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 very challenging. Among the hardest things about working as a social worker are 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.

The Emotional Toll of Social Injustice

As a social worker, you’re constantly seeing the ugliest parts of social injustice, oppression and inequality. You have the opportunity to help the people who need it most, but it’s difficult to not feel personally upset by the problems and obstacles your clients face, especially when the social services and programs needed to address those problems aren’t available or up to par.

When social workers help children and families affected by abuse and addiction, it can be difficult at the end of the day to not 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.

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. The best social workers have strong emotional skills and are able to show compassion and empathy, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported – even when working with populations that non-social workers may struggle to empathize with or whose circumstances tend to make others uncomfortable.

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.

What is the hardest thing about working as a social worker?

IMAGE SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons, public domain

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.”

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.

How do you address these problems and prevent burnout? While it’s not always possible to change the demands of the profession, 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.

Social workers earn a median salary of $49,470. Among bachelor’s degree holders in all occupations, the median wage is $60,996, while master’s degree holders in all occupations see a median salary of $72,852, the BLS reported.

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.

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.

Additional Resources

What Is the Hardest Thing About Working as a Psychologist?

What Is the Hardest Thing About Working as a Counselor?

What Should You Know When You Interview for a Job With a Degree in Social Work?