How social workers held the community together during the pandemic

How social workers held the community together during the pandemic

This feature was created in partnership with Charles Sturt University, which has supported the launch of our new section, Women’s Health News, and has a huge range of study options available for those interesting in exploring new careers and opportunities.

If there was ever any doubt about the importance of social workers in Australia, COVID-19 has set the record straight. In many instances, as communities were pushed to the brink in 2020, Australia’s 20,000 social workers were left to pick up the pieces.

At the same time, demand for social workers has grown exponentially, and it’s a trend that is unlikely to subside any time soon. By 2024 Save Social Work Australia estimates that the need for social workers will increase by 29 per cent. 

Dr Belinda Cash, Senior Lecturer, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, at Charles Sturt University says dealing with difficult situations is the bread and butter of social workers.

“As social workers, we are often dealing with terrible things happening…so in a way we really hit our stride when things like this happen.”

The pandemic has given society a better understanding of the important role that social workers play, Belinda says. “There has been a whole lot of people who have not typically needed these services who have, for the first time, found themselves in need of extra support. Jobs are going, it has shaken up the security of families and how they pay for the necessities, like food and rent.”

Belinda, who specialises in ageing and mental health, says in many respects the pandemic could not have come at a worse time. Australians were “already strung out” and stressed by the devastating summer bushfires when the pandemic hit in March, she says.

2020 has been especially stressful for the aged, Belinda says. Especially around the messaging of the pandemic – that COVID-19 “only kills older people” and that somehow their lives were less valuable than younger people.

“Ageism was already happening…however it happened so much more during the pandemic. It was horrific to watch.

“Imagine if you constantly heard people talking about the value of your life like that –  that your life was not as valuable as the economy?”

There were many unforeseen benefits of the pandemic that Belinda hopes will continue to have an impact on society in the future. For example, the additional resources and attention given to peoples’ well-being and mental health.

“I think we had a lot more open and honest conversations about isolation and mental health, which has been a really positive thing,” Belinda says. “People talk about looking forward to ‘getting back to normal’, but I really can keep some of these changes can continue.”

From a personal perspective, Belinda, found the pandemic challenging. Maintaining full-time work at the university, she also had to supervise her 13-year-old twins with home learning.

“At one point, I had my twins at home, two rescue pups, and I was facilitating a week-long counselling skills intensive program online,” she says. “The program is usually held on-site, and if you had told me I would be doing that 12 months ago, I would have said that there is no way that would be possible!”

There have been many challenges for people and social workers, especially around physical distancing and not being able to interact with people in the same, face-to-face way. For example, children who might have been monitored at school can’t be cared for in the same way, a woman who is experiencing family violence can’t be supported at work or in the community are not as visible.

Challenges around physical distancing, however, forced social workers to “get creative” with how they interact with people. In addition to things like Telehealth, family sessions, for example, might have been held outdoors at a park, volunteer phone programs for older people increased and iPads were widely used by aged-care residents to contact their families.”

Amanda Lee, a social worker with 20 years’ experience in a homelessness support organisation, found the pandemic difficult to manage from a practicality perspective.

For disadvantaged people, many of whom are homeless or on the brink of homelessness, contact via Zoom or online is not possible.  “Some of these people do not even have access to a mobile phone, so contacting them was very difficult.”

Amanda says while, social workers were granted permission to enter the hotels that some homeless clients were living in, there were many limitations – such as rigid time limits and huge restrictions in personal interaction.

“I often felt a bit powerless not being able to get out there. I was home schooling two children and attempting to work. There are only so many conversations you can have – such as with a registered sex offender – with two kids doing home school in the room with you,” she says.

Amanda, who has recently started a new job working for ASCO in prisoner reform, says her experience of people living in poverty, or on the brink of poverty, was complex. In many ways they could be separated into two distinct groups:  those who had experienced financial hardship as a direct result of the pandemic and those already experiencing poverty.

“I had calls from people like airline pilots, who always had access to good wages, could not afford to pay off their debts because of the pandemic and they hadn’t told their partners because they were ashamed,” she said.

“They needed guidance about what to do next. They’d never been in this situation before.”

Many of Amanda’s homeless clients in Melbourne fared “very well” over lockdown, with the Victorian Government’s $150 million plan to but around 2,000 people “sleeping rough” into hotels during the pandemic. The security and safety problems of living rough were removed, food was provided and conditions were much better for them. There additional issues for drug addicted clients – such as a national shortage of illicit drugs, when overseas flights were cancelled. 

Amanda says there will only continue to be more need for social workers, particularly following COVID-19 and the economic and social impact of the pandemic. It’s a job of passion, rather than money, but something she wouldn’t change.

“You meet all kinds of people every day and I really do love it,” she says. “It is a job where you can make a real difference – even with things that might seem minor to you, but are huge for people in need. It’s a great job in many ways.”

 A picture of future social work

The need for social workers has never been greater. However, earlier this year Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan’s initial proposal to double the cost of studying social work at university, and reduce Government contributions by 91 per cent, put the industry’s future in doubt.

Industry lobbying eventually made a difference, with the Government re-classifying social work as Allied Health. The decision improves affordability of social work degree, and government contributions.

As peoples’ awareness of social work and its crucial function grows, more countries are publicly recognising the role that social workers are continuing to play during the pandemic. In Scotland its Government has just announced that every NHS and social care worker will receive a 500 pound “thank you” for their service during the pandemic.

If you’re rethinking your career and considering further study, you can check out Charles Sturt University’s post graduate options here.

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