We are all too aware of the pressures COVID-19 has placed on our health-care system and front-line workers. Among those dedicated, self-sacrificing, hard-working professionals are the glue that holds the system together – social workers. Two years into the pandemic, the demand for social workers in health care has never been greater.
Social workers are the largest providers of mental-health supports in Canada. As advocates supporting patients and families within hospitals, communities, long-term care homes and other human service sectors, social workers have always been an essential part of the health-care model. Social workers add value by addressing the psychosocial factors of illness such as poverty, housing and homelessness, mental health and addictions, aging and cognitive impairment, caregiver burnout and more.
Social workers are in critical demand as part of the pandemic response and in managing its devastating impacts. They link patients to a wide range of health and social supports and improve patient flow; they reduce unnecessary emergency room visits, admissions and overall length-of-stay in hospitals. The social worker is an essential member of the interprofessional team and contributes to better health outcomes for patients and a reduction in health-care spending – all the while maintaining patient-centred care.
Yet, the role of social work is at risk.
The pandemic has forced social workers to take on increasingly large and complex caseloads and support patients with few resources in a climate of lengthy waitlists and limited time. They have been redeployed to new roles and skill sets, often outside their expertise or training. This has contributed to higher rates of burnout, compassion fatigue and moral distress.
Yet, in only select settings and specific circumstances were social workers awarded the designation of “essential” and offered pandemic pay. While a slight increase in pay is certainly helpful, it highlights which professions our government values. Leaving out many social workers instilled a feeling of under-appreciation across the profession.
A sense of duty and compassion have led social workers to push harder and work longer, often past the point of burnout.
As headlines highlight COVID-19 cases and issue warnings of new variants, and as health-care staff continue to contract the virus and require time for self-isolation and recovery, the shortage of health-care workers is growing. Heavy workloads and stressful work environments impact all health-care workers, including social workers. However, social workers typically are not afforded the opportunity to have an additional social worker fill in when they are absent; rather, it is common practice to have an existing social worker cover two caseloads. With many overwhelmed and burnt-out health-care workers joining the “great resignation,” social workers with already heavy caseloads are covering the heavy caseload of another.
The significant societal needs during the pandemic, and the disproportionate impacts on marginalized and disadvantaged individuals, have emphasized the need for social workers to support and advocate for patients and to ensure that the most vulnerable are well cared for. This sense of duty and compassion have led social workers to push harder and work longer, often past the point of burnout. To understand this dedication, one needs to look no further than this video of an ICU social worker snowshoeing to work in a storm to show up for her patients and coworkers.
Now, two years into the pandemic, the situation is not sustainable. If the status quo continues, social workers will need to take leaves of absence or leave health care altogether, increasing the workloads of others even further. Without social workers, our patients, health-care teams and our health-care system itself will suffer.
Social workers deserve to be recognized, appreciated, celebrated and valued for the critical psychosocial services they provide. This may be one of the simplest ways to turn the tide of resignations. As social work continues to be at the forefront of delivering health-care services, additional hires are needed now to alleviate pressures. As well, social workers should be strategically deployed to key positions, including leadership and policymaking, to ensure that we set the stage for a system that recognizes, enables and supports their valuable role.
The first week of March every year marks Social Work Week. This year’s theme highlights that social workers are needed now more than ever to enable and accelerate access to mental health support within the health-care system and across many other settings. This week, and always, the valuable and essential role of social workers deserves to be celebrated.