Even in “normal” times the need for support for Social Workers is, and always has been a driving motivator in UNISON. The demands of the job itself, the emotional strain, the accountability and the life changing decisions that that Social Workers can be part of, create a huge strain on their personal psychological and emotional resources and their own families. UNISON understands the needs of Social Workers within a large over–arching trade union, who are often too concerned with the welfare of others to focus, for a short time, on their own needs.
It is likely that most people are aware of the enormous heart rending and frightening events of the pandemic, particularly in the first few months when probably everyone felt there was a good chance, they might contract COVID, or, in the process of doing their job, inadvertently infect a family member. Along with other first responders such as Police Officers, Social Workers were very much in the forefront of responding to issues that rendered them extremely vulnerable to COVID. Along with other public sector workers and other workers in essential retail and transport, Social Workers have continued to do their job whilst remaining vulnerable.
Along with other public sector workers and other workers in essential retail and transport, Social Workers have continued to do their job whilst remaining vulnerable.
For the past year however, it has been apparent how the changes throughout society forced on Social Workers by the Pandemic have seriously impacted on their ability to do their jobs safely. First and foremost, in this consideration, is the forced isolation that has necessarily been imposed due to obvious concerns about the illness. In practice this has meant “working from home” instead of going into the office when not working with service users. Employers are often aware of the difficulties that this causes for Social Workers, however sometimes there is very little that anyone can do to alleviate difficulties.
In between service user visits Social Workers are working from home instead of being in the office, for Social workers this means isolation and the loss of so many things that contribute and sustain emotional well-being as well as the professional guidance and mentoring derived from being part of a team. A simple supportive glance from an understanding colleague when on the receiving end of a torrent of unjustified abuse over the phone can be enough to see one through the tirade. For Social Workers, being alone in a bedroom or an adapted office receiving relentless similar calls throughout the day requires an inordinate amount of resilience. The shared wisdom of an experienced colleague or simply discussing issues as part of a group has been available only part of the time in the last year. This is not to undermine the efforts, insights and empathy managers have put into this problem, having anticipated it. Nevertheless, the importance of working together, as part of a team, has never been so obvious.
The shared wisdom of an experienced colleague or simply discussing issues as part of a group has been available only part of the time in the last year.
Professional accountability and expectations cannot be dropped during a crisis such as the pandemic and it has been even more necessary to be proactive in reaching out to members who, for whatever reason, have needed UNISON’s support. As there has been isolation in working with their service users, there has also been isolation from the signposting to UNISON services and the accessibility to UNISON Reps where routine union support has been required. Again, Social Workers, and workers in general will undoubtedly have experienced pressure and stress due to disciplinary matters that have been exacerbated by their isolation.
Of course, it goes without saying that when society suffers it is the vulnerable and deprived who suffer most. This disproportionate suffering of those who need Social Workers in their lives is something that has tested Social Workers immensely. From attempting to manage socially distanced family contact for children and their families to reassuring a very mentally unwell adult, whilst behind a face shield and in full PPE, the difficulties both service users and their Social Workers have faced has been relentless and varied and unexpected in so many ways.
Given these circumstances, the role of UNISON and membership of a union has never been more essential. Workers are more vulnerable and more isolated than ever. Being part of a union has always been important but never more than now. Not working in the office has meant that it is difficult for voices to be heard from the shop floor. How workers have lost the opportunity to flag UNISON reps down as they are walking past, how colleagues haven’t been there to say, “you need to talk to the union”. The need to reach out and to encourage isolated workers to join UNISON and even become a UNISON rep to support their colleagues has never been more vital.
Regional Social Work Rep
National Social Work Forum