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Nearly 6 in 10 front-line social workers in S'pore affected by anxiety at height of pandemic: Study

SINGAPORE — At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic last year, nearly six in 10 frontline social workers here faced anxiety ranging from mild to extremely severe based on the first published study on the psychological impact of Covid-19 on social workers in Singapore.

Nearly 6 in 10 front-line social workers in S'pore affected by anxiety at height of pandemic: Study

The study was conducted among 308 front-line social workers at the height of the pandemic in June 2020.

  • Nearly six in 10 frontline social workers were affected by anxiety at the height of the pandemic last year, a study has found
  • Just under half also faced depression at that time, it found
  • Younger social workers with less experience in the field were more vulnerable, the study found
  • The study was published in July 2021 in the Asian social work and policy review

SINGAPORE — At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic last year, nearly six in 10 frontline social workers here faced anxiety ranging from mild to extremely severe based on the first published study on the psychological impact of Covid-19 on social workers in Singapore.

Just under half, or 45.8 per cent, faced mild to extremely severe depression and 38.3 per cent faced mild to extremely severe stress, according to the study published in July this year in the Asian Social Work and Policy Review.

Anxiety levels were found to be more pronounced among social workers aged between 21 and 29 compared to those aged 30 to 39.

Higher anxiety was also seen in those with three or fewer years of practice in the field as compared to those with six years and more of practice.

The survey polled 308 frontline social workers from June 17 to 29, 2020 in three settings: Family Service Centres, hospital and healthcare settings as well as other social service agencies, which include organisations like the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (Minds).

Speaking to reporters on the findings on Friday (Dec 10), Professor Seng Boon Kheng, head of the Social Work Programme, S R Nathan School of Human Development at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, said the greater impact on less experienced staff could be attributed to a few reasons.

First, because younger social workers are new and lack experience, said Prof Seng, who led the study.

“Number two is the lack of supervision. When you are in the office with your senior social workers and your colleagues there’s a lot of support. When you run into a problem you can ask your senior for help, or you just turn to your left or to your right and your colleagues are there to support you. 

“But then when you're left alone like during the circuit-breaker period, that can be quite stressful for somebody who's new. If I need something immediately, where do I turn for help?” said Prof Seng.

The study noted that it is common for these young and less experienced social workers to consult each other at work, and they are dependent on one another for support.

The study attributed the stress faced by frontline social workers to managing their clients online while having to deal with the hassles of working from home.

Physical space and a conducive work environment also play a role, the study noted.

Fear of the unknown, fear of the coronavirus, and a lack of information could have contributed to the high anxiety as a majority of them (59.1 per cent) in this study had vulnerable family members in their households who were of concern.

The study found that social workers who work in Family Service Centres faced higher depression rates.

The idea that the organisation cares and is available for consultation and support is a great help to these social workers. Providing even little incentives goes a long way to boost the staff's morale and make the challenging work more manageable.
Study findings

“Family Service Centres are in the community and they are at the forefront of all problems. The specialised social service agencies, at that point in time, some of them didn't come in as essential services. But the Family Service Centres were given a mandate of essential services so they opened up and then they are also in the forefront so anybody can just walk in,” said Prof Seng.

The study also noted that the healthcare sector was generally more prepared for such a crisis, having experienced the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak and the H1N1 pandemic. This sector had the advantage of being at the forefront of health-related information.

The healthcare sector also received a lot of public support during this period. Public accolades and encouragement are a great boost to healthcare workers’ morale and no doubt contributed to their well-being, the study noted.

‘MAINTAINING MY SANITY’

The study said some measures that could have a mitigating effect on the psychological distress of these workers, including organisational support that helps to ease psychological distress.

“The idea that the organisation cares and is available for consultation and support is a great help to these social workers. Providing even little incentives goes a long way to boost the staff's morale and make the challenging work more manageable,” the study reported.

It added that equipping social work practitioners with skills for self-care and stress prevention is important for their long-term psychological well-being.

One social worker who works in a healthcare setting told TODAY that the ability of management to understand workers' needs is essential.

"This creates a safe and secure place, which allows me to be vulnerable and share my concerns without judgement. Having colleagues who respect my boundaries also help with preventing burnout,” he said.

The 29-year-old who has worked as a social worker for three years and declined to be named because he is not authorised to speak to reporters said that he did not find himself to have been overwhelmed or overly stressed or anxious or depressed at the peak of the pandemic.

“Fast forward to December 2021, I would say there's not much difference,” he added.

He attributed "maintaining my sanity" to personal resilience, a strong mindset, exercise and maintaining a work-life balance.

Another 28-year-old social worker who works with the elderly and their families, who also declined to be named because she is not allowed to speak to the media, said that June last year was not particularly stressful though the pandemic introduced uncertainties into her life that caused some stress.

"Now, because of the past experience of having to adapt constantly and quickly to changes at work and in the nation in the past one to two years of the pandemic, I have found it easier to accept that change is constant and have learnt how to adapt quicker," she said.

Prof Seng acknowledged, however, that if the survey was done today, the results would be different.

A separate study conducted between Feb 19 and March 13 last year on the psychological impact of the early period of the Covid-19 outbreak among healthcare workers in Singapore reached similar conclusions.

It found depression, anxiety, stress and indications of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among the 470 healthcare workers who participated.

About one in seven or 14.5 per cent of participants screened positive for anxiety, 8.9 per cent for depression, 6.6 per cent for stress and 7.7 per cent for clinical concern of PTSD.

The study was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in August last year.

Related topics

social worker Covid-19 coronavirus anxiety depression mental health

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