What’s changed?

Well, life changed fast didn’t it. Four weeks ago, I was sitting with my Adult Social Work team in the office we share with Children and Families, All Age Learning Disabilities and Criminal Justice Social Work teams. Today I’m sitting on my own in our local leisure centre with a view of the swimming pool.

I think it started slowly, the worry about the virus. There was some “Oh, it’s just another scare story” and “it will come to nothing like the Bird Flu”. I heard this from clients and colleagues alike and admit thinking it myself at times. But when the pictures started to come out of Italy, we all paused, we started to think about how we would manage if ‘it hit here’.

‘Here’ is Orkney, cue the stats. Orkney has a population of around 22 thousand people spread over 70 islands, 20 of which are permanently inhabited. Orkney is regularly voted the best place to live in Scotland (and arguably the world), we also have the highest levels of fuel poverty. Orkney has a higher life expectancy than Scotland as a whole and the second-highest levels of access deprivation in Scotland. So, it’s a mixed picture full of contradictions. For our clients it’s the same, if you are part of, and embedded in the community you will have a solid support system around you with people who have known you all your life and will absolutely go out of their way to help you. However, that same sense of community can feel very isolating if you are on the fringes, for whatever reason. One lesson from this is not everyone has someone, even in Orkney.

Back to social work, and my pool view. I have been redeployed to the COVID Community Support Hub. The Hub was set up to contact people on the NHS ‘shielded’ list and offer support with shopping, collecting prescriptions and identifying other needs that people may have. Dog walking took the lead (sorry) in ‘other needs’, but “how do I pay for things over the phone, I only use cash” is a regular query. The hub is staffed by redeployed workers from other council departments: they work now as call handlers gathering information, arranging food parcels and medication pickups and this is no easy job. Remember we are a group of islands only accessible by boat and plane, which have greatly reduced their timetables. They offer a friendly voice with sound advice and they listen. However, these call handlers do not have care backgrounds and some of the calls they get are upsetting and can understandably cause them distress. My role in the Hub is to support the call handlers with their reactions to calls and take any callers who need more or different support. I also cross-reference the NHS ’Shielded’ list with our own clients and service users so that we can offer people the right levels of support at the right time. The Scottish Government requires twice-weekly reports containing a multitude of statistics, I help gather and make sense of them from a social work perspective.

So, what has happened to my day job as an Adult Social Worker? My colleagues have dispersed, some are working from home, some have been redeployed. We keep in contact through “Teams” and emails. We are still unable to do some tasks remotely, so trips to the office are needed and I always hope I will see my friends on these flying visits. My clients have mostly withdrawn, and although I phone it’s not as reassuring as getting “eyes on”. Some clients are living with family or have stopped care services going into their homes. Others are saying “It will wait ‘till all this has passed”. Those who have no family or social network continue to be supported by overstretched, but extremely dedicated Homecare Teams and care at home providers. Those patients in hospital and ready for discharge take priority, so that beds are made available for the wave of COVID patients that we all fear will come. At the time of writing, there are six confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Orkney and sadly we have had two deaths. I accept these numbers are very small compared with other places, but so is Orkney: we all knew these people and feel the loss for their families.

I worry that families who have taken on the care of their elderly or disabled relative will not manage the emotional intensity of being a 24-hour carer. I worry that people who struggle with their mental health will not see a light at the end of this lockdown. I also worry that relationships held together by the space that work, school and social activities provide will not survive the immediacy and confinement that we all now face. In short, this is the wave that worries me, the one that comes after, and how we will manage. But…I have hope, and where would Social Workers be without that! I hope we learn from this. I hope we now see that societal change can happen in a heartbeat where there’s a will and a plan. I hope we realise our own and other peoples worth, not in their bank balances, but in their contributions. I hope we continue to recognise actions over rhetoric and skills, effort and commitment over titles. These are the changes I hope for.

So, what has changed now? That’s the question I asked myself when I sat down to write this, what’s changed? My first reaction was, everything, EVERYTHING’S changed! But, after writing this my answer is nothing, Social Work is still Social Work. We continue to try and support people to have the life that want, we build relationships, we advocate and fight for our people, we organise and plan, we talk, listen and care. The sand under my feet has shifted in the last few weeks, and my view is certainly different, but I’m still a Social Worker doing and loving my job.

Gillian Ritch
24th April 2020

7 thoughts on “What’s changed?”

  1. Lucy Belgrave

    Very interesting and well written. Good to see someone acknowledging the positives and negatives of island life. Hope to read more from this author.

    1. Thank You Lucy, we are very lucky to live in such beautiful surroundings, but it can have its challenges.

  2. Usually I work alongside Gillian and I am missing our daily chats, exchanging info/ideas and seeing her across my desk. I am still in the Council offices and feel it is important for me to be here. I do not have access remotely to the business systems I require for my job and all my day to day bits and bobs that I use are here in basecamp. Working from home is not an ideal or practical option for me. Also being here in the office helps me to maintain some sense of “normality” in my life at this time.

    I agree that on the outset of the pandemic everything seemed to change at first. Change is a given in any walk of life, and can be difficult to adapt to, even with careful and informative planning in place ahead of time. Throughout my career in social work I have experienced many “changes”. Some through personal choice, in changing jobs and going to other places to live and work. Others because the organisation I was employed with introduced changes and referring to the latter, there is generally at first always some resistance to such changes. Human nature takes over I suppose, as we are always wary of the unknown and in being outwith our comfort zones, our safety net. Inevitably though, we come round and soon adapt to what then becomes the norm again until the next time.

    I think this shows how resilient staff can be and is a quality social workers and social care workers possess. Without it we could not do our jobs. Its something that is not perhaps always recognised in the work we do. A few weeks into the pandemic now I observe the similar patterns emerging. I observe the resilience not just in myself but in colleagues around me. Yes, there are still moments of anxiety and a little uncertainty but our clients continue to have difficulties and needs and our business goes on.

    One of the “new norms” we are adapting to is that we have to be even more creative in finding ways to assist people. But I think we are quite good at this anyway. Being an island community with all its differences and each budget restriction that comes along, has already taught us this. So again, as Gillian noted, its not really a change is it ?

    It was quiet here, especially at first, but now as the wider public also become more resilient and realise that life does and can on, the phones are ringing again. We have longer conversations now as we cannot of course visit people, but that’s ok, in fact its quite nice. I think people are appreciative of that time to have a meaningful conversation even if it does not mean accessing a service, and I personally find it rewarding. Having someone to talk to is good in the current lockdown so that could be viewed as a positive for many of our service users and their families. As a social worker I feel I am regaining some of my old active listening and communication skills that have got a bit lost in modern practice methods.

    In the longer term, we do not know how long this pandemic situation will continue. As we adapt and settle further into current practices, it may be that some of the changes recently implemented might even become our “new norm”. For example – staff learning new skills and working across sectors/teams, being able to gain more confidence in themselves and their work. Or like me, bringing out qualities you forget you had. Good or bad ? Something to think about.

    1. Colin Turbett

      Thanks for this contribution Marion. Really helpful to get this type of response to our brilliant bloggers.

  3. Lorraine McCaskie

    A good read and can see many similarities in what is happening in my own area. I share the same worries for colleagues, service users and myself. I remained in my social work team, however have often thought I would be more help in a contact centre supporting the public and colleagues in that way. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Colin Turbett

      This is an interesting response too. I think the presence of SW staff in hubs helps us build the community aspect that should be a very important part of the job – especially in rural and remote communities.

    2. Thanks Lorraine,
      I have found this redeployment very interesting. I think we have seen a real will to find creative solutions to problems, because we are all in a new situation.

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