Social workers deal with a range of difficulties when carrying out their duties, whether difficult people, distressing situations, or limitations on their ability to help people. The job can also take a toll on your emotional and physical well-being if you do not properly care for yourself and take steps to reduce stress.
For aspiring social workers, it’s important to be aware of the various challenges professionals face in the industry, as this helps you overcome them and progress in your career. Below, we examine the challenges faced by social workers and look at ways to overcome them.
Challenges in social work
Here are some examples of challenges faced by social workers:
Issues are broad and complex
Social workers require a range of soft and hard skills to do their jobs effectively, as the work involves tackling problems of all kinds. You may find yourself working on a case that’s completely unusual to you, but you must apply your training and experience to find solutions for people regardless. Your day-to-day cases may contrast drastically, and the situations you face may be complicated and involve multiple perspectives. This means you must use critical judgment to determine the true nature of situations and devise appropriate interventions.
Families and individuals may face challenges relating to poverty, crime, mental health issues, addiction, and discrimination. The multifaceted nature of social problems creates the need for social workers with the capacity to deal with different kinds of problems of varying levels of complexity. Social workers also have limited resources, so they must navigate these complex problems skillfully and allocate time and money efficiently. One important way social workers help people is through their vast knowledge of social support systems, as they can connect people with relevant services.
Emotionally challenging work
Another ever-present challenge of social work is the emotionally arduous nature of some of the work. This is why social workers need emotional resilience and to prioritize their mental health. The families or individuals that social workers help may be experiencing trauma or grief, which can be troubling to witness. You may also be exposed to upsetting situations, like child abuse, for example. These aspects of the job can take an emotional toll, so it is essential to be proactive in managing your emotional well-being.
Social workers can find themselves in ethical dilemmas when carrying out their work. For example, they may work with criminals, helping them to overcome problems in their lives and leading them away from crime. This can be morally difficult, as working with people whose views and behaviors are antithetical to yours can cause discomfort. You may also be required to keep details confidential, even when your ethical code tells you the information should be shared. Social work requires a non-judgmental outlook so professionals can navigate any ethical conflicts that arise.
Political and economic challenges
Sometimes social workers deal with issues directly resulting from political and economic policies, such as a lack of government funding in certain areas. This can be stressful because social workers understand that their impact is sometimes limited by forces outside their control. Changes in the economy or government policy can also impact social workers’ ability to help people, as it can restrict the resources available and lead to ineffective services. Working in different political contexts also means that social workers sometimes deal with victims of discrimination or other social injustices.
As society is constantly in flux, so is the profession of social work. This means there is pressure on social workers to adapt their techniques according to technological, economic, political, and cultural developments. Staying up to date with research and techniques through continuous development is essential for social workers to maintain effectiveness. This means that to develop and progress in your career, you need even more leverage, such as a master’s degree in social work. Social workers that lack development opportunities within their organization may find this additionally challenging.
How social workers can overcome challenges
Here are some potential solutions to each of the challenges mentioned above:
1. Issues are broad and complex. The only way to equip yourself to deal with the huge range of social problems is by continuously learning and expanding your knowledge and experience. As time passes, you will experience more and more issues, accumulating vast amounts of knowledge that you can apply to subsequent issues. You can also widen your skill set faster by attending training opportunities and seminars, collaborating with other professionals, and completing certification programs.
2. Emotionally challenging work. Prioritizing self-care is the best way to mitigate emotional distress, and you can do this in many ways. Proactively support your mental well-being through activities like exercise, healthy eating, meditation, and socializing. It is also a good idea to establish a support network, which can be with your colleagues, friends, or family members, so you have people to share your problems with.
3. Ethical conflicts. Maintaining an awareness of professional standards and codes of ethics can help you navigate morally difficult issues. If you feel something violates your personal code of ethics, you can refer to your professional code of ethics to understand why it may be necessary to the grand scheme of things. You can also seek support from colleagues, supervisors, or even legal professionals if necessary.
4. Political and economic challenges. While your ability to affect political change may be limited, there are still many activities you can engage in to promote positive change. For example, you can engage in advocacy efforts that lead to beneficial policy changes, which help to reduce social injustice and benefit your clients. You can also get involved with local government activities and discussions, form relationships with policymakers and stakeholders, and spearhead change.
