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Henglien Lisa Chen
Lecturer in Social Work, University of Sussex, England

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Co-authors: Ana Ferreira Farinha, Tara Mcveigh, Nadia Giorgi, Jessica Plumstead, Jodie Ruth, Aoife Cotter, Victoria Goldsmith, Kayleigh Fahey and Anna Ilicic

The challenges and opportunities of sustaining professional development during the COVID pandemic: the experiences of student social workers of placement in England

Social work courses in England normally consist of 50% practice learning (e.g. 70-day and 100-day placements and 30-day practice workshops) and 50% academic learning. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the regulator, Social Work England (2020), provided a directive for individual social work education providers to make decisions about adjustments to their placement provision (e.g. continued, shortened, suspended or replaced) on a cohort-by-cohort basis. This contributed to various changes in social work education and placement arrangements which are well-documented by Social Work England (2021). Beesley and Devonald (2020) reflected on how Leeds Beckett University had to terminate and shorten their first and final social work placements respectively. Hatton et al. (2021) researched their students’ experience of virtual-placement-learning. None of this was published by students whose training for qualified practice in England had been impacted. It is in this vein that we, with support from our academic tutor, authored this article as a group of newly qualified social workers to share our experience of social work qualifying training during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Covid-19 lockdown resulted in all of our teaching (inc. practice workshops) being delivered virtually. Our first placement – 70-day – was paused at the beginning of the Covid lockdown and some teaching brought forward while the university was exploring options for placement arrangements with local partners. We were expected to complete the final placement – 100-day – in full. Furthermore we were expected to complete the rest of the first placement days in our final placement. Within the three-year social work qualifying course, half of our course learning was affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. This article stresses that the completion of the social work course during the Covid-19 pandemic not only challenged our face-to-face practice confidence and mental wellbeing, but required an ability to be creative, proactive and resilient during a crisis. We make some suggestions for educators to consider when supporting social work students in continuing their academic and professional development.

Method and methodology

Semi-structured qualitative interviews were conducted virtually via Zoom or MS Teams between July and August when we completed our social work courses. Eight of us were interviewed, and one other interview was harvested from a parallel research project with highly relevant content. Our placements involved children (3 out of 9) and adults (6 out of 9) in local authorities (7 out of 9), hospitals (1 out of 9) and charities (1 out of 9). Nearly all placements were completed remotely and in-person with one completed entirely in-person.

The interviews was led by two of us in order to capture our experiences of learning to be a social worker in a pandemic. Those of us leading interviews informed interviewees of their need to give informed consent and right of withdrawal. Further, we offered the choices of anonymity. As result, a pseudonym under a person ’s quote who wanted to be anonymised were applied during the data sorting and in this publication. The interview focused on reflecting our placement conditions, placement learning experiences, professional development, social work education and overall wellbeing when completing our placements. The data obtained from the nine interviews were organised thematically with discrepancies identified and analysed (Guest, et al., 2011).

Findings and discussions

The emerging themes include: (1) the challenges of remote working and physical removal from our placement offices and university setting, (2) mental wellbeing and coping mechanisms, and (3) the support from the university and the placements.

The challenges of remote learning and practice

Like qualified social workers, our placement practice arrangements were under Public Health and Safety requirements which included limited face-to-face contact subject to Covid risk assessment procedures, symptom checks and mandatory use of Personal Protective Equipment (e.g. facial masks, medical gloves and hand sanitizers). Restricted office attendance with a desk rota and working from home were the default practice. All of our visits to clients occurred only when necessary. This required us to demonstrate our professional judgement and reasoning that the visit was critical in order to gain each line manager ’s permission.

However, the inability to visit people in their homes regularly and being limited to remote contact with clients meant that we developed our professional judgement through limited insight into a client ’s environment and/or body language. This aligns with other experiences in human services professions, e.g., mental healthcare, in which clients and clinicians both had mixed experiences of remote support making a new therapeutic alliance and accurate assessment particularly difficult (Liberati et al., 2021). Consequently, decreased confidence in our professional judgment based on remote engagement with clients was widely felt:

“(...) I couldn't get a clear picture of people's actual situation because I ’m chatting to them on the phone. I can't really build up the same kind of rapport with somebody as I can when I ’m meeting them in person and I don't get the same body language, facial expressions, and so I think remote working did have quite an impact (...)”
Bob

