In response to Covid-19 how do we, as leaders within children’s services, meet the needs of service users? How do we meet the duty of care to our workers? How do we ensure safe and effective practice? In short how do we lead?
The unprecedented challenges caused by Covid-19 have perhaps provided the greatest test of leadership in my social work career. The variables have been unending, the changes and shifts in Government guidance, and our internal responses have been a movable feast. In all of this I have sought to ensure that we focus on children and families, whilst keeping our workers safe. I have also sought to provide strength and clarity to enable my managers and workers to feel safe and secure – to ‘hold’ my service. Above all, I have tried to model, and enable compassion and kindness to make it the bedrock of how we operate.
I have learnt that when there is no direction or understanding of what we should do with the latest unknown; complex decision making is best guided by values, ethics and principles. I prioritise being honest, authentic and listening to what my workers and families are telling me; recognising that there is no correct answer, and multiple view points, but seeking to provide clear and consistent answers because I am accountable as a leader.
Children, young people, and families are at the centre of all that we do, our job is to work alongside and with families, to listen to the voice of service users and to ensure they shape their own and our service. Covid-19 has certainly made this challenging, where social workers are working from home, and visits are ‘risk assessed’ so that some ‘visits’ are via video conferencing, some are in the garden, and some necessitate the wearing of PPE. The test of leadership is that we have created a culture that values relationships and the voice of the child. The challenges are balancing the bureaucracy of RAG rated (Red, amber, green) risk assessments, ensuring these are on file and regularly reviewed, with enabling the innovation and creativity of social workers, family support workers and their managers. How lucky I am to have such passionate committed and inspiring workers, who have held ‘participation meetings’ for children in our care via zoom, made videos with children living in foster care, dropped off ‘creative packs’ to families, and food parcels for care leavers. In their day-to-day work they have continued to build relationships, and to communicate via many different means to make meaningful connections.
Within the service we have faced many difficult challenges, PPE, family time, the worry about families that are struggling and concern about children that are invisible. Here the leadership task is to accept uncertainty and risk, and to weigh up the balance of risk to children against the risk to social workers, and others. An unenviable task, but one that needs to be ‘gripped’ and owned, in order to provide clarity and support and consistency across the service, this is our job as leaders, but boy has it been difficult. The feedback is that social workers have felt well supported and cared for, and that communication and expectation has been clear. However, we all recognise the impact on families, where we cannot provide the service we would like to, or the impact of parents not seeing their children. I have sought to ensure a positive caring and supportive climate, so that our children, care leavers and families experience the same.
We have needed to be agile, manage change and chaos and continue to learn and adapt. I have learnt that social workers are excellent at managing a crisis, just think of how they come together in teams to support each other in regular emergencies that make up social work, on a Friday afternoon for example. The whole service moved to working from home and started using Skype for meetings in a week, they were incredible. Their digital skills have exceeded expectations and are used to maintain social contacts within teams as well as with people and families, and in lots of innovative ways, but when it crashes it is so frustrating!
The people I directly manage have been brilliant, they have ‘stepped up to the mark’ and gone beyond. Covid-19 has meant that we have pulled together to really function well as a management team, they are passionate about doing the best for our workers and our service users, we are aligned and working together. Our performance data has significantly improved due to working from home, and the drop in referrals. However, we now have children coming into care in an emergency, and we struggle to support some families in crisis due to Covid-19 restrictions. It is frustrating to be unable to do the job we want to do.
Twelve weeks later, it is not so easy to sustain things. We are all tired and occasionally fractious. Some workers are at home with their children, trying to fit in home schooling, some have partners working from home too, and some are alone. All are desperately missing their colleagues. The leadership challenge is to promote and enable staff to work flexibly, to support them to work different hours, to give them clear permission to take breaks, and to act when they have had enough. My role is to really support their health and wellbeing to recognise the impact of Covid-19 on us all.
There is additional psychological ‘work’ required of us when we are using Skype in lots of meetings, we miss the space between, the space when we reflect and when we decompress. Staff are missing the day-to-day support of their colleagues, the informal peer support, the learning from each other and social chit chat. New workers have joined teams remotely, and some ASYEs have struggled. Staff, including those of us who are leaders, have had to dig deep and draw on our resilience and it is nearly spent. We are confronted by the fact that we are not social working as we would like, and we are facing our own fears, stresses, uncertainties, anxieties and exhaustion. Confusingly morale remains good, but the psychological impact is not to be underestimated.
As a leader I strive to ensure that we capture and learn from all the current innovation caused by this turbo charged change, help our staff to share their learning, to reflect on practice, but also give them permission to talk about how hard it is. This means being honest when I am having a difficult day, giving staff permission to be open, and I need to think about self leadership.
Good leadership entails taking care of yourself, knowing when you need a break, ensuring you book leave, and varying your calendar so there are different activities within it. We need self-compassion and empathy and as a leader I try to model how to be, to give permission to our staff to find things hard, and to help them deal with the rapid changes.
‘Black Lives Matter’, and the inequalities exposed by the excess BAME deaths due to Covid-19, challenge us to reflect on our practice. As a leader I have a responsibility to ensure that racism and its impact on Black workers and Black children and families, is put on the table. I try to model a culture where there can be constructive discussion, and we identify specific actions for ourselves and the organisation. This is not an easy task for workers it makes them feel uncomfortable.
The current Covid-19 challenges are not going away anytime soon and our next leadership challenge will be sustaining our teams and service over time, and working at adapting to the new ways of working and being.
Henry Kissinger said “The historic challenge for leaders is to manage the crisis while building the future.” We are in the process of introducing a strengths based model of social work practice, and social workers are up for it, as leaders we need to continue to motivate and inspire, and aspire to better practice, and better outcomes.
Haworth, Miller & Schaub in ‘Leadership in Social Work’ (2018) offer a definition of social work leadership: “the use of professional credibility, competence and connections to positively influence others in response to the interests and aspirations of people and families” which I think quite accurately describes my social work leadership. They go on to say. “Achieved through coproduction with communities, collaboration with other professionals, and constructive conflict of injustice and inequality, it can be demonstrated through formal roles and informal encouragement of colleagues.” This latter part is more difficult, I currently collaborate with other professionals and seek to challenge inequality and injustice. My personal leadership goal is to step up my leadership from one which places children young people and families at the centre of all we do and participation that aims to shape our services, towards a more stretching target to move to real co-design and coproduction with communities. I would like to incorporate a whole systems approach, to influence the wider system for children and families. This is my next leadership challenge.
Covid-19 despite its disruption, its many difficulties, may yet provide an opportunity to make significant change and lead to new and better ways of working.
Mandy Williams is Head of Children’s Social Care for Central Lancashire, Lancashire County Council. These are her personal reflections
Haworth, S., Miller, R., & Schaub, J. (2018). Leadership in social work. Available at: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/41d1/7fa68f5b6eee16fcd9e87b367b55c70be9dd.pdf