Understanding the essential role of Social Services


There is increasing recognition of the importance of social services in Europe for the functioning of society, especially during crises. Indeed, during the pandemic several governments designated certain roles in care and support services as essential to ensure that workers could continue carrying out their duties. The closing round table at the at the European Social Services Conference  on 10 June will discuss the latest debates on relevant concepts and policy frameworks regarding the essential role of social services

New recognition for essential roles

Social, health and care services facilitate the functioning of society in normal times and in crises. During the Covid-19 pandemic, awareness of the roles and responsibilities of these services increased. Their contribution to meeting the needs of people in crisis helped maintain the resilience of societies through the challenging period of high infection rates and restrictions to social contacts and work arrangements.

Only a few EU Member States had official designation of essential services, or key public infrastructures, prior to the strike of the Covid-19 pandemic, and social services barely featured. However, broader developments took place in 2020 when societies needed assistance in adjusting to physical movement and contact restrictions. Essential worker lists were elaborated, with an aim to identify occupations or service areas of critical importance for society’s functioning and dealing with the burden of the pandemic. About one third of the Member States have established official lists of what they consider essential services or occupations, such as the KRITIS list in Germany; several countries created temporary lists and arrangements of such services (At present, Eurofound carries out a review of the national categorisations of the essential workers in the EU).

What concepts and which public services were found in the emerging lists? – Mostly, they included the critical technical and energy infrastructures, public utilities, as well as rescue services; some specified the digital infrastructures that are essential for functioning of many public services, including social security and social assistance. Beyond the technical infrastructures and utilities, certain healthcare services were often specified, which is understandable in the background of a public health crisis. Whereas there are no official lists to systematically regulate the ‘essential services’ in some countries like Denmark, it nevertheless applies concepts such as ‘critical function’ in the context of access to health and provision of care. Reportedly, local authorities could consider a rehabilitation as a critical function, since the absence of rehabilitation for a person in need, for example for an elderly person with a hip fracture, can mean that a person will irreparably lose a functional ability. Thus a concept of critical function is broader than merely addressing ‘acute’ or ‘life-critical’ cases. However, some inherent challenges for changing the de facto status of social and care services from auxiliary to essential remain. By way of example, one can recall that the health systems have been a more attractive sphere of employment for nurses than care, and it remains a challenge for meeting the labour shortages in the latter.

Apart from the attempts to define the status of particular services and occupations for crises, the pandemic bonuses were used in a sign of recognition to the de facto contribution of various service worker categories. Such bonuses were agreed and paid as early as spring 2020 in some countries and sectors (see COVID-19 EU PolicyWatch) but proved lagging until now in some others (such as in Ireland).

Overdue organisational innovation

At present, many public services are looking for ways to position themselves in the emerging policy discourses – seeking recognition as essential services, participating in the digital transformation and supporting people with whom they work to be part of the green transition.

Stronger and technologically backed-up social services will be essential in advancing Social Europe in a range of ways beyond direct welfare management. Social services have a role to play in assisting various groups to access the key public utilities, which in the 21st century include digital communications. Essential services listed in the Principle 20 of the European Pillar of Social Rights (digital communications, financial services, energy services, public transport, as well as water and sanitation), are already highly digitalised – such as exemplified by ticketing systems in public transport or modes of using financial services. Moreover, the advancing digitalisation of administrative services, including in relation to social security and benefits, present a challenge for their users to stay up-to-date and sufficiently skilled to use the effective channels for raising their needs and receiving support. Schemes for referencing the clients towards appropriate assistance, training or peer support are being worked out at present. For instance, in France since 2021, Aidants Connect platform enables temporary mandate for authorised professionals to carry out formalities on behalf of persons lacking digital literacy (e.g. fill in forms for admin services or social welfare).  However, enhancing digital infrastructure and technical equipment alone did not fully address challenges to social services during the pandemic. Organisational innovation is also necessary, for instance, in effective inclusion of the social services staff to training, and in improving schemes for receiving volunteer support to essential services in times of crises – such as in helping the people with care needs during the pandemic, or in organising the arrival and settlement of Ukrainian refugees presently.

A commitment to fairness

The current challenges to the supply and the rocketing costs of energy add another dimension in assessing vulnerabilities and sources for resilience in the EU. The EU has a commitment to make the green transition socially fair, and therefore regional restructuring and assistance to re-skill the workers affected have been highlighted. In a longer term, there is also a room to reconsider how public services such as transport and energy are provided – so that they help both in reducing energy dependence and in enabling people with lower incomes or care needs to lead decent lives. In a shorter term though, the range of workers providing social assistance will likely have to help their target groups in facing the risks of utility arrears and indebtedness. European Commission is expected to report on access to essential services in autumn 2022: it could draw the attention to the barriers as well as existing policies to assist vulnerable groups in accessing services listed in Principle 20 of the EPSR– a topic on which Eurofound is preparing a working paper, too.

Higher visibility for social services

The pandemic and the need to plan the recovery well has earned a higher visibility for the social services sector. As a new development, creating opportunities for social dialogue of this sector at European level is now in plans. Currently, there are  43 European sectoral social dialogue committees that bring together the social partners from the EU Member States.  THe social services sector was not among them so far, even though some activities may have opportunities to channel their voice via other sectoral organisations. In any arrangement, the dialogue between social partners across the EU and engagement in debate at European level is an important block for achieving successful post-pandemic recovery. Also, it is an essential tool in finding optimal ways for addressing the long-standing challenges for the social services sector, such as improving working conditions, ensuring upskilling as well as modernising the delivery of services. Potentially, it is also a forum that can contribute to detailing and resourcing the essential functions within the social services sector.


Dubois H. (2022), Forthcoming European Care Strategy must look towards the future

Eurofound (2022),  COVID-19 EU PolicyWatch database

Eurofound (2021), Industrial relations landscape in Europe: Central government administration, education, human health, local and regional government, and social services sectors

Molinuevo D. (2020), Now is the time for the digital transformation of social services