Furthermore, not being able to work in the office as much as we would normally, could restrict opportunities for effective team learning and relationship-building. This was because, firstly, we couldn ’t seek advice from colleagues in the first instance when a question was raised. Secondly, the opportunities for shadowing whereby we could learn from observing social work practice from experienced social workers were significantly reduced. Thirdly, it was very difficult in the early part of the placement to work with, and to seek advice from, colleagues who we had neither met nor built a working relationship. The barriers identified, lead to our increased anxiety around our capability and understanding of our role, as Mary illustrated:

“I think the main impact for me was isolation. I am a practical learner, I like learning from speaking to people, shadowing and I missed a lot of that during my placement and just being on my own not really knowing many people and finding it a little bit difficult to reach out because I don't really know people”
Mary

Similarly, the majority of us disliked our virtual academic teaching and missed the richer learning experiences of interaction in face-to-face lectures and the ability to ask questions when we did not understand. Many of us also missed having the opportunity for discussions with fellow students as we would have done during the breaks in teaching at university. Lack of interaction with other students could made us feel quite alone because we had little idea what the other students were experiencing whilst on placement and how they were. When we were given the virtual space to speak to other students about how things were going, we found this to be an overwhelmingly positive experience for us as we had an opportunity to offload about all the stresses we were coping with.

Mental Wellbeing and Coping Mechanisms

Most of us have shared experiences of how our health and mental wellbeing were detrimentally impacted through completing our social work degree during the COVID-19 pandemic. The main compounding factors of this seemed to be social isolation, overwhelming workload and working from home. These factors led to many of us feeling stressed, tired, isolated and lonely.

In addition to the virtual learning at the university restricting peer support, many of us were not able to see our friends and family due to social distancing guidance. The loss of our support network had a detrimental impact on our mental wellbeing. This is supported by Ruta et al. (2021) whose study suggested, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, that social isolation had a negative impact on people ’s psychological wellbeing. Díaz-Jiménez et al. (2020) further highlight the impact of the pandemic on social work students ’ anxiety levels, finding that the pressures of the pandemic caused them to rise, which echoes our experience. All of us spoke about the stress we experienced during this time, some even referring to feeling ‘burned out ’ and ‘having a mental breakdown ’. Many of us felt that the high levels of stress were caused by having numerous competing demands which severely reduced our free time and made us unable to ‘switch off ’:

“Towards the end (of the course), I wasn't taking care of myself as much as I felt like I should, because I felt really burned out by everything. I feel like it was so much more intense like, having to work from home, learning on your own, as opposed to with all the people on the placement and at the university. And so I started just getting really, really, tired and then obviously having to do a dissertation at the same time. You just felt like that was never really any break”.
Nadia

There was a collective view that the academic workload combined with placement demands was unmanageable. Although the university introduced a ‘no detriment ’ approach to marking based on the average mark achieved in a semester, the amount of academic workload remained unchanged and we were required to complete additional placement days to replace those lost to isolation caused by Covid-19. In addition, for those who needed mental wellbeing support, there was a lack of available and accessible services for social work students at the university. Therefore, there was a sense of us feeling that the university ‘wasn ’t there for us ’.

A few of us also spoke about how remote working caused the boundaries between work and home life to blur, which meant that the emotional impact of social work practice often came home, which made it difficult to switch off after a difficult day. This meant that placement work easily got ‘stuck in our head ’ when working from home as it is quite solitary and we were without colleagues to chat with. This could be further challenging for those with family caring responsibilities, as illustrated by Jodie:

“I had kind of thought that I was going to rely on my family or friend to help me through my final placement and then all of a sudden, they weren't there (…) it's just quite intense and I found it quite difficult to start with. Because work and home and the children ’s school work it all just became blurred into one mess really”
Jodie.

At the same time, many of us were able to identify skills that were derived from having a placement during a pandemic, such as increased resilience, creative ways of engaging service users online, reaching out for support, becoming more IT literate, or being more able to explore clients ’ personal resources and relationships. Support from the university and the placement

All of us were vocal about negative experiences of liaising with the university during the pandemic. A particular theme transpired about not being listened to by the university as an organisation in relation to lack of leniency in academic requirements, excessive workload and lack of responsiveness. However, many of us highly valued tailored support by individual academic tutors, where this was perceived as accessible, non-judgmental and supportive, as illustrated by Jess:

“I had quite a mental breakdown, I think within the first month of my placement (...). My academic tutor just went above and beyond. She was absolutely amazing. I talked to her about everything. The university - absolutely awful, [they] just left us, not knowing where we were. (...) There was no kind of recognition of my individual needs. (...) We're listening to you by doing a couple of zoom calls and things, but nothing ever really came out of it”
Jess

Regarding placement support, shadowing has been understood as key to professional learning for its role-modelling capacity (Le Riche, 2006). While many of us noted that being unable to shadow qualified colleagues obstructed learning from others and removed points of reference for good practice, nearly all of us drew heavily on supervisory relationships on placement and felt well supported by our Practice Educators and Placement Supervisors to cope and learn. Historically, practice educators play a key role in placement learning and have heavily shaped placement outcomes (Lefevre, 2005). Thus, it is possible that social isolation and remote working furthered reduced student capacity to utilise these key relationships.

