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The social work sector continues to be called upon to carry a significant burden in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. When set alongside multiple crises including conflicts, migration, and climate change, this is even more the case.

Against this backdrop, the project ‘Strengthening the Skills of Social Workers in a Europe of Crisis (SISWEC)’ was formulated to update social workers' curricula and enhance their skills so they can effectively address crises. Making sure social workers have the skills and knowledge necessary to support individuals in crisis situations is fundamental to the initiative.

More than this, however, the project evaluates social workers' training and preparedness, identifies key challenges, and proposes actionable strategies for crisis management.

Identifying key training needs

With this in mind, the European Social Network (ESN) distributed a questionnaire among its members to gather data on how the social services workforce is trained and prepared for crises.  Respondents provided insights on current training courses in their countries, the regulations in force and what future barriers they may face. 

A central finding was the importance of ongoing training. For example, respondents emphasised the need of regular and relevant in-work training as a critical driver enabling social workers to fulfil their roles effectively. Their responses underscore the dynamic nature of social work practice, requiring professionals to continuously update their skills and knowledge to adapt to evolving challenges and client needs.

In addition, supportive management and adequate funding were highlighted as essential factors contributing to the overall effectiveness of social workers in crisis situations. However, despite recognising these enabling factors, respondents also identified significant obstacles.

Challenges and opportunities for social work in times of crisis

Bureaucracy emerged as a considerable challenge, potentially diverting social workers' attention away from client interactions and impacting their job satisfaction. Moreover, poor working conditions, including low wages and weak contracts, were highlighted as detrimental to social workers' morale. Most research on the topic, including ESN's 2016 seminar ‘Investing in the social service workforce, highlight the difficult working conditions social workers face, with high stress levels, high turnover, and difficult work-life balance. Addressing these systemic issues requires concerted efforts to create supportive work environments conducive to quality service delivery.

In terms of training, while most countries have nationally recognised University social work programmes and undergraduate qualifications, there are notable variations in the content and focus of training. Respondents expressed a desire for more comprehensive training in specific areas, such as post-natural disaster management and working with refugees, indicating a need for greater consistency in training curricula to ensure that social workers are adequately equipped to respond to crisis situations.

While respondents highlighted that their organisational response to the Covid-19 crisis was mostly effective, there were challenges in addressing other crises, such as poverty, unemployment, and anti-social behaviour. While resources allocated post-COVID-19 were generally perceived positively, there is a need for a more holistic approach to crisis management that addresses a range of interconnected social issues.

Partnerships across sectors are crucial for effective crisis management but there are challenges in terms of variations in integration levels and organisational cultures, highlighting the need for greater coordination and cooperation among different stakeholders involved in crisis response efforts.

Key Takeaways

  • Emphasis on in-work training, supportive management, and adequate funding.
  • Working conditions, wages and weak contracts have considerable repercussions to social workers.
  • Need for more holistic training in certain areas.

Training activities within SISWEC

On 14-16 May, partners of the SISWEC project organised a training of trainers in Warsaw (Poland) on the topic of forced migration, refugees, human rights, and social action. Among the participants there were four members of ESN who represented the Municipality of Fyli in Greece, Active Ageing and Community Care (AACC) in Malta, and the City of Warsaw and the Association of Centres for Social Work (ACSW).

This training provided a comprehensive overview of social work responses to forced migration, including human rights issues, refugee reception, community integration, and cultural competence.