programme director from South Sudan pointed to the cost savings associated with use of virtual platforms, “The social service workforce has already adopted affordable means of communication such as virtual meetings. This should be continued because humanitarian organizations have been spending huge funds in travelling and meeting. These funds can be channeled to other areas of capacity building and needs.”
  • Social service workers became advocates for those unable to seek assistance in their communities, ensuring their needs were recognized and met. This includes advocating for informal, unpaid caregivers who provide critical support in collaboration with the workforce, many of whom are dealing with extreme emotional and mental health tolls due to the pandemic.  
  • Cross-sectoral collaboration, networks and partnerships around provision of social service delivery were strengthened. According to a national coordinator from Uganda, “Partnerships and collaborations will continue even to address other social challenges of our time along the continuum of social protection.”  

What can we expect in the future

The global pandemic has wreaked havoc on health systems, on economies, on families and more – but it has also highlighted how interconnected global health and social service systems are. In the future, there will be a need to capacity build social services in all part of the world. This will be a difficult task in some places, given weakened economic systems and differing political priorities. The Global Social Service Workforce Alliance is on hand to advise and help capacity build key agencies.

Individual social service workers will need more targeted training to respond to future large-scale emergencies, providing support for children and families, and support to better manage their own wellbeing. Social Service workers need more opportunities for mutual sharing and navigation of challenges and, crucially, need to know what their limits are in terms of caseloads. CFAB, and the wider International Social Service network, is on hand to deliver training to individuals and organisations.

Both social service organisation leaders and individual social service workers need to continue to upskill in the area of technology. There has been a global shift towards remote working and use of online platforms, and we must ensure this continues to be weighed against the benefits of direct client work.  

Partnership working will continue to grow in the future, more so in countries which have recognised the critical role of social services. A senior associate who works across Guatemala, Colombia and Mexico speculated that, “it will be a new era where we will have constant changes, modifying paradigms and schemes. Also, I see it as an opportunity to reflect on and value the social services workforce.”

As one programme director from South Sudan said, now is the time to ‘build back better’. The pandemic may have been a dark moment in our collective history, but it also presents an opportunity to improve our shared future.