Social work is more than a job. It’s a calling an individual has to help others, often in the face of difficult and stressful situations. Although social workers love what they do and the difference they are able to make, the reality is that this occupation is incredibly challenging in many ways. Among the hardest things about working as a social worker are factors like the emotional stress that comes with seeing the extremes of injustice and abuse, the challenge of working with vulnerable and marginalized client populations, the stress and physical injuries that often accompany the job and the inability to fix every problem or save every client.
Is Being a Social Worker Hard?
The level of difficulty involved in any job role is subjective. While being a social worker isn’t hard by some measures, the job can be extremely challenging in other ways. You generally don’t need coursework and expertise in high-level math and laboratory science subjects for a career in social work, so in that sense, this path is easier than a career in math, science or engineering.
However, it’s difficult to handle interpersonal interactions and communications social workers have with their clients, especially since the clients a social worker assists are usually in some sort of stressful situation. Finding empathy and compassion for all of your clients in all situations – even when their experiences and the choices they make are very different from your own – can also be difficult, both emotionally and logically. Yet without understanding a client’s experience, your ability to help that client is severely limited. For example, a social worker who assists individuals and families affected by substance abuse sees the strain and hardship that drug use puts on a family every single day, but they must still be able to approach the individual with compassion rather than judgment if they’re going to help their clients. This aspect of the job certainly is hard.
Also, while you don’t need to memorize every law of physical science or mathematical formula to succeed in this career, you must be very knowledgeable about each of the resources and programs available to help your clients. You must understand the parameters of what benefits the program does and doesn’t provide, as well as its eligibility requirements, limitations, and availability of services. Since these programs are constantly changing, social workers need to continue to keep up with those changes. Similarly, social workers in advocacy roles must keep abreast of all proposed changes in policy and legislation.
Licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) are practitioners authorized to treat mental and behavioral health issues. For this social work role, you need an advanced degree – the Master of Social Work (MSW). The curriculum of an MSW program is, of course, appropriately challenging for a master’s-level degree program. Students of MSW programs take classes in the clinical practice and methods of diagnosing and treating mental, emotional and behavioral health conditions. As mental health providers, clinical social workers have a great deal of responsibility to their clients. They also work with other health practitioners, including doctors, in assessing patients’ mental health conditions and planning for intervention.
The process of acquiring your license as an LCSW is also difficult in that it is a lengthy, multi-step process. Generally, aspiring LCSWs need at least two years of supervised clinical experience post-graduation and a passing score on a clinical exam, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. Non-clinical social workers, too, may need licensure.
Social Workers’ Problems
The function of social workers is to help people cope with and solve their problems. Unfortunately, social workers encounter plenty of problems themselves in the course of their profession. The challenges social workers face are many, varied and serious. They range from the emotional impact of dealing with troubles like abuse, substance use, criminal activities and severe health issues to the challenges of working with marginalized client populations and the common experience of job burnout.
The Emotional Toll of Social Injustice
As a social worker, you’re constantly seeing the ugliest parts of social injustice, oppression and inequality. Sure, you have the opportunity to help the people who need it most, but it’s difficult not to feel personally upset by the problems and obstacles your clients face. It may be even more upsetting when you know, from experience navigating the social services system, that many of the services and programs needed to address those problems aren’t available, appropriately funded or staffed or otherwise up to par.
Social workers tend to be compassionate people, and they sometimes choose to focus on causes that they or their loved ones have been personally affected by at some point. Thus, they are likely to have a strong emotional reaction to the suffering that they witness their clients experiencing.
When social workers help children and families affected by abuse and addiction, it can be difficult at the end of the day not to dwell on the tragedies that you witnessed working with clients. Similarly, social workers in the field of substance abuse may see high rates of relapse among their clients, despite their best efforts. Sometimes well-intentioned policies can, unfortunately, limit how much you are allowed to do to protect and assist your clients. All of these factors combine to make social work an emotionally difficult, though potentially very rewarding, career path.
Often, the worst horror stories involve social workers having to close cases due to the organization’s or government entity’s policies regarding a client’s lack of cooperation or inability to contact, only to later become aware of a tragic end to the situation.
Working With Marginalized Populations
With their focus on helping the people most in need, it’s no surprise that social workers assist vulnerable populations. However, many social worker jobs involve working with often marginalized or ostracized client populations, which can be difficult. Social workers in certain settings may work with incarcerated populations, perpetrators of abuse, homeless populations, individuals with a history of substance abuse and patients with HIV or AIDS. Work with these marginalized populations can range from leading support groups to providing individual counseling and from arranging rehabilitation and treatment plans to advocating for resources through social services, programs and assistance.
