By Gary Pettengell, ECINS
If there were ever a time to truly appreciate the essential contributions to society made by social workers – it would be now. As we find ways to recognize, inspire, and equip social work professionals tackling a confluence of challenges in schools, families, and communities, the most important thing is to acknowledge the immense challenges they face every day across every sector of the service field.
They do not have an easy task.
According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than half of high school students report feeling “persistently sad or hopeless.” As The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson writes, “Almost every measure of mental health is getting worse, for every teenage demographic, and it’s happening all across the country.”
Many adults report similar sentiments. A 2021 employee survey found that “83 percent of respondents felt emotionally drained from work and 71 percent strongly agreed that the workplace affects their mental health.”
At the same time, communities are reeling from other, often-interrelated factors, including homelessness, drug addiction, and food insecurity. On any given night, more than 580,000 people are homeless in the United States, while drug addiction and overdoses impact people of all ages in all communities.
Each of these challenges is made more difficult by the persistent and ongoing pandemic and global crises impacting already stark economic challenges. These escalating effects accentuate and accelerate community needs while often hindering social workers’ capacity to respond.
Social workers are dedicated to serving their communities. Still, with exponential demands on all areas of their time – from schedule and bandwidth to the process of client intake information – new methods, processes and innovative approaches to the system must be considered if social workers are to successfully meet their clients’ needs.
Here are three digital-driven innovative best practices enhancing social workers in their careers and impact by harnessing data and facilitating collaboration to build alliances around clients to improve outcomes for people and communities.
No. 1: Develop a One Front Door Onboarding Practice
Asking for help can be extremely difficult. People may not know where to seek support, and even when they know where to go, many are wary of looking weak, needy, and incompetent. As Garret Keizer, author of Help: The Original Human Dilemma, told The New York Times, “There is a tendency to act as if it’s a deficiency. There is an understandable fear that if you let your guard down, you’ll get hurt, or that this information you don’t know how to do will be used against you.”
That’s why social workers – and their agency, educational, and community partners – must develop a one front door intake policy that acknowledges people’s bravery and vulnerability by connecting them with a variety of different services while only requiring them to tell their story once.
Since people’s struggles are often interrelated, this approach can encourage holistic healing among communities. For example, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that one-third of people experiencing housing insecurity also experience mental health or substance abuse challenges.
Rather than requiring people to seek support for each of these issues, social workers increase their effectiveness by connecting people with as many support services as needed to improve people’s lives.
No. 2: Collaborate to Increase Impact
To be successful, social workers know that they can’t work alone. Collaborative case management software facilitates these valuable connections, increasing a social worker’s capacity and expanding their impact.
The results can be especially far-reaching. Research by Rutgers University found that one community’s initiatives that “pools social service providers together in an effort to offer improved support” created more stable social support and financial stability throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
As Ross Whiting, the associate director of the Senator Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs and principal investigator of the study, concludes, “Our data shows that, more than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic, this collaboration has helped improve child well-being, financial stability and the relationship between children and their caregivers.”
In other words, when the social worker community has the technological resources to onboard people through a one front door policy, they can funnel referrals from multiple sources, diverting them to appropriate teams and organizations to maximize impact.
For instance, collaborative case management software can help social workers operate from a single record of truth, making it easier to support transient people or those who meet multiple support criteria.
No. 3: Empower People to Enact Change
When social workers have comprehensive case records that reflect the whole person, they are positioned to empower people to enact change that improves lives, enhances communities, and promotes a flourishing future.
Simply put, change produces change, and many people want to achieve this valuable outcome.
For example, housing security is linked to improved health outcomes while supporting students’ mental health increases graduation rates, proving that just as multiple trials can have cascading consequences for people’s well-being, meeting these needs can reverse downward trends.
For the nearly 700,000 people working as social workers, the persistent pandemic has increased demand for their valuable services, presenting an opportunity to update their practices and procedures to meet the moment. Ultimately, their success is predicated on their impeccable skills and training, but data and collaboration can enhance these efforts.
Technology can support these initiatives, providing insights and facilitating connections that empower people to enact change. Social worker month has come and gone, but that doesn’t mean the imperative has diminished. Instead, now is the perfect time to equip social workers and their agency, educational, and community partners with the tools to build alliances around clients to improve outcomes for people and communities.