Has Singapore Forgotten Its Social Workers?
Top image: Rice File Photo
Names of the interviewees have been changed due to the nature of their work.

It’s nearly 9 p.m. on a Thursday, and I’m in the midst of a Zoom chat with Sara*, a 26-year-old Programme Executive working at a local Family Service Centre (FSC). Just as she is about to answer a question, I hear her phone buzz in the background.

“Sorry,” she laughs, sounding a little stressed. “I’m still getting messages from work. Give me a second.”

A few moments pass, and we pick up where we left off. She explains that getting urgent messages past working hours is a norm in her line of work.

“Sometimes, even at midnight, I would get a call or text from my client saying, ‘Hey, I’m really stressed right now,’ or “My husband just hit me again.” Whenever you get messages like these, you can’t help it. Even though it’s on the weekend or at night, you have to attend to them.”

Two years into a pandemic, and we all probably know how the story goes by now. COVID-19 has challenged the way we work, blurring the lines between our personal and professional lives. For some of us, a ping from your colleague at 9 p.m. could be put off until tomorrow, but for social work practitioners such as Sara, those late-night messages often require immediate attention.

“Of course, it is our responsibility to set boundaries with clients as well, but sometimes, it is quite hard to set aside work. We’re dealing with other people’s lives here.”

Photo: Rice Media

A shared helplessness

Sara began her stint at a local FSC in August 2020 and described her initial experience as “overwhelming”, given that she has started her career only recently.

“Especially emotionally, because clients come in with different backgrounds, and some of the stories they share might be a lot to take in. You will inevitably bring it back home.”

“Some of the stories I’ve heard include accounts of disturbing sexual assault, child abuse, and financial issues,” she explains.

Sara isn’t alone in her experience. A study conducted by the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) published last month interviewed 308 professional social workers. It found that, at the height of the pandemic in 2020, 56.5% of respondents experienced anxiety, 45.8% experienced depression, and 38.3% experienced increased stress levels.

The study concluded that the mental strain was even harder on younger social work professionals.

Professor Seng Boon Kheng, the lead of the study, explains that supervisors and colleagues are readily available under normal conditions. However, in this current climate, younger social workers may be left alone at a time when peer support is, in fact, vital for their survival.

Kieran*, who has been in the industry for just over a year, also faces his own set of challenges brought on by the pandemic. “It’s harder for other caseworkers and me. When I create plans for my clients, sometimes those plans cannot be fulfilled because of whatever restrictions there are.”

As a caseworker, Kieran works with individuals suffering from mental health issues and curates plans for them in their rehabilitation and recovery. But, with the fluctuating measures in place over the past two years, Kieran has been forced to postpone many plans, even to the point of disrupting entire rehabilitation schedules.

“When I started working, my main goal was to help these individuals. But, because of the COVID situation, I feel this sense of helplessness, because I cannot do anything about it…” he trails off. “Other than wait for the pandemic to be over.”

An origami crane from a resident reminds Kieran of why his work matters.

Coping with the stress

The study’s findings were presented at the AMKFSC-SUSS-EWHA-RUPP (ASER) Symposium, jointly organised by AMKFSC Community Services (AMKFSC) and SUSS. At the symposium, studies conducted by the faculty of Ewha Womans University of South Korea and the Royal University of Phnom Penh of Cambodia were also shared.

Dr Vincent Ng, CEO at AMKFSC Community Services and speaker at the symposium, posits that a lot of the time, social work practitioners feel that they cannot be vulnerable and have to put their work first and foremost.

“On top of us managing our own personal affairs, we have to respond and react to the needs of those who we are serving. When all those converge together, inevitably, some will feel a certain form of distress.”

The statement resonates with Sara, too. “You feel a sense of duty,” she elaborates. “When you see clients being vulnerable, you feel that you have a responsibility to do something. That’s where I guess most social workers that start out feel drained because I guess we’re dealing with someone’s life.”

She explains that some clients might be at risk of facing sexual assault and abuse at home, but as a social worker, she barely has any control. She can only worry about whether she has covered the right safety plans, followed all the precautions, and then wonder whether she has done enough.

Tracy Jarvis, Director of PESI UK and the keynote speaker at the symposium, also adds that because people in the profession have a learned ability to help others, they are predisposed to extra anxieties. 

“In society, we need to normalise that we are going to see mental health issues, not necessarily right now, but further down the line in terms of post-traumatic stress, after [the pandemic] happened.”

Tracy suggests that the best course of action whenever an individual feels distress is not to pathologise, but normalise. That is, to allow people to feel supported and acknowledge that it is an entirely normal response in such times of uncertainty.

Image: ASER Symposium 2021

The roles organisations play

Apart from the job being emotionally taxing, the administrative demand is hard to keep up with, especially now that most of their work has shifted online.

Having joined the profession in August 2020, Sara had access to statistics and notes a significant jump of cases reported to the centre. Emily*, a Cluster Care Team Lead under the Agency for Integrated Care (AIC), also recalls her colleagues describing the Circuit Breaker period as “intense”.

