Social work is a rapidly expanding field, and more and more ranks of social workers are entering the field with every passing year – specializing in a broad range of concentrations from family structures to domestic violence counseling.
One thing that remains universal among all social workers, however, is how challenging the field is, particularly for social workers who are emotionally sensitive to the world and, subsequently, to their clients' troubles and suffering. The phrase "I wish I had known X" is heard often in this essential and rewarding, but sometimes grueling, field that presents new challenges every day – even for veteran social workers. Here are five things social workers wish they knew before joining the field.
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Burnout Is Real
Whether you are a brand-new social worker just starting out at your first clinic or have owned a practice for many years, burnout is a problem for every social worker in the field. All too frequently, burnout causes even the best and brightest social workers – some who have helped thousands of patients – to leave their social work careers for good. Being a social worker involves heavy amounts of emotional labor and going the extra mile with often limited resources to help patients. Keep an eye on your energy level and monitor your own physical and mental health carefully, and when and where you need to, step away for a time to recharge.
Your Role Is Limited
Social workers almost never enter the field for love of money or fear of lacking job security – they do it because they love to help people. However, most social workers are given scarce resources to help clients, limiting the ways in which they are able to help. This is something all social workers have to accept in the course of their job – that while they can do great work in helping their clients, they will almost never be able to do as much as they want to do, and that they cannot single-handedly solve all of the problems their clients present with. Creatively facilitating problem solving – or helping people to help themselves – is a key skill.
It's Acceptable to Take a Break
Even if you love your career as a social worker, burnout is an ever-present problem. However, many social workers feel reluctant – or even guilty – if a break is suggested or if it comes into their mind that they ought to do so. The role of the social worker is an important one, but taking an equanimical view is important: if a social worker burns out completely, they will be unable to continue helping clients. Taking a break from the work is absolutely essential – and will assist the social worker in better helping a larger number of clients in the long run.
You Can't Always Leave the Work at the Door
Every social worker will handle cases that are immensely worrying to them, especially for those working with children, adolescents, or domestic violence victims. While the conventional wisdom in social work is "leave your work at the door," there will be times where the social worker finds themselves emotionally unable to do so. When handling cases such as these, the social worker should remind themselves that they are developing, or have developed, a treatment plan to help these particular clients, of the resources at their disposal to do so, and the knowledge that they are doing all they can.
You'll Never Be Paid As Much As You Want
While being a social worker is not the worst paid profession, it is far from the best – and even long-time social workers will rarely be paid quite as much as they wish no matter how clients they want. Social workers entering the field should be prepared for long hours for mediocre pay, and husband their financial resources wisely so that they are not additionally burdened by financial struggle in the early years of their career.
These challenges are universal to nearly all social workers in the field. They should not deter those intent on becoming social workers from doing so, but being cognizant of them can help those entering the field to have a successful and years-long career.