Myths and misconceptions about social workers are abundant within the general population, even among those who have never really interacted with social workers before. As a result, aspiring young social workers may carry false beliefs about their chosen profession into their graduate school internships and beyond.
Letting go of your misunderstandings about the social work profession is paramount to enjoying a successful and fulfilling career in social work. Not only can knowing the truth about social work ease your transition into the field, it can help you avoid burnout and enjoy a longer, more productive career. It’s important to know your limitations and draw clear boundaries between your work and personal lives. Be patient with clients, and don’t forget that therapy can be beneficial to you, too.
Know What a Social Worker Is — And Isn’t
If you want to enter the social work field, you should first have a clear idea of what a social worker does and what qualifications you need to become one. Many people believe that anyone who works to provide public services is a social worker, whether that person is a social service worker, a volunteer community worker, a caseworker, or an assistant of some kind. In order to be a social worker, you must have a degree in social work. Most social workers have at least a master’s degree in the field.
Social work, therefore, is not a volunteer gig. It’s a paid profession, members of which work to strengthen families, provide mental health services, and help vulnerable community members access the public services they need to grow and thrive. While social workers have the ability to connect community members to resources, they can’t provide welfare and often can’t guarantee access to resources.
Know Your Limits
Many young social workers enter the field thinking that they’ll be able to help every client every time. They may also suffer from the misapprehension that all clients will always be grateful and happy to receive their help.
The truth is that many clients will be reluctant to accept your help, to say the least. Some clients may come in only because they have been mandated into your care by the courts. Others may show up intermittently or not at all. You may not be able to help all of your clients, especially those who actively resist your help. You will only be able to help those clients that want your help.
Even when you can help a client, progress may not look the way you expect it to look. Each client is different and may do things differently than you do them. A client may take much more time than you would to work around to doing what may seem like a simple task, such as filling out a job application. Nor should you be in too much of a hurry to diagnose and “fix” anyone. Therapy is a process that often takes time, and cannot be rushed. Be patient with your clients. Allow them to set their own goals and work at their own pace.
Young social workers often don’t realize how hard it is to keep their professional and personal lives separated until they are in the thick of the profession. Social work is very interpersonal in nature. Your clients will tell you very personal things about themselves, and you’ll have plenty of feelings and thoughts about the things your clients say. Leaving these thoughts and feelings at work is not as simple as it sounds. But your clients deserve confidentiality, and you deserve time to decompress and unwind after a demanding day on the job.
Avoid discussing your clients’ specific circumstances on your off-hours, and make sure your family knows when you need some downtime. Learn to maintain professional boundaries. Prioritize and delegate chores at home so you don’t end up with too much on your plate. Make self-care a priority. Regular down time is a must, and talking to a therapist yourself can help you process the thoughts and feelings that may come up at work.
Social work can be a demanding profession, and it’s even more demanding when you’re operating under false assumptions about the work. Learn the truth about your chosen profession as soon as you can, and you’ll find your transition into this new line of work will be much smoother and more enjoyable.