Since my time beginning university, all the way at community college working towards my A.S. in Human Services, to being at one of the top Ivy League social work graduate schools, there is one consistent element that continues to frustrate me – the people becoming social workers. I see this with all pathways, be it direct practice, community support, and policy work. I see it with my own family members in college, and unfortunately, it plagues the halls of social work schools.
The inherent problem here is that the social services industry is sparse, lacking, and in desperate need of resources – including workers. There is also no protocol put in place that tests the personalities of the many students becoming social workers. Law enforcement officers must take a portion of an exam that covers ethics and personality characteristics, and we continue to see a plethora of bad cops. Imagine people with these same attitudes in the helping profession, with a field that’s too pressured, desperate, sleep deprived, and overwhelmed to intervene unless clients are at serious risk of harm. Sometimes, even there, issues with personnel are overlooked until it is too late.
I am writing this as a plea to check yourself before you enter the social work field. The people we work with, at all levels, are effected directly by your abilities or lack thereof. This is a skilled and highly trained and educated profession. We support the most vulnerable and at risk populations imaginable, and the harm that we can do should frighten you. Throughout university, icebreakers typically determined that everyone is pursuing social work “to make a difference” or “help people in need.” This is NOT enough. There will be too many times when you don’t see the difference, or when a difference is not made. There will be times when you do not help someone, or you are unable to. People are still worthy of empathy and compassion. Social work challenges you to your core, and exhausts any supply you possess.
If you do not have passion, true unfettered passion, please reconsider choosing social work.
If you have the arrogance to assume you can simply fix years of tangled, complex webs of human error and pain, perhaps social work is not for you.
If you fail to recognize the impact of power, race, oppression, and privilege on every aspect of the broken systems we work within, and the clients we work alongside, social work may not be for you.
If you believe social work is “just being nice to someone” or “just talking to someone,” you may want to change directions.
True social change cannot be made if the social workers that are going into the field do not possess the passion, strength, and ferocity to evoke into others. We cannot succeed if we choose social work because we feel like we’re nice people, or helping others makes us feel good. Social work is a significantly undervalued position that requires a heart like a servant’s.
We each hold our own biases, and that is unfortunately a part of human socialization. If you allow your biases to impact your work with a client, if you continue to hold harsh stereotypes without being self aware and assessing the reason why, you will cause harm, and social work is not for you. I will say this again – We are a highly skilled, trained, and educated profession. For much of the work we do, we must carry the knowledge and skill of various professionals combined. Social workers must handle stress, while also staying sane.
The many roles of the social worker are complex and often contradictory. If you want to be a social worker, you must understand that you are everything and nothing all at once. If you crave recognition, honors, and praise, you shouldn’t be in social work. We do recognize the great, and the world changers, and the impassioned, but you will fail if this is your intent.
If you cannot engage humans in a meaningful way that makes them feel like a human – if you are judgmental, surface-focused, and too quick to argue, do not even consider social work.
Social workers are prone to burnout. If you cannot work every aspect of your being in order to assist a client in need, and if you question your own reason for entering social work, it may best to turn another way. This profession is not for unproductive and unmotivated people that hold the perspective that sliding by in school or at field placements is enough. This field is heavy, and it will weigh you down. What will determine your abilities is if you’re able handle that weight, or if you let that crush you.
This post may come off harshly, but I think it must. I have observed far too many individuals, especially those in direct practice that should never work with any people, especially as a social worker. I write this with true frustration because the people, the human lives that we work with deserve the most. I am tired of not doing our profession and our clients justice. They deserve better, and honestly, social work as a whole deserves better. Social work is a beautiful career, with dedicated, compassionate, and skilled people working here. However, with all careers and pathways, there are those that should have gone a different route. Please. Before you are working alongside individuals in harrowing situations, evaluate yourself, who you are, and if you are truly able to do this WELL. It is okay if you can’t, we each have our own calling. But it is time we truly become client-centered and assess whether or not we are able to fulfill what this career allots to us. Do not put another human’s life at risk for low quality social work because of your arrogance and unwillingness to see this field is not for you. Being a social worker isn’t about you. It is truly a giving and helping profession, and we should never ever take that lightly.
Laura Swanson, BSW
Disclaimer: This blog post represents the MINORITY of social work students I have seen. The MAJORITY of social workers excel because they have the qualities of passion, ferocity, and general human decency. I wrote this post because of frustration with just a couple individuals I have interacted with, that called into question the ethics of passing a social work student if there was genuine concern they would cause harm in the future career. Social workers are amazing, and we deal with a lot. Social workers also struggle – This post is not saying you must have it all together all of the time, I certainly do not. Please understand that this post comes from a place of love, advocacy, and truly wanting other to view social workers in a more positive light, as well as give our clients and populations the most effective support possible.