COVID-19: using digital technology in relationship-based practice to bridge the gap in social distancing

Featured article - 26 March 2020
By Dr Godfred Boahen, Policy and Research Officer, British Association of Social Workers

COVID-19: using digital technology in relationship-based practice to bridge the gap in social distancing

Among one of the many challenges of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis to social work is how to conduct relationship-based practice from a distance. Social workers recognise the inherent ethical and therapeutic value of social relationships. We believe that it is ‘good’ and ‘right’ for people to maintain social bonds with their families and social networks. This is because a core social work value is recognition of peoples’ humanity and worth, and this is also underpinned by the principle that this occurs within interdependent human relationships, which also enable humans to flourish. Generally, people experience love, care, and support within their social networks. Even in caregiving dyads, persons receiving support have opportunities to contribute to the wellbeing of their carer – so these relationships tend to be interdependent and they generate options for both parties to feel empowered and improve their self-worth. Aside from the moral and ethical value of relationships, social workers can draw on them therapeutically, to support people to change.

However, when it comes to relationships, in social work, the prevailing assumption has been that they involve people being in physical contact within the same space. It is probably for this reason that ‘the home visit’ is such an important part of social work practice.

For these reasons, the ongoing COVID-19 crisis is a serious challenge to social work because the emergency requires the profession to alter how relationship-based approaches are framed and practised. One cause of this is the government’s social distancing guidance which is a policy aimed explicitly at minimising peoples interactions to reduce the rate of infection transmission. How do you maintain relationships with people who use services if you cannot visit people regularly? How do you keep people safe and well if you cannot assess their living spaces? How can we model ‘good’ behaviours and encourage people to maintain change when we cannot see to ascertain their physical and emotional demeanour?

The role of digital technology

Social workers can use digital technology in creative ways to initiate, maintain and sustain relationships to meet the emotional and therapeutic needs of people who use services.

Keeping in touch with people

During this period of uncertainty and rapid change, it is easy for social workers to lose regular contact with people in order to maintain existing relationships. There are a range of technologies that can enable social workers to keep in touch with people who use services -e.g. Skype, Zoom, MS Teams, Slack, Google Hangouts, Facetime and WhatsApp. Through these applications, social workers can either call or text people who use services to ensure that they are safe and have food at home to maintain their wellbeing. In relationship-based terms, social workers can call to let people know that they are thinking of them, to demonstrate care and compassion for people who may be alone and therefore feeling excluded. This is going beyond the procedural aspects of social work – it is about humane practice, recognising our mutual need to know that people have our interests in mind at a time of crisis.

Involvement and co-production

One reason why relationship-based practice has such an important ethical status in social work is because exemplify other social work values. To have a genuine professional relationship with people who use services, social workers have to recognise that they have as much power as the professional to determine the nature of their engagement. People have a right to be heard and consulted about decisions about their care, they have to consent, and they need to be included in service provision. Digital technology enable social workers to keep to these principles even in this time of social distancing. We can email assessment and care plans to people to ask for their feedback and comments, through video-conferencing people can participate in inter-agency professional meetings about their care and a host of online apps allow people to express their wishes. As this technology is available, even in this period of social distancing, social workers can keep to the key tenets of relationship-based practice around inclusive practice and co-production.

Supporting people to access the internet

With social interactions reduced at this period, people who use services need access to the Internet to receive information and maintain contact with their family and professional networks for the safety and wellbeing. This makes access to the Internet data an important need. Social workers therefore need to think of creative ways in which exiting care plans (and packages) can be reviewed to take account of this new context of need to access the Internet. Mobile charges to NHS information have been removed – this means that people who use services can maintain the relationship they had with NHS staff and networks prior to the COVID-19 social distancing restrictions.

Co-researching online support networks with people who use services

Recently, there has been a strong focus on strengths-based and asset-based models of social work practice. In these approaches social workers seek to identify what people can do for themselves alongside co-production of care plans to identify community resources for support (Baron et al, 2019). Although because of social distancing rules people cannot access the physical spaces where services were located in their geographical areas, social workers can use digital technologies to continue to uphold these principles. Being creative, social workers should continue to draw on peoples’ strengths and desires to socialise and form relationships and work with them to identify online self-management groups and support networks. Some people who use services may also have had active social lives centred on accessing community-based services, physically. Social workers can assist them to channel these exiting strengths into creating new online networks.

Concluding thoughts

I have argued that while challenging, current digital technologies provide options for us to fulfil the values and ethics of relationship-based practice in this era of social distancing. It has been assumed in social work that most social interactions are desirable and as such, social workers seek to enhance relationships. Longstanding practice models – for instance group work and community practice – are based on relationships happening physically in time and space. The question to address is how to maintain social relationships when this can elevate public health concerns. While not a substitute, digital technologies can facilitate social workers to maintain contact with people, talk to them and assess their needs and signpost them to people who share the same life experiences with them. This time of crisis presents an opportunity for social work to re-think the meaning of relationships without losing sight of their core moral and ethical worth.

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