5. Professional development. To ensure you’re always developing, engage in activities that broaden your knowledge and experience. This may be attending classes, networking with people in the industry, and completing educational programs. You can also speak to your employer about professional development and potentially taking on more responsibilities in your current position.
What you can do with a master’s degree in social work
So, what can you do with an MSW? Many graduates and aspiring social workers find themselves asking this question. Fortunately, social work is an interesting and varied career path with many specialisms to consider. Here are some professional avenues you can pursue with a master’s degree in social work, such as the one Florida State University offers:
Military social worker
Military social workers support members of the armed forces who have issues reentering society following a deployment, injury, or mental health crisis, for example. They may connect them with services and resources to help them overcome problems stemming from their work in the military. These professionals also work with the families of veterans and active service members, providing various services depending on the situation. They may arrange for families to receive emotional support, or they may work with veterans facing issues like PTSD, substance abuse, depression, and anxiety brought on by their experiences in war.
Military social workers also help veterans who have sustained serious injuries, helping them access welfare, counseling, or rehabilitation services. Military social workers have unique training and expertise to support service personnel and ex-service members with the various issues that may affect them. This helps them overcome emotional, socioeconomic, psychological, or physical problems and reintegrate into society.
School social worker
School social workers have specialized training that helps them support children with problems relating to educational and social success. They may work with children with behavioral issues, intervening to try and reduce negative behavior and participate more positively in school activities. They may also support children with difficult situations at home, such as socioeconomic problems or abuse. School social workers assess students on their behavior, learning ability, and social situation to understand any impediments to learning and social integration. This helps them create tailored intervention strategies to enhance the lives of struggling students.
Geriatric social worker
This type of social worker specializes in helping the elderly with the various issues that accompany the aging process. They help them access the support they need regarding welfare and medicine, promote independent living, and help them with any mental or emotional issues. By conducting assessments and learning about the unique situations of their clients, these professionals can develop intervention strategies and help them access the resources they need. Some geriatric social workers play a significant role in the lives of their clients, advocating their best interests and helping them get the care and social support they need.
Social workers specializing in policy advocacy, or those who advocate for beneficial social policies in their spare time, help to drive both small-scale and large-scale political action. Advocacy is defined as arguing in favor of a particular person, perspective, or issue. This may relate to housing access, healthcare, welfare, or food access, and they may advocate for policies based on the specific needs of their clients. This work requires social workers to get involved with local government processes, form relationships with policymakers and stakeholders, and convince people to allocate time and resources to social issues.
Clinical social worker
Clinical social workers possess advanced training and qualifications that help them assess, diagnose, and treat patients with various medical issues. These issues typically relate to behavioral, emotional, and mental illnesses that manifest themselves in disruptive ways in individuals. These professionals require licensing or certification at the clinical level in their state of practice. Clinical social workers may work in private practices, hospitals, primary care settings, and community mental health centers. This kind of social work also focuses on researching and preventing mental, emotional, and behavioral issues and making effective treatment options available in communities.
Medical social worker
Like clinical social workers, medical social workers help patients overcome health issues hindering their optimal functioning in society. While clinical social workers focus mainly on behavioral and mental health issues, medical social workers focus on patients’ physical and emotional needs. They may work with clients undergoing medical treatment or who’ve received a terminal diagnosis, as these situations can destabilize a person’s position in society. They perform psychological and psychosocial assessments to understand patients’ needs and support them throughout their medical issues.
Child welfare social worker
Child welfare social workers are the main figures that act on behalf of children, child welfare agencies, and families regarding issues like child protection, foster care, and adoption. These specialists protect children by recognizing early signs of distress, intervening, and taking the necessary steps to remove children from harm. They also work with adoption agencies to find children suitable homes, interviewing potential families and deciding where to place children. Child welfare social workers also try to keep existing families together where appropriate, which is called prevention and preservation. This involves working with families to resolve conflicts and remove problems.
Although a career in social work can present many challenges, the experience and understanding you gain during your studies and in the role itself make it very rewarding as you help those most in need.