Social Welfare & Justice

Becoming a Social Worker: 7 Things You Should Know

Becoming a Social Worker

Research is essential in finding the right degree program. Consider looking into factors like the average salary for professionals in a certain industry, the market demand for a particular position, the cost of a specific degree path, and even its curriculum.

But it’s more challenging to pinpoint what the day-to-day job responsibilities are for individuals working in your industry. Social work is a noble profession that demands dedication, compassion, and a strong sense of social justice. However, it's also a career that comes with a unique set of challenges.

What to Know Before Becoming a Social Worker

An introductory social work course inspired Dr. Ellen Belluomini, assistant professor of social work at University of Massachusetts Global (UMass Global), to continue studying social work and pursue the field as her major. Discussions on social justice, advocacy, and mental health fueled a passion she never knew she had.

“I felt I could change the world,” Dr. Ellen Belluomini says. “I set forth a path in the social work profession and never looked back. But, as with all careers, there are things I wish I had known when I chose social work as a profession.”

Now with decades of experience under her belt, Dr. Belluomini has ample wisdom to share. Here are seven things Dr. Belluomini believes aspiring social workers should know before entering the field.

1. Social Work is an Expansive Field

For Abigale Johnson, a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) and social work supervisor at Bellevue Hospital, the breadth of the field was surprising at first. “I didn’t realize that there are so many places and populations that social workers service,” she says.

Johnson highlights that professionals in the field can work with clients of all ages and in different settings. Some workplace environments include hospitals, prisons, law offices, community mental health facilities, and private practices.

A social worker’s duties are also extensive. Christine Smith, a master-qualified international social worker, explains that these human services professionals are more than case managers. As a social worker, you’d also have the opportunity to act in the following capacities:

  • Therapist
  • Program developer
  • Policy analyst
  • Researcher
  • Supervisors and trainer
  • Community outreach worker
  • Diplomat
  • Marketing professional

“There is a large expectation that social workers are only talking or listening, but this job goes way further than that,” Smith adds. She encourages new social work students to go into their studies with the mindset that they will be learning something applicable to the job with every new assignment.

2. Changing the World is Hard and Takes Time

When Dr. Belluomini graduated with her social work degree, she started full throttle. She threw herself into ideas, plans, and advocacy endeavors with hopes of making her mark on the world.

“My life became social work,” she says. “If I wasn’t at work in a long-term substance abuse treatment program, then I attended protests, wrote letters to congresspersons, and participated in community meetings promoting public good.”

The road to social change can be long and arduous, requiring patience and perseverance. Don’t get disheartened by the pace of change, it’s important you embrace the entire journey.

Considering becoming a social worker?

Explore more about the field and its different career paths.

3. Recognizing Privilege and Biases Can Be Crucial

Our experts maintain that remaining aware of where you fit into our societal system is part of being an effective social worker. Social work involves working with individuals from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and communities. This diversity brings with it unique challenges and considerations.

“Each person I meet has unique circumstances,” Dr. Belluomini says. “Awareness of my privilege helps me to see the client’s circumstances through their eyes and not my own.”

Privilege, she explains, comes in many different packages — race, gender, income, education, age, sexual orientation, ability, and more. “Thirty years of being a social worker, and I am still finding new ways to reflect on my privilege and support those who do not benefit from it,” Dr. Belluomini adds.

Additionally, you must proactively educate yourself about different cultures, traditions, and customs. By embracing diversity and recognizing the unique needs of each individual, you can provide more inclusive support.

4. You Won’t Be Able to Fix Everything

Many future social workers aspire to change the world. And while the best social workers are those who remain passionate and dedicated to their careers, it’s also important to stay cognizant of the fact that you won’t be able to solve every problem you encounter single-handedly.

“Your job as a social worker is not to fix things for people,” Smith emphasizes. “Your job is to help individuals process and find different ways of dealing with life issues.” Social workers, she adds, provide a safe space and equip individuals with the skills they need.

The nature of the job often involves forming close relationships with clients, but it's important to establish professional boundaries. Learning to separate yourself from your work is also crucial. While having a sense of empathy can make you a great social worker, it can drive you to become personally invested in remedying all of your clients’ hardships.

Boundaries can include maintaining appropriate physical and emotional distance, managing confidentiality, and being clear about roles and responsibilities. By establishing and enforcing boundaries, social workers can ensure ethical practice and prevent social worker burnout.

5. You’ll Face Emotional Circumstances

Most people become social workers with an understanding they’ll encounter a multitude of difficult circumstances. “Nothing prepares a person for the child who is taken away from their parents, the death of a senior in a nursing home, or the countless stories of abuse told in the safe confines of a social worker’s office,” Dr. Belluomini divulges.

But then there are heartwarming stories. Dr. Belluomini recalls a text message she received 10 years after providing therapy to a teenager at a social service agency.

“It included a picture of a taller, older boy smiling ear-to-ear in his graduation gown,” she reflects. "His mom’s text read, ‘A bachelor’s in engineering, top honors. Thank you.’”

She also recalls a time when a former client stopped her in the grocery store, and then giddily pulled her five-year sobriety coin out of her purse. “These, with hundreds more stories, continue to fuel my passion for social work,” Dr. Belluomini says.

It's important for social workers to develop strategies to cope with the emotional demands of the job. This can include seeking support from colleagues, participating in supervision or therapy, and finding healthy outlets for processing emotions.

