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Supporting Your Social Workers: Finding Strength in the Pandemic

Social workers have faced unprecedented challenges during the pandemic and are not alone in this struggle. Although social workers have been trained to compartmentalize their own experiences from those of their clients, the collective trauma of a pandemic challenges that tidy framework and the coping skills built inside it.

By acknowledging our shared humanity, limitations, and strengths, we can see each other through not only this pandemic, but its lasting effects on our psyches and communities.

When need outstrips capacity

COVID-19 has impacted every sphere of life, disproportionately harming those already at the margins. Economic fallout has pushed millions of Americans into unemployment, financial precarity, and poverty. Mental distress, isolation, and anxiety are ubiquitous, and healthcare systems are overburdened by those who are physically sick.

In response, systems of care — including the leaders and providers within them — moved quickly to scale the steep challenges of the past year. From rolling out telehealth to shifting cultural norms around mask wearing, to vaccine distribution, social work organizations have been at the forefront of critical and unprecedented change.

Yet because social workers often support individuals within large systems of care, they see firsthand where these systems fall short in the face of immense need. This experience of powerlessness is known to cause burnout, and it has an undeniable toll.

A provider of homeless services who wished to remain anonymous expressed their frustration at gaping “cracks” in services that have acutely affected the population they serve: “When everything went online, the places that provide free internet, like the library, also closed. And we shut down our own open computer access for social distancing. So we saw folks in dire need waiting many months to get a stimulus check for the sheer reason that they couldn’t find a computer to use to fill out a form.” Similar barriers are stymieing an equitable vaccine rollout.

Sources of burnout aren’t just individuals’ physical needs but also their emotional ones. One therapist described becoming depressed herself from “talking to people who are depressed all day every day.”

Other personal and professional challenges

A global study of social workers found that they also struggled with the following challenges during the pandemic:

Maintaining relationships in new ways

Telehealth and mask mandates can make the nuance and subtlety of body language harder to read, challenging the emotional connection necessary for a strong therapeutic alliance. The physical space of an office can also serve as a container for the therapeutic process, and without it, clients and providers alike may struggle to compartmentalize.

Lack of clear guidance

In the face of a novel virus and the risks it’s posed, old policies and procedures were insufficient. New ones can be unclear, incomplete, and, of course, imperfect.

Balancing risk

The physical environment of some work settings has posed inherent risks to employees. Although we often conceptualize the role of the social worker as compassionate but “invulnerable,” the pandemic has made it clear that social workers are as vulnerable as everyone else. Social worker Brené Brown has famously argued that vulnerability is a source of strength. Therefore, the challenge is how to respond supportively to this tangible and unexpected vulnerability.

Complexities around risk and inequity

The anonymous provider of homeless services quoted previously points out that burdens of risk and responsibility can intersect with inequities. “Paradoxically, my co-workers who are higher risk are sometimes more willing to take risk,” they said, “perhaps because they identify more closely with the population they serve. The elder women of color I work with are also more likely to be caregivers and more likely to have family members who’ve died in the pandemic.”

Offering meaningful support

Just as clients and social workers are struggling, organizational leaders also don’t have all the answers in this difficult time. It’s okay to be humble and have some tenderness and grace around your own limitations.

Some mission-driven strategies that can communicate your care for your social work staff include:

  • Offer whatever tangible safety and support you can. Social work organizations’ budgets may be notoriously lean, but creativity and thoughtfulness can stretch them far. Your staff will recognize these efforts and appreciate them.

Do whatever you can to offer your employees support in the form of reliable PPE and support for getting vaccinated. If your staff members work indoors, consider the air quality of their environment (this excellent online tool assesses the air quality at your facility so you can make evidence-based decisions). Provide hazard pay, stipends, or exchanges with other agencies for mental health care. Also, help staff navigate conflicts around risk such as how to handle unmasked clients.

  • Be creative in reducing inequity and barriers. Because unmet needs are the source of burnout among social workers, tackling them head-on supports staff members and clients alike. By listening to staff and clients, you can creatively problem-solve issues that arise.
  • Offer additional emotional and ethical support. Social workers who are personally struggling, grieving, or burned out may be experiencing dissonance in trying to maintain a distanced, professional persona. Offer flexibility, warmth, and understanding to normalize this struggle.

For example, in a weekly support group I facilitate, I’ve found myself using self-disclosure more to acknowledge shared struggles. This alleviates the burden on me to pretend I am not struggling myself. It also helps participants recognize their own strengths.

  • Advocate for systemic change. The social work code of ethics is clear regarding the responsibility to advocate for social justice. Weigh in on the side of equity regarding COVID-19 relief efforts at the local, state, and national level. This can help address some of the root causes of strain among your social work staff. Backing your social workers in their drive for equity reminds them they are not powerless and that we are all in this together.

Appreciate and Support Your Social Workers

Social work has always been essential. To help you celebrate and appreciate your social workers, take advantage of the free resources Relias has to offer.

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