Child Welfare Quality Improvement Center for Workforce Development (QIC-WD)


What we know about Pandemics and the Stress they Cause

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Pandemics are not new, but they significantly impact how we work, socialize, and manage our health. This can be especially difficult for those in the helping professions for whom face-to-face contact and travel are part of their daily routine. This blog post explains what a pandemic is and the stress that it causes. To learn more, watch this 25-minute excerpt from a recent QIC-WD webinar.

What is a Pandemic?

When the spread of a disease escalates, it can become a pandemic, affecting a wide geographical area and a significant portion of the population. Pandemics are marked by uncertainty, confusion, and a sense of urgency which may be exacerbated by the inundation of ever-changing information in news and social media channels due to the scientific advances occurring to track a novel virus.

What Stressors Does a Pandemic Cause?

As has been seen around the world in recent months, communities experience food and supply shortages, school closures, stresses on the health care system, and economic decline. Individuals and families have experienced health crises, severe disruption of routines, separation from family, friends and co-workers, social isolation, wage loss, and the inability to bury, memorialize and honor those who have died. For the child welfare workforce there is the added stress of the following:

  • Managing children in out of home care
  • Maintaining contact between children and their families
  • Investigating child abuse and neglect
  • The inability to keep children safe despite great efforts
  • Knowing that child abuse and neglect will increase
  • Knowing that Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) will increase
  • Knowing there is the possibility of increased mental illness, substance use/abuse, loss of parent
  • Knowing that children will worry that their parents could die and similarly parents worry their children could die or become debilitated
  • Continuing to be exposed to traumatic events and client experiences
  • Being exposed to the death of others, including mass scale death
  • Having a heightened risk of personal infection, sickness, and death
  • Worrying that they will inadvertently spread infection to others
  • Being overworked and fatigued

During the webinar, participants were asked What other ways does the pandemic affect the child welfare workforce? The following were some of their responses:

  • Families cannot participate in services due to lack of transportation or closed service provider
  • Some families will not allow workers into the home due to COVID-19, but there are concerns that they could be doing this to hide abuse and neglect
  • Children in agency custody are having virtual visits with their parents rather than face-to-face
  • Parents are stressed because they are not able to see their children outside of video chats
  • Children do not understand why they aren't able to see their parents face-to-face and they are worried about their parents
  • Service providers have closed
  • Transportation is an issue - which means parents are missing substance abuse testing and treatment
  • Caseworkers are worried that they are only able to do Zoom meetings right now and are afraid that they will miss a sign that there is a safety concern that could lead to a child being hurt and/or removed from the home
  • Caseworkers can't have one-on-one visits and conversations with children
  • There is increased anxiety in parents who already have a mental health diagnosis
  • Inaccurate information about the current situation is creating fear in families

Both child welfare workers and the families they serve are experiencing the pandemic, therefore there is a shared traumatic stress that the workforce is experiencing. This can increase compassion among helping professionals, but it can also have a negative impact on child welfare workers because they may be more vulnerable to take on the stress and challenges of the families they serve.

What Can be Done to Cope in a Pandemic?

Child welfare professionals want to ensure the safety and well-being of the families they are working with but are also concerned about their own health and safety, as well as that of their family. Furthermore, staff are concerned about how the economic crisis will impact future funding. They are working through this difficult time, but will they have jobs in the next fiscal year? The QIC-WD staff offered the following recommendations to child welfare staff to assist with the stress caused by the pandemic.

  • Start staff or client meetings with a breathing exercise or guided imagery
  • Provide space to allow staff to process their concerns
  • In supervision, talk through the emotions that caseworkers are feeling
  • Encourage staff to journal, as this is a strategy that allows staff to process all the trauma to which they are currently being exposed

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