6. You Will Likely Need to Invest in Continuing Education

In the dynamic and ever-evolving field of social work, the need for ongoing professional development is necessary. Oftentimes, it’s mandatory as part of your licensure. Social workers must adjust to shifting societal dynamics, emerging research, and evolving best practices. Staying up to date with these changes is essential for providing the highest level of care and support to clients. Continuous professional development ensures you are equipped with the latest knowledge, tools, and interventions to address complex challenges.

Moreover, professional development opportunities, such as workshops, conferences, and advanced training, allow social workers to hone their expertise in specialized areas like trauma-informed care, cultural competency, or the utilization of technology in practice. These learnings can also help you advance your career. In a profession dedicated to advocating for social justice and empowerment, staying informed and continuously improving one's skills is a fundamental responsibility for those aspiring to make a lasting impact.

7. Self-Care Is Critical to Avoid Social Worker Burnout

Social work revolves around helping others, but it's crucial to remember that you can't pour from an empty cup. Burnout is a significant concern in the field. Many social workers wish they had known the importance of self-care before embarking on their careers. The nature of the job often involves dealing with emotionally charged situations and supporting individuals who are experiencing hardships. For some, this can lead to burnout quickly despite having a passion for the work.

Understanding Social Work Burnout

“Any helping professional exposed to pain and suffering is at risk of burnout,” explains Dr. Kim Bundy-Fazioli, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and former associate professor at UMass Global.

In general, burnout refers to a progressive state of inoperability that can manifest in different forms, including rigidity or appearing “closed off” to any input, increased resignation, and irritability.

“Social workers can have a higher rate of burnout depending on the population they work with and their job,” explains Dr. Catherine Pearlman, assistant professor of social work at UMass Global. “For example, workers in child welfare and the foster care system have a higher turnover and burnout rate.” She adds that while difficult cases can certainly take their toll, things like high caseloads, unpleasant work environments, and mountains of paperwork also contribute to a social worker’s stress.

“It’s a highly rewarding job, but social workers must be mindful of their needs to make sure they don’t get depleted,” Dr. Pearlman urges.

Tips for Avoiding Social Worker Burnout

You’re likely drawn toward the social work field because you’re compassionate, empathetic, and supportive. You feel empowered to take on a career that will make a real difference in the lives of those who need your support the most — this is exactly why many choose social work.

“Social workers in general deal with some of the most difficult life situations on a day-to-day basis,” Dr. Pearlman elaborates. “As caring, sensitive individuals, it can be agonizing to see such suffering and pain every day.”

While social work burnout is a real risk for these professionals, there are a number of preventative measures they can take. The importance of self-care in social work cannot be overstated.

1. Build Awareness

One of the first steps toward self-care for social workers is acknowledging when stress-related symptoms are occurring. This can help you identify possible triggers for your stress and empower you to address them.

  • Check in physically: Does your back hurt? Is your neck sore? Are you often clenching your jaw?
  • Check in emotionally: Do you feel more sensitive than normal? Are you feeling exhausted, resentful, or overwhelmed?
  • Check in mentally: Do you find that you are ruminating on something repeatedly? Are you waking in the middle of the night and getting lost in your thoughts?

2. Have Compassion

Social workers need to have as much compassion for themselves as they do for their clients. “A key ingredient in self-care is kindness,” Dr. Bundy-Fazioli offers. Rather than criticizing yourself for getting tired or feeling exhausted, she suggests bringing kindness to your thoughts. “Be your best support.” For example, the next time you engage in negative self-talk or criticism, stop and ask yourself if you’d say the same things to a loved one. You’ll find the answer is probably “no” because we tend to be harsher on ourselves than others.

3. Set an Intention

Ask yourself, “What do I need to alleviate the stress-related symptoms I’m experiencing?” It could be that you simply need a day off. Or maybe you require some extra support from your supervisor. Perhaps you need to make more time to connect with your friends and family. Once you figure it out, be proactive and make your needs known.

4. Ensure Sustainability

Instead of cycling in and out of exhaustion, Dr. Bundy-Fazioli suggests social workers — and all other helping professionals — ask, “What will it take to engage in a lifestyle that promotes self-care?” She recommends most everyone sign up for a mindfulness class. “Mindfulness is learning how to tame the thoughts, listen to the symptoms, and respond with compassion to the distress.”

Discovering what works for you is key for maintaining a good social worker self-care plan. There isn’t one method that’s effective for everyone. Dr. Pearlman offers numerous suggestions, such as taking a hike, making art, meeting up with friends for lunch, and more.

Put Your Best Self Forward

For those considering a career in social work, there are a few key pieces of advice seasoned professionals wish they had known earlier. First and foremost, take the time to truly understand the profession and its demands. Talk to current social workers, shadow professionals in the field, and gain firsthand experience.

It's also important to develop a strong support system. Social work can be emotionally challenging, and having a network of colleagues, mentors, and friends who understand the unique demands can provide invaluable support. Lastly, remember that self-care is not selfish; it's essential. Prioritize your own well-being and establish healthy boundaries to ensure longevity in the field.

If you'd like to further your positive impact with an advanced degree in your field, a Master of Social Work degree (MSW) at UMass Global would be the ideal program to turn your career goals into a reality. Learn more about the ways an MSW can help you put your best self forward and explore our robust library of social work resources.

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