Here are some of the most important qualities you need to succeed as a social worker.
Social work can be mentally, physically and emotionally draining. You will work with society’s most vulnerable people, and encounter issues such as alcoholism, physical abuse, sexual abuse, physical disabilities, learning disabilities, poverty, deprivation, drug addiction and mental illness on a daily basis.
It’s important to be strong when faced with all the above. Things may not go to plan, your workload may become stressful and particular cases can be very upsetting. Consequently, the ability to keep going and remain positive in the face of all these challenges is something all social workers need.
Fundamentally, social work is about caring for others. Yet as a social worker, you need to go beyond caring – you need to empathise with service users, often in incredibly difficult circumstances.
To many, your presence is a sign that something in their lives has gone wrong, and this can be very distressing. As such, being able to put yourself in a service user’s shoes and understand their hopes, fears and concerns is crucial to good practice.
With a full caseload to manage, meetings to attend, paperwork to complete and service users to visit, there will be lots of demands on your time. That’s not to mention the everyday risk of emergencies to attend to which may throw your plans out of the window. Keeping on top of your workload while tackling other tasks is hard, so you need to be prepared if you’re going to manage it.
In situations like this, you need to be able to stay organised, juggle multiple priorities and cope with changing plans. Your work will rarely fit into neat boxes, so being able to adapt in a fast-moving environment is very important.
As a social worker, the decisions you make can have major repercussions for other people’s lives. This is not a responsibility to be taken lightly, and can lead to situations where emotions run high for both you and the service user.
Social work is a very involving profession, but finding the best course of action often involves taking a step back and making a less emotional, more measured decision. While it isn’t always possible to be truly objective, a healthy degree of detachment will allow you to see the bigger picture.
Many service users may be reluctant to share their experiences with you, or talk about their situation. Some may be instinctively mistrustful of social workers. This can make it difficult to build the level of trust needed for them to engage and speak openly with you.
You need to be able to meaningfully interact with service users, and establish trusting, respectful relationships. Building this level of understanding is a slow process that requires patience. It could take months – or even longer – and setbacks may well happen, but you need to be able to stay the course.
Social workers interact with people from all walks of life, and great communication skills are essential. Your day could involve writing a report, taking part in a team meeting, calling another agency and a family visit. The ability to adapt and make yourself understood regardless of audience or circumstances is therefore extremely important.
You may also need to explore and develop other communication methods with service users. Some may have sensory impairments or learning disabilities, and may not be able to communicate in traditional ways. Being able to tackle this will help you build relationships in otherwise difficult circumstances.
As a social worker, you need to be able to ask difficult questions, talk about sensitive topics, and deliver needs which might be hard to hear. This requires a good deal of tact and diplomacy.
Although your decisions may be made with the best intentions, it will be hard to keep all parties happy. Delivering your message carefully and sensitively can help make it easier for a service user or their family to understand and accept.