Opportunities and challenges arising from the Covid-19 pandemic for the social services workforce

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a stress test of enormous proportions for the social services workforce. With the national spotlight on them, the challenges of coping with an increased workload coupled with a shrinking budget, were brought to light. At the 28th European social services Conference (ESSC), Shereen Hussein, Professor of Health and Social Care Policy at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; Giovanni Cabona, Councillor of the Italian National Council of Social Workers, and Karin Christiansen, Senior Associate Professor and Leader of Research at the Research and Development Centre for Health and Welfare Technology in Denmark discussed these challenges, while also looking beyond the crisis to see what opportunities may be going forward.

Addressing the negative impact of Covid-19 on the long-term care workforce

Ms Hussein painted a worrisome picture regarding the likely outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic for the social care workforce. Despite new workers being attracted to the sector due in part to high unemployment rates, she said the retention of these new recruits could be hindered by unsatisfactory working conditions. Meanwhile, the existing workforce felt inadequately supported during Covid in terms of safety, training and supply of personal protective equipment. In the UK specifically, Brexit putting a stop to the freedom of movement with EU countries adds additional pressure to an already stretched workforce that is heavily dependent on migrant workers.

As Ms Hussein stated, although “Covid has put long-term care in general at the heart and centre of the political debate,” but the policy reforms needed to create positive working conditions have been delayed in the past and are not looking promising now either. These reforms would not only mean better pay, but also improve job quality through increased regulation as well as the expansion of formal services. If implemented effectively, these developments will bring benefits to both users and their carers.

Cultivating joint crisis responses across sectors

In times of crisis, siloed ways of working can slow down getting help to people who need it urgently. We learned from Mr Cabona about how local social services in Italy developed innovative joint strategies, sometimes with the use of digital technologies, to be able to respond quickly during the health emergency.

Networks consisting of national health services, local and regional social services, third sector, voluntary organisations, sports or entertainment associations, local shopkeepers and large distribution companies were built from scratch, giving social services the data needed to identify households in difficulty and distribute resources rapidly.

Bureaucratic red-tape barriers to obtaining emergency services were temporarily paused, to allow for a more efficient delivery of emergency care. During the pandemic, workers across all sectors understood that they needed to look beyond their professional boundaries to address citizens’ needs, even when they are not strictly related to their own area of work. This lesson is the key to resilience for future crises, Mr Cabona explained.

Using digital tools to support the workforce

One side-effect of the pandemic has been the further integration of digital technologies in our personal and working lives. Ms Christiansen explored the future possibilities of artificial intelligence supplementing the work of humans in the social services sector. For example, algorithms which could be used in decision making, or robot carers.

However, Ms. Christiansen also raised the point that these new technologies also bring about ethical concerns. In order to ensure that the tools are created and utilised in a responsible manner, the end users must be included in the design process. Without their input and that of the professionals, there is a potential for exploitation due to biased programming.

One of the recommendations in the publication following ESN’s Working Group on Digitalisation was the importance of considering bias to develop ethical data and case management, especially where “big data’ is involved.

It is essential, therefore, that in the development of these new technologies, in particular when they are for vulnerable populations, a common language is used to make the design process as inclusive as possible.