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Social Services across Europe share a common challenge – recruiting and sustaining their workforce to meet rising demands for social care and support. Covid-19 has exacerbated this critical situation, pushing many social workers and carers beyond their limits.  At the European Social Services Conference (ESSC) 2022 in Hamburg social services leaders, researchers and practitioners discussed how to support and better value our social services workforce so that they can continue to provide vital care and support for people in need.

Workforce – common challenges across Europe

Ivailo Kalfin, Executive Director of Eurofound, shared insights from a recent study on the working conditions in the long-term care sector, highlighting common social sector challenges. According to the study, the long-term care sector across European countries is understaffed, has an ageing workforce and difficulties in recruiting sufficient workers. Mr Kalfin urged decision makers to make the sector more attractive: “We need better employment conditions, investment in wellbeing and improved possibilities for career development.” But how to do that?

Making the sector and care work more attractive

Simon Bottery, Researcher at the Kings Fund, UK, presented some promising practices to bring young people to the sector. One of them is to financially support social care apprentices to pass their driver’s license. More flexible work arrangements could also help to accommodate young people’s needs, as they may want to participate in social activities in evenings or weekends. The workforce organisation ‘Skills for Care’ together with the Local Government Association in England presented several initiatives to support mental wellbeing of staff. For instance, the Greater Manchester Region has created a Health and Social Care Good Conversation Guide which provides guidance for social care leaders in discussing wellbeing with staff. The important role of leaders was also stressed in a workshop organised by the University of Birmingham and the Social Care Institute for Excellence. Both organisations jointly developed a leadership programme promoting a strength-based approach in social services management.

Providing training and engaging informal carers and volunteers

The City of Linkoping, Sweden, has invested in digital learning for their workforce. The Evikomp Programme allows care and nursing staff to use an online platform to learn and exchange on care practice reaching out to a larger number of workers than on-site training.

 Workforce can also come through volunteers and informal carers. The City of Hamburg in Germany has created a house for civic engagement and volunteering, where citizens can register and indicate their willingness to engage in all sorts of social care. The house functions as a coordination platform between social care providers and volunteers. The Municipality of Esbjerg in Denmark has developed a specific strategy to support informal carers through a ‘relatives advisor’, who supports them with all support services available, such as respite care. In the long run this investment helps to sustain informal carers and make people less dependent on formal care provided by the state.

 A paradigm shift in workforce roles and responsibilities

“To ensure our sector can face those numerous challenges, we need a paradigm shift across professions, systems and society to think and value health and wellbeing at work differently. In that sense, we need to adapt our ways of working – by embracing new collaborative approaches, powerful support networks and professional roles,” stated Victoria Stein, expert in integrated care at Leiden University.

Certainly, ESSC delegates had much food for thought on how to build workforce resilience and tackle one of the most crucial questions facing social services.