Social Work amid Social Distancing

This guidance highlights that the small gestures work identified in the Crook Fellowship research project are now needed as much as ever, for social workers themselves and the people they are supporting. 


by Dr Rachael Black

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the way many people are working; social distancing, self-isolation, staying at home and working from home. Social workers are amongst those adapting to new ways of working, conducting meetings and assessments online instead of face to face. New guidance from the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust for adult social workers highlights the need for social workers to be vigilant about their own self-care and wellbeing, as well as seeking support and guidance from managers. It calls for social workers to look after themselves and each other. Managers are encouraged to promote connectedness and highlight that this is a ‘group human experience and not one we are going through alone’. 

This guidance highlights that the small gestures work identified in the Crook Fellowship research project are now needed as much as ever, for social workers themselves and the people they are supporting. Our research found that although home visits are central to social work, the skills for their success are not explicitly taught. Key to the success of these visits are small social gestures that demonstrate to the person who lives there that they are respected as the host and that the home is respected as their space and haven. This is vital to going a small way to address the inherent power imbalance that exists between a social worker and an individual or family. 

Findings from the project found that small gestures help to facilitate and enhance a relationship-based approach which is central to social work education and training. Gestures such as accepting a cup of tea, making small talk and offering to take shoes off at the front door may be ‘small gestures’, but to a person whose home it is, these gestures are meaningful and symbolic. Our collaborative research project identified that people who use services often feel disempowered in their own home by the actions of social workers. The social workers in the group felt that time pressures and an emphasis on ‘professionalism’ meant they were constrained about how sociable, friendly or even vulnerable they could be during home visits. 

Though home visits may not be happening to the same extent, humane gestures and connectedness are now more vital than ever. People may be alone in their home, lacking contact with family and friends, and frightened. 

When we are perhaps experiencing hopelessness ourselves. Small acts of kindness and thoughtfulness, which are all within our agency, offer some comfort amidst the vast unchartered territory we find ourselves in.

Jo Williams

Social worker and Senior Lecturer in the Trust's Social Care Leadership and Management portfolio

Although Zoom or Skype are useful resources, they can risk reducing the opportunities for those small gestures and interactions, like accepting a cup of tea or asking after family. However, time should still be made to do this. Co-workers across the country are getting glimpses of each other’s pets, homes and relatives while we work at home and are often a welcome relief in otherwise trying times. These opportunities can still arise during the calls social workers are making, and taking the time to acknowledge them and talk about them can increase these moments of connection.  

Our work continues: the research team have been sharing the findings from the project both locally and nationally. We are due to speak about Small Gestures at the British Association of Social Workers’ England conference and the South Yorkshire Teaching Partnership Conference. We have also secured funding to develop a video and teaching and training resources for social work students and practicing social work. As crucial as it is to develop new ways of working to respond to this immediate crisis, it remains just as vital to seize this opportunity for change and embed a lasting commitment to those small gestures in future social work practice.

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