I worked in child welfare for 17 years after I first earned my BSW. I was an expert in everything child welfare. I finally decided I wanted to try a new path. (Which is one of the awesome aspects of social work–there are always different paths to choose!) I accepted a job as a dialysis social worker and I had no idea what being a medical social worker entailed. At all. I started working for an independent dialysis center and I was the only social worker there so no one to train me. I asked my supervisor –not a social worker – for training for my job, she said – “Do social work things.” Not the most helpful advice andI really had no idea my responsibilities were and the positive impact I could have as a medical social worker. I learned on the job, picked up a few things and now have years of experience in the medical field.
One of the unique aspects of social work is that we are not just counselors or therapists, we are also advocates. We understand that the environments individuals live in have an effect on how their lives may be playing out. We advocate on both the level of individual client and at the larger macro level. We are encouraged and even expected – as is written in the Social Worker Code of Ethics– to fight against exploitation and ensure people have access to their basic human rights. Being involved in social justice issues and policy is all part of being a social worker. I have always thought it was a bit freeing that not only can I question authority and status quo but that it is expected!
People are complicated. As a social worker, you are often working with individuals in immense emotional and often physical pain. One of the best aspects of being a social worker is when you help someone heal. Other times, a client can have difficulty moving out of their pain. It can be scary for a social worker (new or experienced) to have a client indicate they are going to irrevocably harm themselves. I know a lot of therapists who say they don’t take clients who are at high risk of suicide but anyone you work with may be at risk. It is essential, to be willing to be aware that suicide might be a risk.
Maybe you just graduated and are looking for your first social work job. Maybe you are searching out the perfect practices or internship. Maybe you’d have been doing this social work thing awhile and are looking for greener pastures, we all go through the interview process at some time. I have had many, many, many, many interviews where the outcomes have ranged from ecstatically successful to horrendous. I have also been interviewing and hiring people for years. Hopefully, some of my thoughts will help you land your perfect job.
I worked at a dialysis corporation for a few years in my career. We occasionally had large group social worker meetings that employees from the corporate office sometimes came to present. Often when Corporate came, they would talk about finances and insurance billing and the cost of doing business. Virtually every time, the corporate employee would say something like “as social workers, you all just want to help people and you don’t really understand or care about the money aspect.” It always felt very condescending like there was some deficiency with social workers because we care about helping individuals and that we all weren’t quite sophisticated enough to understand the reality of business.
Social Workers are actually extremely proficient at understanding how systems work and that nothing exists in a vacuum. When we look at the big picture it is easy to see how there is a business aspect to social work. Not only is money involved in how we can provide our services, we will work for businesses – our own or someone else’s. This will necessitate understanding business or management information.
Chances are – if you are good at your job – you will be asked to take on more responsibilities – probably become someone who manages people. The thing, though, just because you are a good social worker does not mean you automatically have the skills to be a good leader or manager. Your social work skills help you but there is a whole new world to learn. Maybe you dream of owning your own private practice. In both of these scenarios, you will have to develop skills that hone your business sense. If you know you want to own your own business or become a manager or director of some type, you may want to look at school programs that also have social service slanted business classes. (Some schools even have MSW/MBA programs.) Many MSW programs do not have classes on social service management. My MSW program only had one class focusing on the business aspect of social work.
Although I absolutely love the clinical aspect of my job, I think I am happiest with managing a staff at my current corporate job and also immensely enjoy running my private practice. The business aspect of social work is my favorite. Below is a mishmash of my thoughts on the business part of social work.
Did you know May is Mental Health Month? May is designated to highlight the discussion of mental health and helping fight stigma. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) indicates that over 43 million adults live with a mental illness every year – that is approximately 1 in 5 adults in the United States. This means that you know many people who are struggling with mental health issues. If you are in a helping profession you are likely encountering many individuals whose mental health is affecting their day to day life.
What can you do to promote mental health awareness and your own mental health?
Although social workers often see the very best of people, there is no doubt that the average worker also sees much sadness and struggle. Some social workers practice among poverty and violence. Some work with individuals who are physically ill or dying. It is safe to say that social workers treat an array of people and problems.
This sadness can add up. I supervise a team of care coordinators who work with individuals who have high acuity of physical and/or mental health needs. They are transitioning clients from a long term setting into the community. Although they see lots of success, they encounter loss each day. They listen to people’s stories which are wrought with loss. They watch people relapse into addiction. They watch individuals deteriorate physically and sometimes decompensate mentally. They have clients die under both expected and unexpected circumstances. This can be wearing on workers. When we experience loss we often feel grief. Grief is one of those uncomfortable feelings we often try to avoid.
Most of us understand personal loss. Personal loss includes things like a death of family or a loved one. It may be loss of a pet, a job or of a dream. It may be loss of an idea or transition to another stage of life or a divorce. We deal with personal loss by using our support system and talking about it. We have rituals and memorials. We use self-care. Much of our personal life is seen by people we love so there is support. It can be somewhat different for professional loss.
Professional loss is what we experience in our work lives with clients. It is different from personal loss because the relationships are different and often we don’t stop and take a moment to acknowledge and grieve. Professional losses are often internalized. It is possible we might go home and say we had a rough day or maybe even say a client died but we can’t share much of our experiences with family and friends so we miss out on the support you would get when family and friends are sharing the loss with you.
Happy Social Work Month! March is recognized as the month to celebrate Social Workers.
So if you are one of the almost 600,000 social workers or working toward being one, make sure to celebrate a little!
If you are thinking about becoming a social worker or really if you are thinking about furthering your education in any area – What is stopping you?
Ted talks are on such an array of subjects. There are several that I have assigned to clients in my private practice and there are a few I’ve used in training with the team of care coordinators I supervise. In our time-crunched world, sometimes a 10 minute or more video seems impossibly long. I would encourage you to take some time and watch some talks that interest you. Below are some of my favorite talks that I think are beneficial for social workers and those who are interested in social work. Whatever topic you may be interested in – I bet you find it in TED talks.
Maybe Social Work as a career has appealed to you, but you have doubts if the field is a good fit because you want to be a therapist. The mental health field is riddled with different fields of study that lead to a career as a therapist. These disciplines often overlap but each one has their own strength to bring to the table when treating clients.
Can a social worker’s training prepare them to be a clinical therapist? The answer is yes! As a social worker, I admit bias, but there are many reasons being a social worker makes for a fantastic therapist.