Though the role of a link worker has been around under many different names before (community connector, health advisor, community navigator to name a few), the term link worker has only entered the common vocabulary during the last several years. There are over 1,300 link workers offering their help to people across England and this number is still increasing as NHS England’s goal is to have 900,000 people referred into social prescribing by 2023/2024.
A link worker serves as the core contact person for someone who has been prescribed into social prescribing. Together with that person a link worker sets up a personalised action plan (where appropriate), pinpointing what is important to the individual and offers help and suggestions for community services based on that.
Most importantly a link worker offers dedicated time to a person to figure out what works for them. Where the GP might be able to offer a quick 5-to-10-minute conversation, a link worker often takes 45 minutes to speak to a person.
Not surprisingly this means it is a highly social role with a lot of client contact. Due to the nature of this role, it is important a link worker is empathetic and has great listening skills.
The key to this type of intervention is that it is non-medical. Rather than offering a medicine as a solution, it is finding lifestyle changing that benefit the physical and mental health of a person and reduce for example loneliness or other low-level mental health issues.
In practice this means that someone feeling lonely and enjoys nature might be directed towards a rambling group. Someone who enjoys singing might be referred into a choir. A person who enjoys working with their hands might benefit from gardening or a knitting group.
Where are social prescribing link workers stationed?
Link workers are stationed at many different organisations. They can work at voluntary organisations, local councils, housing associations as well as GP Practices and primary care networks.
Their place of work greatly depends on the locality and type of contract that’s been set up within that area. Primary care networks can hire link workers themselves and assign them to certain GP Practices or work in partnership with existing social prescribing models.
Improvement to be made for the link worker role
Via reports by amongst others the National Association of Link Workers (NALW), attention has been brought to the working conditions of link workers. The role of the link worker can be a fairly isolated profession, in particular if they work as the sole link worker across multiple GP Practices, meaning it is difficult for them to fully become an integral part of one particular (practice) team.
During a 2019 report ‘Getting to know the link worker workforce’ the NALW found that a great number of social prescribing link workers struggled with the ‘Lack of resources/funding in the community/difficulty to access resources in the community/council etc’ (p.17 of named report).
The role has really come into its own during the pandemic response. It is vital link workers are supported and their professional needs are met to make the role sustainable in the long term.