When it comes to alleviating the stress felt by those in the profession, part of the responsibility lies with organisations, says Dr Vincent. Organisations should take steps to provide a safe and stable structure for employees to work upon and reexamine how work is to be implemented, and establish clear expectations. 

However, the social work practitioners I spoke to all agreed that their management was giving its best efforts in caring for its staff and that they appreciated it.

“At least in my organisation, I feel like the management is trying its best despite the circumstances. Sometimes, it wishes to ease our workload, but we have no other choice,” Kieran shared. “In fact, I think it should go beyond the management level and should go to even the ministry level for support.”

The immense amount of pressure placed on social workers to adapt to a pandemic leads me to wonder if there are better solutions. Due to the increased restrictions and spike in the number of cases, social workers are required to take on an increased workload while worrying about how to move their communications online. 

Organisations are perhaps left with no other choice because the work still has to be done despite all these circumstances. So then, where does the responsibility of lifting the burdens off our social workers’ shoulders lay?

To destress, Sara engages in art therapy with friends. Each colour represents a different emotion, forming an emotional wheel.

In the shadows of healthcare workers

The study also posits that in comparison to the mental state of healthcare workers, it was social service practitioners that faced more mental distress. In addition, more social workers were also found to have depression, anxiety, and stress compared to their healthcare counterparts.

Professor Seng explained during the symposium that this might be in part due to the recognition and appreciation that healthcare workers received during the height of the pandemic.

Amongst Sara, Kieran and Emily, there was a general consensus that healthcare workers definitely received more acknowledgement in the work that they do.

“I feel like the perception for healthcare workers is very salient. We see how they have been working hard considering the pandemic,” Kieran explains. “But for social workers, I don’t think society thinks about how the pandemic actually can be very frustrating and stressful for us.”

“I think there was a sum of money that was given to healthcare workers and nursing home staff recently. Then, I remember at my organisation, we were talking about it–our work is just as essential but we don’t receive anything?” K recalls. “So there’s a lot of frustration in that sense.”

Emily adds that she does not feel much appreciation from the government or community, mainly because there aren’t many benefits extended to them. She contends that even though her work is just as important, she does not receive discounts and freebies from local businesses, unlike the schemes extended to healthcare workers.

However, the three of them also acknowledged that the appreciation shown to the healthcare workers was well-deserved.

“I wouldn’t say that it is an unfair appreciation. Despite the spike and intensity of the cases, we had work from home arrangements. We had the luxury of keeping ourselves safe,” says Sara. “I don’t think it can be comparable to healthcare workers who take the risk of being exposed to their patients and being on the job physically.”

Photo: Rice Media

On recognition

Comparing healthcare workers and social workers’ work isn’t the main point. If anything, it points to a deeper-rooted issue, which is the general lack of recognition that social workers receive.

“There’s this perception that social workers in Singapore are the people who do the job that no one wants to do. And there is another perception that social work is a job that anyone can do,” Kieran tells me. “Perhaps in other countries, social workers are well respected, but here it’s not the same.”

On the contrary, the road to becoming a full-fledged social worker in Singapore is, in fact, a long and tedious one. Although S has recently graduated with her Bachelor’s in Psychology, she still needs to undertake a postgraduate course to become a social worker. This is all in spite of some of her relatives having the false misconception that she simply does “volunteer work”.

“The learning doesn’t end there. Once you graduate and start as a social worker, there are still many courses, seminars and full-day workshops that will eventually fully equip you as a prepared social worker. It’s a process.”

Social Work Day 2021. Image: Singapore Association of Social Workers

A culture of appreciation

At the educational level, universities are looking for ways to improve the curriculum for social workers. “As a teacher of social workers, we need to look into pedagogically, what can be developed to build resilience in our social workers. if you get them more real-life experiences, allow them to dirty their hands, that could help to prepare them better.” Professor Seng shares.

In workplaces, Professor Seng also emphasises the importance of showing appreciation and building a joyful environment to work in. For example, when senior social workers extend their support to their younger colleagues, they can then provide mentorship and advise them on better coping with the workload.

One way to incentivise and motivate social workers is to introduce more accolades, whether through individual organisations or at the national level. Currently, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) has been working with the Singapore Association of Social Workers (SASW) in organising an annual Social Work Day and Outstanding and Promising Social Worker Awards.

“I think maybe we are moving in the right direction, and we just need to keep going constantly,” she concluded.

We still have much progress to make to achieve better recognition and support for social workers. Looking ahead, I’m reminded of how one of my closest friends told me that she wanted to be a social worker, even though she knew that it would not pay as well as a regular 9-to-5.

Still, it is the passion to help that drives people to stay in the industry, notwithstanding the mental toll that it takes on them. 

“I don’t know how I’m going to survive, Maxine,” she told me, half-joking. “But, at least I get to help people.”

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