In February 2020 I successfully interviewed for my first social worker post and was beyond excited about starting the career I had been working so hard towards. The offer in adult services was conditional upon completing my qualification as I was in the midst of my dissertation and this provided additional motivation for the long days and nights of writing up my research. My husband and I got married in October of 2019 and we were unable to go on honeymoon as the timing coincided with my final practice placement but we had it all planned out, I would submit my dissertation in April, we would jet off to India (a lifelong ambition of mine) and then I would come back and start my dream job. What could possibly go wrong? Well Covid19 struck and everything changed. Completing my dissertation which had been my biggest source of stress and anxiety was now an even more significant obstacle as my sympathetic nervous system was in overdrive, thinking clearly and maintaining concentration became more difficult and the horrific news reports occupied my mind. After a few days of panicking, I took control of those feelings, limited my news exposure, practiced self-care and found that data analysis actually became a welcome distraction from the devastation unfolding around us all and I submitted my research on time.
With holiday plans on hold I was invited to join my new team on May 4th. While many people would remain safe working in their own homes, I had mixed feelings about the prospect of working in the community. I was undoubtedly nervous about the risk of contracting the virus or bringing it home to my husband but at the same time I was desperate to be able to use my skills to help those who were hurting, suffering and struggling to cope. Prior to entering this new role, I had worked in mental health crisis intervention and I knew that I had to be where I was needed most. Before the pandemic I had idealistic views about what my first few weeks would look like. I had visions about meeting my new colleagues, visiting local resources, making connections in the community, visiting partner teams, shadowing appointments and most importantly building relationships with service users. Instead, I was faced with the sad sight of closed signs where community supports had previously been and empty desks where friendly faces would previously have welcomed me.
Joining any new team can be daunting. We are all familiar with the theoretical stages of group development (Tuckman 1965) but can ‘forming’, ‘storming’ and ‘norming’ happen effectively if you cannot meet your team members or can only interact through video conferencing? Research from Scotland indicates that peer support from colleagues is an essential element of navigating the first year of practice (Grant, Sheridan and Webb 2017) and it certainly felt strange not having a full team around me for learning and support. That said, social workers are creative problem solvers and through connecting via Microsoft teams and through the development of support ‘bubbles’ and a fantastic mentor I have been able to ask questions, seek advice when needed and my team have been incredible. Shadowing opportunities have been available via tele conferencing which have been valuable however the inability to meet in person and experience the human connection also feels unnatural.
Through my own allocations, all non-critical cases are managed remotely to safeguard staff and service users who may have an underlying health condition and could therefore be more vulnerable to Covid19. Is it possible to achieve relationship-based practice within this new norm? Completing an assessment on the telephone relies purely on verbal communication and removes the ability to read or convey facial expressions and body language which we are crucial components to effective communication (MacLean and Harrison 2012). Communication also becomes challenging through the use of PPE (personal protective equipment) when home visits are deemed necessary, often following a duty referral. Communication theories teach us to make eye contact, lean towards the individual and remain open and relaxed however Covid19 has certainly created challenges to this. Masks cover your mouth so people who are hard of hearing or rely on lip reading struggle to understand what is being said from 2 meters distance. You then have to make a choice between keeping yourself safe or removing your mask to ease the angst of others, of course the latter is always opted for as per true social work values of dignity, respect and empathy. The plastic visors also impede meaningful interaction through becoming steamy, not to mention how people suffering with mental ill health can become distressed when two workers appear in unusual attire, requiring exceptional efforts to build trusting relationships in very challenging circumstances.
Corona virus has indisputably highlighted the structural inequalities in our society following years of austerity and the first few days in my new role caused a deep sadness about this reality. Whilst some families have had the opportunity to utilise technology and work from home, our team received countless phone calls from others requesting food packages as insecure employment such as zero hours contracts had been terminated or benefits applications delayed. Carers who have lost access to vital services such as day centres and respite are struggling to cope, addiction to substances has been exacerbated through lack of positive activities, women are trapped in homes with abusive partners with limited support networks and increasing numbers of people feel at risk of suicide triggered by loneliness and unemployment. My role is to remind them that there is hope amid this chaos. I have spoken with distressed relatives who have been unable to visit their parents in care homes and miss them terribly, to adults who have a learning disability and are struggling to understand why their lives have changed so dramatically and to young adults on the autistic spectrum who’s wellbeing has always been dependant on routine, structure and familiarity. As a fellow human being it is hard not to feel their pain and although you know that providing emotional support can help but everything else is outside your control, or indeed anybody’s control at the moment.
In terms of my own induction process covid19 has changed this significantly. I did not have the luxury of learning processes steadily and building up my workload slowly, instead I had to quickly learn my role and task so I could be ready to respond to a range of crises tenaciously in addition to adapting continuously to a range of different policy and legislative changes following the introduction of the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020. I have adapted to working from home for a percentage of the week which can be isolating though a team ‘whatsapp’ group has helped me feel connected. Training that would have normally been available is not running and I am concerned that this may impact my opportunities to record professional development hours which are required of me as a newly qualified worker and on which my registration with the SSSC depends. There is of course also the personal impact that starting a social work career during the pandemic has had. Coming home from the office involves a rigorous process of disinfecting bags, shoes, and lunch boxes in addition to washing clothing and hair continuously. As lockdown measures have eased and families start to come together, I have proceeded with extreme caution. Meeting my own family outside involves a strict 2-meter distance with face coverings at all times, and I will be opting out of any indoor ‘bubbles’ for the foreseeable future for fear of putting my loved ones at risk.
Whilst this has been a different experience from the one that I had envisaged, in some ways nothing could have prepared me more for my lifelong career. Being a social worker does mean putting others first sometimes, making sacrifices and supporting people through difficult situations with strength, resilience, and compassion. I have been extremely inspired by those around me who have continued to provide a service despite their own fears and done so with a positive attitude. I am proud of how I have been able to contribute to the covid19 response. I feel that social workers will be faced with mending the broken pieces of this crisis for some time and hope I can use my experience to build a positive and meaningful social work career.
Grant, S., Sheridan, L., and Webb, S.A (2017). Newly Qualified Social Workers’ Readiness for Practice in Scotland. British Journal of Social Work. Vol. 47 p.487–506
MacLean, S., and Harrison, R. (2012). The all new handbook of theory for health and social care. United Kingdom: Kirwin Maclean Associates ltd.
Tuckman, Bruce W. (1965) ‘Developmental Sequence in Small Groups’. Psychological Bulletin, Vol.63 p.384-399