On my first day in my first class in what has become an arduous, eight-year journey to become a social worker, our teacher told us that we would spend the entire period walking around the college asking people one question: What do social workers do?
The response was overwhelming. About 50% said “take babies away,” 25% of people said “help families in difficulty,” about 10% said something around the lines of “Help make a better world” and the final 15% said something degrading and insulting about social workers.
So what do we do? All of the above.
We aren’t liked. There is a huge stigma that comes along with the title of “social worker.” Yes, sometimes our jobs require that we remove children from their families. We help families and individuals who are experiencing difficulties. We advocate in our communities to make a better, safer place to live. And sometimes we mess up, royally.
But why am I writing this? Why is it so important that people understand what social workers do? Let’s break this down. Social work is broadly defined by Dictionary.com as:
Organized work directed toward the betterment of social conditions in the community, as by seeking to improve the condition of the poor, to promote the welfare of children, etc.
Whoa. Is that all? Social workers are found everywhere. Hospitals, elderly homes, schools, the army, private corporations, social service institutions, community centers, rehabilitation facilities, religious centers, community organizations… We work with children, the elderly, the physically disabled, refugees, families, soldiers, people with mental illness, convicts, and the homeless. There is hardly a person alive who has never dealt with a social worker in some context.
I asked some of my colleagues to come up with a quote describing either social work, or what social work means to them. The results were heartwarming:
“It gives me a reason to get up in the morning.”
“I need to help people like social workers have helped me.”
“I really just couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”
But one description of social work seriously astounded me:
A social worker is like a cheerleader, but sometimes they’ve also got to be a coach or a trainer… and it’s also kind of like being a doctor trying to fix people’s problems but then there are also moments like in nursing when you just have to be with someone while they go through it all… and sometimes you might feel like a lawyer or a negotiator or sometimes a secretary or a teacher or historian… and sometimes a politician and sometimes a detective. That’s the heart of a social worker.
This description touches me so much because it is so true. I have been called for legal advice, I have had to do homework and tutor students who come to see me, and I have gone to wait for eight hours in an emergency room with a client just to ensure that they feel supported and safe while going to see a doctor.
And yet, we are displayed as the scum of the professional orders; the ones that other professionals use because we get the work done and don’t complain if we need to get our hands dirty. We do the work that others won’t: advocating for the poor and unfortunate, intervening with and perhaps dividing a family, supporting workers on strike.
So how do we do it? This is why social workers are hated so often; we don’t have a right or wrong way of doing anything. Sure, we have general theories and guidelines that we use and apply in our work, but each organization will have different guidelines. We don’t have a defined model like the “medical model” or the “psychiatric model;” instead, we work with our hearts, our heads, and with different theories. We have many diverse models that we use all at once, and in many different ways. But having so many theories leads to many different forms of practice, which then leads to many mistakes.
How can we guarantee similar services when no two services that are needed are the same? Well, we can’t. No matter how similar two people’s separate stories may seem, the service and help that they need won’t be the same. Lately, social work has been under particular stress to become more than just a professional order. There has been pressure to define social work, and give us specific roles. There is also pressure to start applying specific types of intervention; but how can one type of intervention be enough for somebody who has so many roles within one society?
We are not psychologists. We do not fit in to the “social sciences” mold, because social work is not a science, it is an art. Social work is a passion.
Just like any athlete or artist has a passion for what they create, social workers do too. An artist feels what is needed to complete a piece, and while social work will often use facts and theories as a basis for what a client needs, we will most often try to get a feeling of what the client’s priorities are. We work using everything that we are. Just like artists and athletes, we will work ourselves to the bone trying to help our clients.
However, as much as we enjoy and feel compassion for these people, this often leads to burn outs. We are human as well, after all. How is it that the profession that is most likely to help people avoid burn outs, is also the profession that is most likely to experience them? Most social workers have caseloads that are way above the limit that they are supposed to have. Most perform side projects for their agencies, or take on another worker’s caseload that is on a leave of absence. We never stop, and rarely tell ourselves when we have had enough. This is why I am writing this article. This is why I feel there is a need for clarity on what a social worker can help you with. We aren’t miracle workers; we will work with you for months and it may seem like we did nothing for you, but for us it was months of devoting time to you so you can become more like the person you want to be. Yet more often than not, we are the ones who are in need of help and yet have nowhere to receive it.
Who helps the helpers?