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Surge in social workers experiencing mental health issues during Covid-19

Published: 14 March 2022

Data shows job vacancies for social workers have almost doubled since the start of the pandemic, while the Australian Association of Social Workers says the sector will need to grow by 15 per cent in the next three years to meet demand.

Lauren Ahwan

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A “shadow pandemic’’ of poor mental health has exacerbated an alarming shortage of social workers.

Federal government data shows job vacancies for social workers have almost doubled since the start of the pandemic, while the Australian Association of Social Workers says the sector will need to grow by 15 per cent in the next three years to meet demand.

Professor Patrick McGorry, executive director of youth mental health service Orygen, says since the start of the pandemic the number of people affected by poor mental health is four times greater than those who have been infected by Covid-19.

“This shadow pandemic isn’t going to fade away like the real pandemic,’’ says McGorry, ahead of World Social Work Day this Tuesday.

“Just in north-west Melbourne, you’ve got a thousand people on waiting lists – young women with anorexia, people with psychosis (and) people that are suicidal.’’

Compounding worker shortages, McGorry says many social workers are being redeployed to assist with the Covid-response, such as completing paperwork at vaccination hubs.

Where’s the demand?

AASW chief executive officer Cindy Smith says social workers are needed within child protection, schools, aged care, hospitals, disability services and community health.

“Recent royal commissions into aged care, disability and veteran suicides and institutional responses to child sexual abuse have shown how much support is needed to assist those affected,’’ she says.

“These are all absolutely areas that social workers work in and the outcomes of all these inquiries will require social work responses.’’

There is scope to specialise in areas such as family and domestic violence, palliative care or drug and alcohol abuse, while social workers also form a critical part of response teams tackling natural disasters and climate change, Smith says.

Shaping the future

UniSA social work program director Patricia Muncey says non-clinical roles are available to help influence future policy outcomes.

“If you work in the area of homelessness, for example, rather than working one-on-one, you may be exploring what resources are needed for homeless people or how to enable them to manage if they are homeless for a long time,’’ she says.

Good job prospects for social work graduates are assured.

“If you’re prepared to go to the country then that’s basically a guarantee that you will get a job,’’ Muncey says.

Work in schools

Australian Education Union president Correna Haythorpe says more social workers are needed to address challenges caused by home schooling during the pandemic.

“Remote learning has increased the sense of isolation that many children have experienced but they have also been deeply worried about Covid, whether they are safe or if they are going to get sick,’’ she says.

“Unfortunately, we don’t believe the support in schools is at the level that it should be and there’s a real risk that children are going to slip between the cracks.’’

Hot demand for workers

Demand for social workers is so high that Carmen Tong was able to find work before she even graduated.

Tong took on a complex case worker position with the Australian Red Cross while completing her Master’s degree in social work at UniSA.

After graduating, she moved to a financial inclusion community worker role with Uniting Communities before eventually joining philanthropic Wyatt Trust as a grant and administration officer.

Her job involves assisting other social workers to apply for grant funding for their clients, as well as conducting grant training sessions and grant assessments.

“Financial hardship and mental health decline are certainly one of the most apparent impacts caused by the pandemic,’’ says Tong, who was a rising star finalist in last year’s SA Social Worker of the Year Awards.

“I began volunteering with the Red Cross when I was in primary school so the idea of giving back to society and helping the most vulnerable members of our community are deeply ingrained traits that have underpinned my academic and career choices.

“Knowing that I can make an impact on someone’s life, even as small as being a listener to people’s stories and seeing the smile on people’s faces, makes me feel like all my work and effort are worth it.’’

Original article was published in The Daily Telegraph career section.

AASW - Australian Association of Social Workers