Ethical challenges for social workers during Covid-19: A global perspective

Sarah Banks, Tian Cai, Ed de Jonge, Jane Shears, Michelle H Y Shum, Ana M. Sobočan, Kim Strom, Rory Truell, María Jesús Úriz, Merlinda Weinberg

Research output: Book/ReportBook or report


This report summarises the findings of an international study of the ethical challenges faced by social workers during the Covid-19 pandemic, undertaken during 6th-18th May 2020. 607 responses from 54 countries were received via an online survey, additional interviews and local surveys. Six key themes relating to social workers’ ethical challenges and responses were identified:

1. Creating and maintaining trusting, honest and empathic relationships via phone or internet with due regard to privacy and confidentiality, or in person with protective equipment.

2. Prioritising service user needs and demands, which are greater and different due to the pandemic, when resources are stretched or unavailable and full assessments often impossible.

3. Balancing service user rights, needs and risks against personal risk to social workers and others, in order to provide services as well as possible.

4. Deciding whether to follow national and organisational policies, procedures or guidance (existing or new) or to use professional discretion in circumstances where the policies seem inappropriate, confused or lacking.

5. Acknowledging and handling emotions, fatigue and the need for self-care, when working in unsafe and stressful circumstances.

6. Using the lessons learned from working during the pandemic to rethink social work in the future.

The study concludes that Covid-19 and measures to control and prevent its spread have restricted the services and responsibilities usually carried out by social workers, while generating new needs and demands. Social workers have both struggled and worked creatively to meet needs in risky and uncertain situations, and to respect people’s rights to privacy and involvement in important decisions about their lives. Policy and practice recommendations to create better conditions for ethical practice in social work during pandemic and crisis conditions include:

Social workers need to: rethink how to apply professional values and principles in new contexts; engage in ethical deliberation with colleagues; be aware of the impact of exhaustion and emotion on their capacity to see the full ethical implications of situations and to treat people with respect, empathy and compassion; and raise with employers, professional associations and policymakers the serious harms and inequities experienced by people during the pandemic, the difficulties in delivering social work services and proposals for improvements.

Social work employers should: ensure all social workers and students on placement are supported through regular supervision and team meetings; develop guidance with frontline workers about how to operate safely and ethically; monitor levels of stress amongst staff and ensure adequate rest and recuperation: provide necessary hygiene equipment and safety measures; advocate to governments and draw attention to gaps in welfare systems and the need for improvements.

National and international associations of social workers (including IFSW) have key roles in: highlighting systemic factors putting some populations at risk and the vital role of social safety nets; intensifying efforts to collect evidence on conditions for social workers and service users; advocating strongly with employers and governments to recognise social work roles and provide better guidance for maintaining services; and continuing to develop ethical guidance for social workers and employers and spaces for peer support and learning about ethical dilemmas in practice.

Governments need to: recognise the critical role played by social workers in providing and supporting social and community-based care during a pandemic; acknowledge social workers as key workers; ensure provision of the necessary hygiene and protective resources; issue clear guidelines on how to maintain social work services during a pandemic, keeping services open while operating as effectively and safely as possible.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherThe International Federation of Social Workers
Number of pages36
ISBN (Print)9783906820217
Publication statusPublished - 29 Jun 2020


Dive into the research topics of 'Ethical challenges for social workers during Covid-19: A global perspective'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this