The Role of Social Workers During COVID-19

As the U.S. COVID-19 case count has surpassed 5 million, schools grapple with how to open safely and/or teach online effectively. Parents wonder if they can work if schools remain closed.

Pandemic-related stress has affected everyone, including individuals in the helping professions. Designated as essential workers, social workers have continued reporting to work. The coronavirus crisis can exacerbate burnout, compassion fatigue, and secondary trauma, which affect social workers even in non-pandemic times.

This page discusses the importance of and changes to social work during the pandemic and provides self-care tips for social workers.

The Role and Impact of Social Workers During a Pandemic

Social workers support individuals with depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges. Quarantines and lockdowns increase isolation, intensifying these conditions for many people.

In this stressful climate, licensed clinical social workers like Tamara Leroy-London provide much-needed psychotherapy services. Says Leroy-London, “My therapeutic approaches address concerns related to depression, anxiety, life transitions, and crises through a culturally competent lens.”

Given the concurrent racial tensions, cultural competence has emerged as a crucial skill in helping patients through the coronavirus pandemic. People of color make up a larger proportion of essential workers, putting them at greater risk for contracting COVID-19, losing their jobs, and experiencing homelessness. One study reports that homeless individuals who become infected are twice as likely to be hospitalized, 2-4 times as likely to require critical care, and 2-3 times more likely to die than the general population.

Given the concurrent racial tensions, cultural competence has emerged as a crucial skill in helping patients through the coronavirus pandemic.

Andrew Spiers works as a licensed social worker at Pathways to Housing PA, which provides the homeless with housing with no preconditions. Once they move inside, his organization addresses their financial, medical, and behavioral health. According to Spiers, “African Americans represent 13% of the general population and 40% of people who experience homelessness. It’s the largest disparity for any race or ethnicity in the United States.”

Inequities in access to mental health care become more apparent as assistance moves online. In communities that lack access to computers and the internet, such as the homeless or individuals and families living in poverty or rural areas, social workers struggle to reach their patients. Not only do social workers offer therapy, they also help with insurance coverage, discharge planning, locating resources, and disseminating information about the virus.

As Spiers says, “Internet access during COVID-19 is essential.”

How Patient Visits Have Changed

Many social workers report both drawbacks and benefits to moving their practices online or to the phone. In addition to patient access barriers, some concerns include patient privacy and technical glitches. Benefits, however, consist of cost-effectiveness, scheduling flexibility, and a view into patients’ home environments.

Huntington’s disease social worker with UTHealth/UT Physicians, Amber McCarthy, discusses the importance of access to interdisciplinary specialists for patients with diseases like Huntingon’s. Geographic and scheduling challenges existed before the pandemic, and McCarthy points out that Huntington’s Disease Society of America’s (HDSA) Centers of Excellence helps by providing telehealth sessions for patients and caregivers accessible from their homes.

The risks to the health of both social worker and patient must be weighed when considering in-office counseling.

Lisa Mooney, a licensed clinical social worker for the HDSA Center of Excellence, Northern California Chapter, and UC Davis Health’s Huntington’s Disease Clinic, reports that her patients rely on her for information and education on community resources, benefits, and long-term care planning. Telehealth enables Mooney to stay in touch with her patients, who face a higher risk of a more serious infection from COVID-19.

Patients without underlying health conditions may have the opportunity for in-person visits with their social workers after using protective measures like masks and face shields. The risks to the health of both social worker and patient must be weighed when considering in-office counseling.

A Gallup online survey shows a nationwide increase in depression, anxiety, stress, substance abuse, and other issues related to COVID-19 and living in isolation. Consequently, mental health practitioners expect an increased demand for their services.

The Impact on Social Workers

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a heavy toll on all healthcare professionals, including social workers. A significant increase in patients with the added stress of navigating online appointments and/or safe office visits have accelerated burnout and may cause social workers to leave the field. Personal and financial issues can exacerbate the stress.

Hope Heller, Clinical Director and social worker for The Huntington’s Disease Care, Education, and Research Center at MedStar Georgetown University, HDSA Center of Excellence, was one of many healthcare practitioners to sign a letter urging the federal government to shut down the country. The letter also asked officials to provide more personal protective equipment for vulnerable frontline workers, including social workers.

Additional proposed measures to support social workers include comp time, bonuses, and hazard pay; expanded access to mental health services; and more diversity in the field. Patients often feel more comfortable and willing to seek help if they can work with a counselor who looks like them.

Leroy-London, for example, offers a bicultural and bilingual approach to social work. “As a Haitian clinician, I take great joy in offering services in Haitian Creole,” she says.

