(19 October 2023) The Eurofound recently published the research report “Living conditions and quality of life - Social services in Europe: Adapting to a new reality”, focusing on the impact the pandemic had on social services, the lessons we learned from it, and how it can make social services more resilient in the future.
The pandemic affected social services in many different ways and it is clear that social services were ill-prepared for a crisis such as the pandemic. The increased demand on social services during the pandemic caused increased stress to both the users and the providers of the service. The pandemic caused an urgent need for digitalisation across sectors. However, even though the healthcare sector on average is more digitalised than other sectors, one out of five healthcare workers do not use any digital devices. It was also very difficult to transfer social services that had previously been conducted face-to-face into a digital service.
According to the report, social services were especially ill-prepared in terms of the medical capacity, the availability of medical equipment, and personal protective equipment. This in combination with the preexisting structural weaknesses within the social services sector, such as underfunding, staff shortages, and poor working conditions, and with difficulties in ensuring the availability, the accessibility, the affordability, and the quality of services, negatively affected the overall functioning the sector. The report mentions that the pandemic should not be seen as an isolated instance that disrupted the operation of social services, but that the structural weaknesses within social services that came to light because of the pandemic.
The report shows that over the last two decades, total social expenditure (public and private) in the EU has remained stable, reaching a peak of 34.9% of economic output (GDP) in 2020 at the height of the pandemic, dropping only slightly to 33.4 % of GDP in 2021. In contrast to the financial crisis of 2008-09 and its aftermath where austerity was the order of the day, the European response to the pandemic was very different and the focus shifted how to establish stronger, greener, more resilient public and social services better able to cope with future crises.
The post-pandemic challenges - Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the energy crisis, and rising inflation - all highlight the need to strengthen the resilience of public services and society. The report argues that the priority for the social services sector is the need to develop clear contingency plans and the methodologies to assess them. It also calls for social services providers to be included in policy planning and for them to assess the training available to social services workers to make sure it is relevant and accessible. Providers should address the role and potential of digitalisation and improve health and safety awareness in care settings, strengthening support measures for workers, taking account of burnout and stress. Finally, the report calls for an improvement to the procedures for accessing funding at both EU and national level.