The best social workers have strong emotional skills and are able to show compassion and empathy, the BLS (BLS) reported – even when working with populations that non-social workers may struggle to empathize with or whose circumstances tend to make others uncomfortable. To help them achieve this sometimes challenging objective, skills and abilities like active listening, social perceptiveness and problem sensitivity are important for social workers, according to O*NET.
Burnout and Beyond
Social work is a high-stress job. The demands are extensive, and crises can and do occur without warning. Caseloads are often high, and every client in the social worker’s caseload requires attention and assistance. Constantly hearing and seeing the worst of society and social problems can dim even the most positive outlook. With time, a social worker may suffer a phenomenon known as “compassion fatigue.” A phenomenon called “secondary trauma,” which can present symptoms similar to those that characterize post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), can also occur when a person is exposed to the disturbing firsthand narrative and descriptions of others’ trauma – as social workers commonly are in the course of their efforts to assist clients.
Add in a low pay rate for a job that requires, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree (and for many roles, a master’s degree), plus an exceptionally high rate of injuries and illnesses, according to the BLS, and it’s no wonder social workers suffer alarming rates of burnout. In fact, research studies have suggested that up to 39 percent of social workers are suffering from burnout at a given time, and the lifetime burnout rate for social workers rises to as much as 75 percent. Some symptoms of burnout may include feelings of excessive stress, anger, irritability, sadness, fatigue, trouble sleeping and misuse or abuse of substances. Unresolved job burnout may end up having serious effects on a person’s health, including contributing to high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Social workers earned a median salary of $51,760 as of 2020, according to the BLS. That puts their earning potential significantly below the median wage for all workers with the same level of education. Among bachelor’s degree holders in all occupations, the BLS reported that the median wage in 2018 was $60,996, while master’s degree holders in all occupations saw a median salary of $72,852.
The Most Difficult Part of Being a Social Worker: Not Being Able to Help Everyone
Ultimately, one of the most frustrating parts of a job in social work isn’t just the stress, the challenges and the risk of burnout that social workers themselves face. It’s the fact that, no matter how good a social worker is at his or her job or how much that social worker is committed to making a difference, no one social worker is able to help everyone. There’s not enough time in the day and not enough resources to go around.
It can be discouraging when a client stops cooperating or a policy that’s in place is preventing a better outcome. Whether the help the client truly needs just isn’t available, the funding of a social services program gets cut, or the client doesn’t follow through with the plans and programs that the social worker worked so hard to put in place, a time is likely to come at least once in a social worker’s career when they weren’t able to help the client the way they wanted to.
Although this reality may be discouraging, it’s important to remember that social workers still help a lot of people, even if they can’t successfully help every client to the extent that they may want to. Also, just because the social services available may fall short of completely resolving an individual’s or family’s problems doesn’t mean that the social worker’s intervention didn’t help the client in some way.
Addressing the Problems Social Workers Face
How do you address these problems and prevent burnout? It’s a difficult question to answer. Just as there are many different problems that social workers face, there are many possible ways to address those problems. While the ideal solution may be to drastically change the systems that cause or contribute to those problems, that’s not always feasible, at least not as an immediate solution. Instead, a social worker may have to make some changes to how they respond to the demands of the job.
For example, social workers can and often do advocate for better policies and programs that could help reduce the rate and effects of existing injustices and help solve problems involving needs that are currently unmet. Their work may also aim to end the stigma around marginalized populations and taboo issues so that these problems and the people suffering from them can become more widely understood.
When it comes to the challenges that relate directly to employment, like poor pay rates, chronic understaffing and inadequate procedures in place to protect social workers, these professionals can exercise some control over solving their problems by seeking out job roles where the pay and work conditions are better. Of course, that’s easier said than done, often involving going back to school for a master’s degree or moving to a state or industry known for higher rates of pay.
Many social workers find that it’s easier to find ways to manage job burnout than to radically change their pay and work conditions or the demands of the profession. To combat feelings of job burnout, experienced social workers often recommend strategies such as setting firm limits and boundaries, taking time for self-care and making it a priority to eat, sleep and exercise well. Although these actions won’t solve the numerous and significant problems their clients face or erase the original trauma that left the social worker feeling compassion fatigue upon its retelling, they can help to insulate the social worker from those feelings of secondary trauma and burnout, allowing them to keep working to help others.
Social workers are only human, and they need someone to talk to about their stresses, too. Talking to colleagues or going to a therapist themselves can offer some valuable relief and perspective.