Statistics show that people who dedicate their careers to helping others have a higher rate of job satisfaction that those who make big paychecks. But if that's true, why is being a social worker so harrowing? CNN reports that 72 percent of social workers would categorize their job as very stressful, probably for a few obvious reasons. Long hours, insufficient budgets, smaller paychecks, and dealing with clients who can be both the victims and perpetrators of incredible social ills takes a toll on even the most dedicated social work professional. What are the best ways to handle this stress? Simply changing your mindset and how you view your role in both your organization and the lives of the people you help can make you think of social work in a whole new light.
1. You don't have to be perfect.
Many people in all careers suffer from perfectionism, and scientists have only recently begun to see the dark side of this trait. Researchers at York University in Canada linked perfectionism with increased risk for diseases and premature death, mostly due to skyrocketing anxiety levels. As a social worker, you can't save everyone. You may encounter domestic violence victims who go back to their abusers, drug and alcohol addicts who go back to using, or any manner of situations you simply cannot solve. It isn't up to you to find the perfect words to change someone's life in an instant, only to provide what help you can at the time. Social workers also have to accept that they don't know everything. You probably haven't been in the shoes of most of your clients, so listening to them and letting them teach you things as much as you teach them can be key to being successful at your job.
2. Be invested but not overwhelmed.
Empathy is a wonderful quality that most people could use more of, but in social work, it can often be your downfall. A 3-year study by the University of Bedfordshire highlighted how increased empathy for their clients can lead to faster burnout and even clinical depression for otherwise excellent social workers. The researchers emphasize that empathy is important, but so is the ability to process your feelings and self-reflect on how much your job is affecting you. If you're emotionally exhausted by your cases, it's okay to take time for yourself and find ways to reduce your stress level. Focusing on your own well-being when you need to will be more beneficial to your clients in the long run.
3. Believe in your own authority.
It's true that in social work you often deal with people who need help but don't want it, and that it's often beneficial to listen as much as you speak, if not more. But social workers are also easily bullied by aggressive clients who may lack the social skills to know how to deal with their situation in other ways. Social workers cannot be successful if they are being walked all over, and it's important to make a distinction between acknowledging a client's experiences and how they are different from your own and making sure they understand you are the professional and you know how to help them. When a client bullies you or lies to you, it is often out of shame, guilt, or embarrassment. The best social workers know how to be empathetic while still maintaining the upper hand.
It's no secret that the average social worker spends a mere 8 years in the field, which tells you how stressful the job can be. But when you're dealing directly with clients, you have the most impact on people who are suffering, and one successful case will remind you why you chose this career in the first place. If you take the right steps to assess your emotional well-being and keep a positive and assertive mindset, you will be able to change lives for years to come.
Robert Neff blogs full time for sites that focus on helping the underserved. If you think being a social worker would suit your skills, you may be interested in programs offered at accredited universities such as CWRU.