TMCnet Feature
January 26, 2021

Exploring the Top Ways COVID-19 is Changing Social Work



COVID-19 has affected every corner of the world. But in some industries, the reverberations are more profound. This is certainly the case when you look at social work. And understanding how this pandemic has impacted various elements of the field will give us all a clearer picture of what the future holds.



No Turning Back: New Trends in Social Work

To say that the world of social work will never be the same is really a colossal understatement. Things have changed so rapidly and foundationally that we’ll eventually look at everything in a B.C. and A.C. context (before coronavirus and after coronavirus).

What started as a physical health crisis has turned into a social crisis – one that’s impacting every single area of our lives. This includes health, finances, relationships, and the unique relationships between each of these facets.

Let’s explore some of these trends in greater detail:

1. Increased Versatility and Mobility

The social work industry, as a whole, moves at a slower pace in mid-January. Its ability to adapt and evolve is underpinned by glacial-like regulations that traditionally keep well-intended social workers from providing the quality of care their constituents need. But the COVID-19 pandemic has changed all of this.

In response to the virus and subsequent shutdowns, the social work industry had no choice but to adapt. And while it hasn’t been perfect at each step of the way, there has been faster evolution in the past 12 months than there was in the last several years combined.

“The adaptations made by state social work regulatory boards represent one key example,” writes Dr. Jay Miller, Dean, Dorothy A. Miller Research Professor in Social Work Education. “Rightfully so, most states have promulgated emergency guidelines to ensure that social workers could continue to deliver services. Namely, states enacted telehealth regulations as a mechanism to ensure continuity of care.”

In the months following the initial coronavirus-fueled shutdowns in March 2020, searches for telehealth services increased by as much as 2400 percent on Google (News - Alert) – a clear sign of the need and desire for remote health services. And while the virus will eventually retreat, the landscape has been fundamentally and permanently changed forever.

2. New Expectation Surrounding “Meeting”

In many ways, the definition of what it means to “meet” with someone has evolved. Face-to-face is no longer practical, desired, or realistic. In many cases, meeting with an individual, patient, or co-worker is now relegated to video conferencing software.

Many case workers have conducted virtual home visits and other remote points of contact over the past several months – something that has created both concern and opportunity.

On the concern side of things, there are justified fears that many victims – including those experiencing child abuse and domestic abuse – are now facing increased exposure to their abusers as a result of being locked down in their homes.

Reuters (News - Alert) reported that calls and text messages to the 24-hour Childhelp Hotline for abuse were up roughly 10 percent through the first few days of March 2020. This volume has stayed elevated for much of the past year.

On the opportunity side of things, organizations like the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) has been able to enhance its ability to reach more people through virtual conferences and webinars (as opposed to the traditional physical meetings).

As IFSW explains, “The profession at the global level has also changed. From a pre-pandemic culture of arranging face-to-face meetings, which created cost and travel barriers for many, we have rapidly and successfully moved to online ways of working far more consistent with our professional value of inclusiveness.”

It would not be a surprise if this latter trend becomes a permanent fixture. Because while there’s value in meeting in person, it’s much more cost-effective for events like this to be held online. Not only that, but organizations are able to attract an exponentially larger audience.

3. Creative Approaches to Monitoring At-Risk Individuals

The need for safe and secure observation of social work sessions has become more important than ever. In response, many social work departments and organizations around the country have adapted to new technologies.

The VALT software from Intelligent Video Solutions is one such technology. It’s designed to help social workers record and observe sessions in a simple and safe fashion – allowing for remote observation and interviews in situations where it isn’t safe to have a lot of people in the same room together.

It’ll be interesting to watch as new and creative approaches for monitoring at-risk individuals continue to evolve in the coming months and years.

4. Re-Emergence of Community-Centered Approach

One of the more interesting trends of the last year has been the increased emphasis and re-emergence of a community-centered approach to social work.

“Over recent years, the emphasis on individual need has forced many social workers to abandon community work. But what has happened in recent months has shown the importance of working more at the community level,” IFSW notes. “Now these networks have been created, we need to work to sustain them and focus more on the village, the locality, and maintain these relationships.”

What was once a focus of the global social work movement had waned in recent decades. But this pandemic has emphasized the importance of long-term development and relationships (not just short-term stopgaps).

What Does the Future Hold?

It’s not clear what the next six months, six years, or six decades hold for social work. But this much we do know: Things are changing, and – in many cases – it’s for the better. The broken methodologies of yesteryear are being re-imagined through a unique lens, and much-needed rehabilitation of the system is taking place.

Candidly, this pandemic has exposed the fragility of nearly every aspect of society. Healthcare and educational systems are but a few examples of those pushed to the brink by COVID-19,” Dr. Miller writes. “This situation has laid bare racial, gender, generational, class—and a host of other political and cultural—chasms in responding to crises. It has revealed pre-existing conditions—from micro to meta—that contributed to and intensified the effects of inequities.”

If COVID-19 has done anything for this industry, it’s revealed that the past way of doing things is no longer sufficient. Growth looks like evolving our approach and adapting it to a more modern and applicable version that serves communities well by keeping them safer – mentally, physically, and relationally.



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