Some of us noted the sensitive power dynamics engaged by the need to seek management support for face-to-face visits. This contact had to be justified by participants, usually via clients ’ communication needs, a perceived high level of risk, or needing to discuss complex/sensitive matters. Even prior to Covid-19, it was recognised that those in supervisory roles, such as practice educators, can at times mismanage the power differential with the student, hindering learning and inducing oppressive experiences (Bailey-McHale et al., 2019). The additional power nuances that we reported may indicate that the management of power differentials needs further training and/or reflection from those in supervisory roles at this time.

Conclusions and Recommendations for educators

This paper aims to represent our unprecedented experiences of particular challenges and opportunities created when achieving a social work qualification during a global pandemic. Our experiences presented here may not be generalisable, nonetheless, what has clearly been shown is that being able to have real-world placement learning enabled us to better connect to the latest developments in hybrid social work practice in many parts of England. Our experiences demonstrated that social work practice during the pandemic accelerated our development of a creative, multi-agency, multi-disciplinary, proactive and resilient approach to social work as a profession. We also identified the need to further develop our in-person practice. Sustaining our mental wellbeing was a significant challenge but offered the opportunity to reflect on the importance of self-care and find ways to overcome problems proactively.

While the support of academic tutors, practice educators and placement supervisors was substantial and invaluable to our successful completion of the course, the organisational support from the university and placement were also essential. Remote teaching and learning could be counterproductive when the opportunities for interaction and staff and peer support were limited. There was a need for responsive and compassionate organisational practices at the university during Covid-19, with a flow of communications supporting students remotely, preventing a sense of abandonment, and adjustments that show an understanding of the additional pressures social work students were facing. At the placement, more shadowing and in-person practice might support social work students to develop more comprehensive assessment and intervention skills for qualified practice. In addition, social work students might benefit from connecting to newly qualified social workers, from whose recent student and qualification experiences they can learn. Our experiences found some successful responses to the challenges of social work education and placement during the Covid-19 pandemic, suggesting further potential for cross-institution and cross-country learning.

References

Beesley, P. and Devonald, J. (2020) ‘Partnership working in the face of a pandemic crisis impacting on social work placement provision in England ’, Social Work Education, vol. 39, no. 8, pp. 1146-53. doi.org
Clair, R., Gordon, M., Kroon, M. and Reilly, C., 2021. ’The effects of social isolation on well-being and life satisfaction during pandemic ’. Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, 8(1), pp.1-6.
Díaz-Jiménez, R. M., Caravaca-Sánchez, F., Martín-Cano, M. C., and De la Fuente-Robles, Y. M. (2020) ‘Anxiety levels among social work students during the COVID-19 lockdown in Spain ’, Social Work in Health Care, Volume 59(9-10), pp.681-693, DOI: 10.1080/00981389.2020.1859044
Guest, G., MacQueen, K. M., Namey, E. E. (2011). Applied thematic analysis. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Hatton, K., Galley, D., Veale, F.C., Tucker, G. and Bright, C. (2021) ‘Creativity and care in times of crisis: an analysis of the challenges of the COVID-19 virus experienced by social work students in practice placement ’, Social Work Education, pp. 1-17.
Le Riche, P. (2006) ‘Practising Observation in Shadowing: Curriculum Innovation and Learning Outcomes in the BA Social Work’, Social Work Education. Volume 25(8), pp.771-784.
Lefevre, M. (2005) ‘Facilitating practice learning and assessment: The influence of relationship. ’ Social Work Education, 24(5), 565–583.
Liberati E., Richards N., Parker J. (2021). ‘Remote care for mental health: qualitative study with service users, carers and staff during the COVID-19 pandemic ’. BMJ Open, :e049210. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2021-049210
Social Work England (2020). ’Information for education providers and social work students ’. SWE. Retrieved October 11, 2021, from socialworkengland.org.uk
Social Work England (2021), ’Education providers ’ response to COVID-19: adjustments to courses ’. Retrieved October 11, 2021, from socialworkengland.org.uk