Coronavirus (COVID-19): 8 Ethical Considerations for Social Workers

The COVID-19 (coronavirus) is rapidly transforming the way we go about day-to-day living. What should social workers do to prepare for the impact of this pandemic?

1. Practice Self-Care

Today, more than ever, social workers are susceptible to burnout and compassion fatigue due to the multitude of stressors that collectively increase the risk of impairment and lapses in judgment. This can compromise one’s competence, resulting in unethical behavior.

Social workers should incorporate self-care into their daily routine as an essential ingredient for effective and ethical practice. Self-care is not being selfish. You cannot serve others well when you do not take care of yourself.

Self-care includes sufficient sleep, healthy nutrition, positive mindset, exercise, and social support. Mindfulness, breathing exercises, yoga, and meditation practices are among the many ways that social workers can incorporate balance into their lifestyle.

2. Have a Plan

Standard 1.15, Interruption of Services, advises social workers to make reasonable efforts to ensure continuity of services in the event that services are interrupted. In the face of a public health emergency, social workers should have a plan for how to handle an interruption in services due to the need for quarantine or in the event of illness. Moreover, social workers should develop and support policies and procedures that uphold clients’ best interests during service interruptions. This is especially true for independent private practitioners.

For example:

  • If you are unable to see clients or they are unable to get to you, what supports and/or resources can you offer them to assist them in the absence of services?
  • Are you equipped to provide remote services?
  • Have you identified an emergency backup person or system authorized to access clients’ records and to assist in the event of your unavailability?
  • Have you communicated an emergency plan or policy and secured the appropriate valid consent necessary to execute it?

3. Educate and Communicate

In a public emergency, educating individuals and communities about the implications for day-to-day life is critical but can be especially challenging when the impact cannot be fully anticipated. Communication is key to helping consumers plan for the emotional, social, and other emergent concerns in a public health emergency.

Be proactive:

  • Stay abreast of and coordinate with vital local, state and federal resources that can meet emergent needs during the emergency.
  • To the extent possible, provide informative updates to clients using a secure means of communication that will not breach privacy and confidentiality.

4. Become Competent in the Use of Technology

In some instances, it may be appropriate to provide telehealth service options to consumers during public health emergencies. Before deciding to provide telehealth services social workers should do the following:

Ensure that they have the necessary knowledge and skills to provide such services in a competent manner. This includes understanding the special communication challenges when using technology and the ability to implement strategies to address these challenges. See Standard 1.04(d), Competence.

Become proficient in the technological skills and tools required for competent and ethical practice; and seek appropriate training and consultation to stay current with emerging technologies.

Check with applicable licensing boards regarding standards for providing professional social work services using technology in both your jurisdiction and the jurisdiction where your client is located, per standard 1.04(e), Competence. Check with the applicable licensing board(s) to see if exceptions are being made to allow for the provision of telehealth services within or outside of the licensee’s state.

5. Ensure Privacy for All Electronic Communications and Records

Social workers who elect to communicate electronically with clients should adhere to ethical responsibilities related to Standard 1.07, Privacy and Confidentiality.

The NASW Code of Ethics, Standard 1.07(m), states that “social workers should take reasonable steps to protect the confidentiality of electronic communications, including information provided to clients or third parties.

Furthermore, “Social workers should use applicable safeguards (such as encryption, firewalls, and passwords) when using electronic communications such as e-mail, online posts online chat sessions, mobile communication, and text messages.”

The ethical and other professional standards that apply to in-person communication and documentation also apply when communicating electronically. In addition, it is not uncommon for communications in the form of e-mail and other electronic means to be included in legal and professional review matters.

6. Arrange Consent for Use of Technology in Service Delivery

Social workers who communicate with clients electronically should make sure they have arranged for valid consent before delivering services remotely. Standard 1.03(e), Informed Consent, states that “social workers should discuss with clients the social workers’ policies concerning the use of technology in the provision of professional services.”

7. Uphold Privacy and Confidentiality

Social workers are responsible for becoming knowledgeable about their professional role in applying local, state, or federal laws pertaining to testing guidelines and reporting mandates relevant to public health emergencies. Social workers should seek ethical, clinical, and legal consultation when their ethical obligations conflict with relevant laws or regulations.

During a public emergency, questions about when it’s appropriate to honor requests for client information may arise. Standard 1.01, Commitment to Clients, and 1.07(c), Privacy and Confidentiality, address circumstances that warrant exceptions to confidentiality, specifically when legal, social, or compelling professional reasons require disclosure to protect the client or others.

Social workers should exercise sound professional judgment when considering when it is appropriate to disclose client information. Social workers should seek legal or medical consultation as necessary to address questions that arise about interpreting and appropriately applying state reporting law as it pertains to COVID-19 and other public emergencies.

8. Public Emergencies

In line with the ethical principle that social workers’ primary goal is to help people in need and to address social problems, Standard 6.03, Public Emergencies, states: “Social workers should provide appropriate professional services in public emergencies to the greatest extent possible.”

Related Resources

During this unique and dynamic time, social workers should check with applicable licensing board(s), their liability insurance providers, and other regulatory bodies including employers for changes in policy and exceptions in response to COVID-19.

The following resources and publications are provided to assist social work professionals with doing their due diligence to respond ethically during a public health emergency.


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