Andrew Cooper is a social worker and Professor of Social Work at the Tavistock Centre in London. He reflects on the experience of social care workers and managers during the pandemic, informed by his work facilitating reflective groups for frontline social care workers and managers, and meeting with experienced social workers as part of the training programmes he works on.
Hello, my name is Andrew Cooper. I work as a social worker and Professor of Social Work at the Tavistock Centre in London, where I also practise as a Family Therapist.
During the pandemic I’ve been facilitating reflective groups for frontline social care workers and managers, and meeting with experienced social workers every day as part of the training programmes I work on.
This is an unbelievably hard time. One thing that social care workers say a lot is how unrecognised they feel their contribution is at the moment. All the media and public attention is on the nurses and doctors, the crises inside the hospitals. It’s as though social care in all its forms is invisible, out of mind, and I sense this is damaging people’s morale, at a time when they are working so hard, taking risks with their own lives, putting their own families at risk and coping with death on a daily basis.
At worst it seems to be true that social care staff, post discharge facilities, and residential homes are once again a kind of dumping ground for the hospital system as it rushes frantically to create capacity for the inflow of terribly ill people. The inter-dependence of the two systems of care is forgotten, expelled from mind; discharged patients are often scattered far and wide as capacity in the care system itself is overwhelmed. I’ve heard social workers describe how they can’t keep track of patients and service users’ movements, and so it’s impossible to do a good job. The hospitals need social care and can’t function without you, but at present there are so many critically ill people that all attention is turned on them.
Those of you working with children at risk and vulnerable adults often can’t come close enough to them to know how things really are inside the home or placement. This is leaving people with a burden of worry and anxiety. Referrals are on the rise everywhere. I heard a CAMHs manager speak about the huge increase in eating disorders among young women, the lack of options for treatment, but also how children’s wards have been taken over to accommodate Covid patients. Again all this is somehow ‘out of mind’ in the public domain.
People everywhere are angrier at the moment I think. Anxious, worried and bereaved families of service users will often project their feelings at people like you. They often feel helpless, and may leave you feeling the same.
Our own managers and organisations are struggling too. Everywhere, I pick up a feeling that staff don’t feel ‘held in mind’ in the way they might have been a few months ago; under intense pressure we can all close down, shut off from the needs of others around us, depleted as we are by our work which ironically is all about giving out to others, listening, understanding, working in their interests. Many people are describing symptoms of burnout, and the most distressing of these is when they realise with a kind of horror that they’ve stopped feeling as though they care any more. ‘But that’s not me’ they say, and of course it isn’t because we all came into this work because we find fulfilment in the task of caring. It’s just the place our minds and bodies end up in when we’ve been overextended for too long and need some care ourselves.
Through all this I see and hear social care staff showing amazing resilience, determination, commitment, loyalty, dedication. There isn’t enough recognition or appreciation of your essential contribution, but everyone should remember to feel proud, and to help one another hang onto the fact that you are continuing to behave professionally and compassionately in the face of it all. If there are heroes in this terrible time, there are so many more unsung heroes.
So what can you do to help yourself, and others, as we wait and hope for relief? This series of podcasts provides all sorts of good ideas for looking after yourself individually. But you can also join together with your colleagues. A group of home working social care staff I was supporting, who were finding the isolation, the lack of anyone to share anxieties with or get advice from about the constant policy changes very difficult, decided to organise their own weekly check in online for an hour. In the office environment we rely on each other all the time for ideas, support, thinking, and comfort. The workers approached their manager for permission to meet within working hours and she readily agreed.
We can hold each other in mind in an active way in our teams and groups. This is happening in all sorts of ways all over the country in communities, workplaces, streets. Mutual aid is springing up to fill the gap left by our struggling professional and organisational systems. People are organising themselves rather than waiting for a response from further up their hierarchies.
And we can remember to say thank you to one another, as often as possible. It’s a way of making other people’s small acts of giving and compassion meaningful, recognising one another’s achievements and each others’ distress, appreciating one another. These are some small, everyday gestures that can make all the difference in this horrible period.
I wish you all well. I’m proud to be a social care worker, and proud and moved by so much of what I’ve witnessed lately.
Thank you for listening.