The Covid-19 pandemic has taken a significant toll on social care professionals working with people with learning disabilities with 62% of providers reporting a rise in absenteeism relating to mental health.

The independent research - Pulse Check - was commissioned by learning disabilities charity Hft, which also found that social care providers appear to be reaching a "crisis point" as they tackle the persistent cost pressures over recent years.

The main cost pressure cited was rising wage bills (79%) followed by lack of fee income (63%). As a result, more than half (62%) said they have had to close down some parts of their organisation or hand back marginal contracts, up from 45% in the previous report.

The research was carried out by independent economics and business consultancy Cebr, and is the first of its kind to focus primarily on learning disability providers. Based on survey analysis from social care providers, it provides an annual snapshot of the financial health of the social care sector over the past year and an indication of how providers anticipate the next twelve months will progress.

Mental health of the workforce 

The report revealed that three in five providers funded mental health first aiders as part of a raft of preventative measures taken to safeguard their staff.

Compared to previous years, there was also a rise in a range of actions that were taken to promote mental health initiatives. Nearly all providers (96%) reported signposting to mental health services, up from 67%, while 87% provided mental health awareness training. The number providing in-house mental health first aiders has also risen from 38% to 62%.

The charity said that absenteeism rose by 10% on average across the sector due to mental health, during a time when care staff are playing a crucial role on the frontline to support vulnerable adults.

Kirsty Matthews, Chief Executive for Hft, added: “Our Sector Pulse report shows that in a year where the social care sector has played a pivotal role on the frontline, providers have gone to great lengths to support staff, who are crucial role to supporting some of the most vulnerable adults in society.

“It’s time to shine a light on the pandemic’s undervalued workforce and publicly recognise their efforts. It is vital the government provides a cash injection specifically to ensure frontline social care staff have the mental health support they deserve, and that it is not at the expense of an already beleaguered sector."

Persistent cost pressures 

More than half (62%) of those surveyed said they have had to close down some parts of their organisation or hand back marginal contracts, up from 45% in the previous report.

Around a third (29%) of providers have made redundancies, in keeping with the last two years, with one in ten saying they have had to offer care to fewer individuals. This is a trend that looks set to continue, with 47% stating they are likely to make staff redundancies in response to Covid-19 cost pressures.

Josie Dent, Managing Economist at Cebr, said: “The finances of the social care sector continue to stand in a precarious position as costs rise, yet in spite of this, the research shows providers have increased their mental health support for staff over the past year.

"Furthermore, a lack of fee income, cited by over three in five organisations, means these increasing costs are difficult to fund. We are therefore seeing more and more providers close down some parts of their organisation or hand back marginal contracts and services to their local authority, with 62% taking this action in 2020”.

Hft is now calling on the government to ensure the future financial sustainability of the social care sector by providing immediate funding to stabilise the social care system while working towards an equitable and sustainable funding solution in the longer term.

Edel Harris, Chief Executive of the learning disability charity Mencap, said: “Social care workers have been working hard in extremely challenging circumstances, risking their lives to keep the people they support safe and well. Tragically, some have lost their lives. Far too many are now struggling with poor mental health and exhaustion.

“Many social care providers have been doing what they can to support their colleagues during a very difficult time, but only a significant investment in social care reform will relieve the ongoing pressures on the sector and its workforce.

“Care workers deserve a long overdue pay rise to recognise their huge sacrifices during this crisis. Without investment and reform, we risk people with a learning disability and others not getting the support they need to lead healthy and happy lives. The Government must immediately deliver bold reform and commit to long-term, sustainablefunding to fix our broken social care system.”