Finally, reducing the burden of educational loans and fair salaries constitute other ways of supporting social workers. Spiers and other graduates of the Bryn Mawr Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research recently signed a letter asking the school to ease the financial burden, adjust the field experience requirements, and restructure online learning for current students during this time of crisis. “[I’m] signing in solidarity,” Spiers commented.

Self-Care Tips For Social Workers During Coronavirus

According to the National Association of Social Workers, social workers can take steps to care for themselves during the pandemic, including:

  • Burnout avoidance

    Checking in with yourself each day and writing down your triggers and sources of stress can help, as can reminding yourself why you became a social worker and noticing negative self-talk and replacing it with positive messages. Cultivate the abilities to set boundaries and advocate for yourself. At home, turn off the phone, computer, and TV, and opt to read, write, and listen to or play music instead. Spiers writes poetry and developed many of his poems while leading a youth writing group. If possible, take a mental health day every once in a while to recharge and destress.

  • Engaging in meaningful work

    Focusing on work that means something to you, such as social justice, can keep you motivated and engaged. Spiers describes himself as “passionate about harm reduction, ending mass incarceration policies and the war on drugs, HIV and the cure, and advocating for LGBTQ equity.” Working for the greater good on issues like these provides opportunities to collaborate and form connections with like-minded peers. Even during the pandemic, you can participate in professional development activities in your area(s) of interest through webinars, virtual conferences, and online community meetings.

  • Stay connected

    The importance of connecting with friends, family, colleagues, and support systems cannot be overstated. Spending time with family and friends through phone calls, video chats, or socially-distanced visits can provide a new perspective. Connecting with co-workers and patients can revitalize the workplace. Mooney facilitates a monthly support group for her patients and describes the best part of her job as “getting to know families, providing emotional support and assisting them throughout their HD journey from diagnosis to end of life.”

  • Get outside

    Whether you like to hike, bike, walk, run, swim or simply sit in your yard, getting outside is an important part of self-care, particularly during this time of stay-at-home orders. Heading outdoors can boost your vitamin D levels, clear your head, and refresh you. If you work at an office, a brief walk outside can provide a relaxing break. Spiers, quarantined at his home, ventures out for bike rides. Parks, trails, beaches, lakes, and neighborhood sidewalks can all provide opportunities to breathe fresh air and get the blood pumping.

  • Practice meditation and/or yoga

    While you may already incorporate yoga and meditation into your recommendations for patients, they should also be included in your own self-care routine. Sitting quietly and clearing your mind or practicing yoga poses, even for just 10-15 minutes, rejuvenates both mind and body. Benefits of a regular yoga practice include a stronger immune system, reduced inflammation, stress management, and self-control. Meditation provides a block of quality time, requires no equipment, and increases mindfulness and mental clarity. Yoga classes abound online or on Zoom, while YouTube and other online sources feature a variety of guided meditation videos.

Resources for Social Workers

Our Contributors

Amber McCarthy

Amber McCarthy

Amber McCarthy, LMSW, a Huntington’s Disease social worker with UT Physicians/UTHealth in Houston

Tamara Leroy-London

Tamara Leroy-London

Tamara Leroy-London is a licensed independent clinical social worker (LICSW) in Massachusetts. She received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Regis College and her master’s in social work from Simmons University. Leroy-London enjoys working with adolescents and adults and specializes in matters related to depression and anxiety. She is passionate about supporting underserved, urban communities. Leroy-London was born and raised in a Haitian household, and is fluent in Haitian Creole. She works full time in a community health center and maintains a small private practice.

Lisa Mooney

Lisa Mooney

Lisa Mooney, LCSW, Social Worker, Department of Neurology, HDSA Center of Excellence, UC Davis Health in Sacramento

Andrew Spiers

Andrew Spiers

Andrew Spiers is a licensed social work at Pathways to Housing PA in Philadelphia. Andrew joined Pathways in early 2018 and served in a clinical leadership role before transitioning to director of training and technical assistance. Andrew holds a master of social service from Bryn Mawr College’s Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research, where he concentrated in community practice, policy, and advocacy. He has taught human services and sociology courses as an adjunct professor at Harcum College and conducted trainings and workshops all over the country on topics like Housing First, harm reduction, and LGBTQ+ behavioral health and wellness.

Hope Heller

Hope Heller

Hope Heller, LICSW, LCSW-C, Clinical Director and Social worker for The Huntington’s Disease Care, Education, and Research Center at MedStar Georgetown University, HDSA Center of Excellence