How has COVID-19 impacted on the role of palliative care social workers?

Coronavirus (COVID-19) impacted on many aspects of health and care delivery. On World Social Work Day 2022, Dr Audrey Roulston, Senior Lecturer in Social Work, Queen’s University Belfast / Co-Chair of the EAPC Social Work Task Force and Dr Jana Ross, Post-Doctoral Research Assistant, Queen’s University Belfast, report on a unique survey to find out about the experiences of palliative care social workers across Europe, USA, Asia and Australia.

Dr Audrey Roulston and Dr Jana Ross
Dr Audrey Roulston and Dr Jana Ross

The COVID-19 pandemic presented new challenges, which brought about changes in numerous ways, including the way people lived, worked, socialised and died. Based on the media and anecdotal reports from professionals, we know that the delivery of health and social care services was either paused, restricted or completely overburdened because of the rapid spread of the Coronavirus and its potentially fatal consequences. Throughout the pandemic, the EAPC Social Work Task Force and the World Hospice Palliative Care Social Work Network continued to meet regularly and continued to offer support to frontline palliative care social workers, who were often feeling overwhelmed.

Palliative care social workers specialise in offering psychosocial support to adults and children with a life-threatening illness, from diagnosis up to the end of their life, and their families. They use particular skills and knowledge to help people deal with loss and bereavement, which can complement those of other health and social care professionals also helping these families,. They also work in partnership with service users, carers and other professionals or organisations to promote social change, social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities. Social workers engage with people and communities to address life challenges, enhance wellbeing, and ensure that people get the required support. Palliative care social workers may work in hospices or hospitals, in the community, or in prisons. Together with colleagues from across Europe, USA, Asia and Australia, members of the EAPC Social Work Task Force designed an online survey questionnaire, which was translated and distributed to palliative care social workers in a range of settings (community, outpatient, inpatient units, hospice, etc.) and across different countries. It enquired about services that palliative care social workers offered pre-COVID, ways in which the services were affected and changes that were implemented as a result of COVID-19. The questionnaire was translated from English into Czech, German, Hungarian, Italian, Slovak, Portuguese and Spanish and circulated by members of the European Association of Palliative Care and the World Hospice Palliative Care Social Work Network, to their respective palliative care social work networks.

We received responses from 362 palliative care social workers from across 21 different countries. The results showed that during COVID-19, the majority of social workers in our sample were working in adult home palliative care services (41.16% of the sample), adult hospital palliative care support teams (27.65%) and adult inpatient hospice (23.15%). When asked whether the number of referrals to their social work service changed during COVID-19, compared to the period before, a total of 41.82% of social workers reported an increase in the number of referrals. The majority also reported that the intensity of their work has changed (67.20%) and they felt increased pressure due to the nature of COVID-19 restrictions (65.27%). Many also reported having to use IT for online meetings or appointments (54.34%), working from home (45.34%), feeling increased pressure due to additional work duties (45.66%) and having to facilitate online communication between patients and their families (40.84%). For a large proportion of social workers in our sample, COVID-19 also meant that they could no longer deliver the full range of social work services (46.08%), they had to change their existing social work services (45.73%) and they needed to introduce new social work services (34.81%). We found the responses to be comparable across European and non-European countries.

These findings quantify some of the challenges that palliative care social workers have had to deal with since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are currently analysing the qualitative open-ended questions, which will provide a deeper understanding of the above statistics. We are also conducting a scoping review of the impact of COVID-19 on palliative care social work services. Together, the full results may help us understand some of the positive and negative implications of the impact of COVID-19 on palliative care social work services, including policy, service development and workforce requirements.

We would like to thank all the respondents and members of the EAPC Social Work Task Force who translated the survey questions for data collection and participant responses for data analysis.


EAPC Task Forces are formed by interested EAPC members from a range of disciplines and different countries, who work collaboratively on a specific time-limited project. Find out more here

Links and resources

About the authors

Audrey Roulston is a Senior Lecturer in Social Work, in the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work, Queen’s University Belfast. She is co-chair of the EAPC Social Work Task Force and member of the EAPC Prison Task Force. She has 25 years’ experience in palliative care social work, through practice, research and education.

Jana Ross is a Post-Doctoral Research Assistant at Queen’s University Belfast. Her main research interests are trauma and mental health and more recently the impacts of COVID-19 on health and social care.


This entry was posted in EAPC Task Forces/Reference Groups, Social work and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.