A year on since society was asked to stay home, social workers continued to visit children and young people.
Sonia Mahay is the Service Manager for the Safeguarding and Exploitation Team at the City of Wolverhampton Council. Here she shares some of the challenges of connecting with children and families as well as colleagues during the pandemic, and her tips for maintaining wellbeing while working remotely.
Before qualifying as a social worker in 2014, I spent time volunteering with homeless families and domestic abuse victims. I also worked in supported accommodation for teenage parents. The experiences I had here and in my own life led me to apply for a social work course. I wanted to make a difference in a profession that promotes social change, social cohesion and the empowerment and liberation of people.
Being a social worker during the pandemic
The impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) differs for each of us. For me, the absence of physical human connection has been a real challenge. The nature of our world means we work in some challenging circumstances and the absence of physical human connection can sometimes compound how that feels. You can send a virtual hug but it’s not the same as a ‘cuppa’ and face-to-face debrief.
From talking to my colleagues, some people find themselves becoming used to the way that we are working and quite like some aspects. Some have more contact with young people than ever before, as young people quite like phone and video calls in between face-to-face visits.
Some people have liked not rushing around to get from one meeting to the next and working with partner agencies can be easier as people are more available virtually. On the other hand, some are experiencing screen-time fatigue, as lots of meetings are all now virtual and these can be back-to-back. Others are spending more time with their own families and finding a better work life balance, as there is greater flexibly in our work.
This time round, there’s certainly a feeling that coronavirus is much closer to home. More colleagues, family, friends and people that we know have had COVID-19, experienced bereavement and felt the impact on their own mental health.
There have been real challenges and anxieties about visiting homes, working from home, juggling childcare and home schooling. Colleagues have supported each other by keeping in touch with one another, through regular team catch-ups and team meetings.
In Wolverhampton, our approach to working from home is flexible. Additional equipment is available to those who need it, and the office space can be used when required. There is clear guidance to support the use of PPE, which is available to social workers visiting children and families.
Bringing the workforce together
Our focus on wellbeing at the City of Wolverhampton Council varies from wellbeing webinars, yoga sessions to chatty virtual cafes. I am a part of the wellbeing strategic group and we develop new initiatives and resources to promote staff wellbeing.
We have continued with training and CPD opportunities virtually, as well as hosting social work briefings regularly to bring the workforce together with key updates from our Director of Children’s Services (DCS). Our DCS has a regular newsletter called Round Up, which goes out to all colleagues in the Children and Young People’s Service, detailing good practice and boosting morale.
We also have a Stay Safe, Be Kind campaign and wellbeing hub which has some useful information on looking after your mental health and wellbeing. The best advice I can share is to be kind. Kindness goes a long way - people always remember how you make them feel not necessarily what you say.
It’s been a year since we started working from home and I’ve worked with some people for many months who I have never met in person. What feels different to last year is that we have policies in place in respect of COVID-19 and our operational model is clear. I feel reassured that no matter what happens in the coming months we will continue to offer a service to children, young people and families within Wolverhampton.
Taking care of yourself first
Taking care of others is innate to social work, but your wellbeing is so important because to be able to take care of others, you have to first take care of yourself.
My tips for social workers working from home are:
Take annual leave regularly - it’s not negotiable!
Given that your home is now your workspace, I have learnt that it is really important to switch off and take some leave. I was reluctant at the start to take leave as I wanted to save this for when I could do something more. What I have learnt is that you need to rest and give yourself a chance to reset, this could mean visiting the local park or going for a take-away coffee.
Book lunch into your calendar daily
Some useful tips I have found, and am still working on, are booking lunch in my calendar every day and taking breaks. My wonderful manager keeps me in check to take some ‘me time’.
Carve out time to socialise
We have been doing quizzes and bingo in our team meetings, so I would say have some fun! We have check-ins too; these are a great way to talk to each other about other things than work and promotes connection.