By: Beverly B. Lovett, DSW, LICSW, and Cindy King-Frode, MBA, Ph.D., LICSW
If I had the chance to choose social work for a career again I would certainly do so. There are tons of frustrations, but also tons of rewards. I sometimes struggle with the question of “Am I making a difference?” I think so. And at the same time, the people with whom I work make a difference in me. These are comments from a social worker with 37 years of practice experience with families, youth, and disabled populations.
The social work profession has been addressing injustices in society and providing a voice for those in need for well over 100 years. It is an exciting profession that offers an array of opportunities to help improve conditions for individuals and communities. In this article, we bring you the reflections of 40 retired or retiring Massachusetts social workers. We have had conversations with the participants to gather their views about their individual careers, the profession, social work education, and their advice for newcomers to the field. Presented herein are some initial findings taken from a larger qualitative study. Study participants worked with a range of populations and in a variety of settings. Their personal journeys were varied, and they arrived at their career choices differently. Common to all of those we had the privilege of interviewing was their deep respect for the profession and a desire to be helpful to beginning practitioners. The good news is that, as a group, their experiences in social work have been largely positive. Although not without challenges, the field does offer many rewards to those who approach it with dedication, the willingness to work hard, and the realization that the ability to foster change requires professional skills and patience.
Rewards of a Social Work Career
We spoke to the participants at a time when their professional careers were in transition. Social work has been a career that offered them many opportunities to experience meaningful work. As they reminisced about their many years as social workers, recalling recent stories and others from decades past, each of their vignettes illustrated the satisfaction derived from making a difference in others’ lives. Examples included helping homeless families find housing, intervening to improve parent/child relationships, helping a family to understand mental illness, and sitting with bereaving family members, among many others.
Their stories were joined by a common thread, in that many social workers felt that as they spent a career focusing on shaping the lives of others, they were also providing definition or meaning to their own lives. And although at times they experienced frustrations arising from a lack of resources or other systemic issues, they nonetheless emphasized the positive memories of those for whom they worked to improve personal or environmental conditions. One social worker who hopes never to fully retire claimed that her personal identity is merged with her professional identity: “How can I ever leave it?”
Many social workers credit the profession with offering a lifetime of learning. Social work offers opportunities to learn from scholars and very experienced practitioners at local and national conferences and workshops, as well as through scholarly and professional publications. Because we are a profession with a vast array of specialty areas, there are also numerous organizations in which to participate. Many with whom we spoke felt that such affiliations offered opportunities to expand their professional networks. In doing so, they found sources of energy, professional support, and avenues to further enrich their careers.
In addition, participants talked about the learning that came from interacting with a wide range of individuals and families. Clearly, we can learn much about resilience and suffering, hope and despair, and achievement and determination from the life stories of the clients with whom we interact. From a pragmatic perspective, social work also offers a great deal of flexibility when compared with many other professions. For example, many participants noted that being able to work in settings that allowed for day, evening, or weekend work was a personal benefit. In fact, many of the people with whom we spoke for this study expressed their intentions to stay involved for many more years, even after so-called “retirement.” They see their continued involvement in private practice, part-time teaching, or through the many volunteer opportunities social work offers.
Some Challenges Facing the Profession
This experienced group of social workers agrees that during the course of their professional lives there have been important changes in society and in the profession. Interviewees commented on changes in the role of government, in social values and attitudes toward health care, and in the economy, among other issues. They discussed concerns about an increasingly conservative ethos and a concurrent reluctance on the part of many to reach out to the neediest and most vulnerable among us.
After years of professional practice, they see clearly the direct relationship between social policy and practice, a connection they found to be more elusive when they were beginning practitioners. One message from this group was that making a difference for those who are marginalized, vulnerable, or without a political voice requires social workers to get involved at various levels of government. This cannot be a job for someone else; it must belong to each of us. As one social worker put it, “Poor people are outside the systems. We are inside the systems.” A related comment directed at new social workers came from a man with more than four decades of experience: “What I would suggest to students and new social workers is something which I opposed in my social work program. That is, study economics. One must know where the money is coming from and where it’s going in order to help people.”
In a similar vein, an interviewee offered the following advice: “Understand entitlement programs. Social workers need to understand Medicare the way physicians should understand pharmacy programs.” In this social worker’s experience, health care has received less attention and support from local and national social work organizations than has been needed, given the significant changes in health care administration and policy. A message from the interviewees was that it is essential that social workers have up-to-date knowledge on health care policies to be effective practitioners. “One often is required to advocate for their patients from what sometimes feels like an adversarial position with managed care insurance companies,” one social worker said.
A social worker with 40 years of experience in mental health described how very troubled many families and individuals are today. Her advice is based on what she views as their highly complex needs and the fact that more than 45 million people today are without health insurance. She also cautioned new social workers about becoming private practitioners. She described the work as often very difficult and lonely. Client needs and lack of resources make for challenging work, much of which is unpaid in a private practice model. Another social work practitioner reported that, in her experience, private practice is romanticized. She concurred with the previous interviewee that private practice is challenging, sometimes isolating, and often difficult work. And another commented, “Social workers need to focus more on helping people to negotiate the systems. We have to be advocates. I think we need to get away from just counseling. We must analyze more broadly what the clients’ needs are and then follow up with this.”
A social worker with more than 30 years in child welfare implored new social workers to be less judgmental of their clients. In her opinion, society has unrealistic expectations of impoverished parents. “We live in an age with 24-hour media and an apparent interest in seeing others’ faults. We (child welfare workers) are criticized because we can tolerate more shortcomings in families than society can,” she said. “I would like to see people go back to a community model and help, not judge, each other. If three children die in a year, you do not know how many others would have been dead without social worker interventions.”
Tips for a Long and Satisfying Career
Below is a summary of ideas drawn from the participants in the retired social worker study. It is categorized by themes to help practicing social workers and those entering the field forge long and satisfying careers. Some of what the retiring social workers conveyed may validate what you have learned in your practice classes, while other tips may be new.
To be an effective social worker, one needs to have a supervisor(s) who is trusted and supportive.
Although the interviewees were not asked specifically about their views on supervision, the importance of supervision to this group was evident by the fact that many brought this up on their own. Several interviewees referred to their supervisors as mentors and role models. “Supervision is a wonderful place to learn about yourself,” one said. Other comments about supervision addressed the pleasure derived from being a supervisor to new social workers. Many characterized providing supervision as one of the most valued and gratifying aspects of their life long work. New social workers may want to keep this in mind as some may feel that they are imposing on their supervisor’s time.
Self care is critical. Be careful not to engage in self neglect or neglect of your family and friends.
Have a relationship with a therapist or other means of support in case the work becomes overwhelming and depressing.
“The work can be difficult and sometimes lonely. It can wear on you without you knowing it sometimes,” one interviewee pointed out.
You are never finished learning.
One social worker advised, “Attend as many conferences and workshops as you can.” Another said, “There is so much to stay current with.” A third noted, “Not enough is done to empower the elderly. We need more social workers who understand how to work with the oldest adults.” Another colleague said, “Stay up with the newer group intervention models and techniques for group practice.”
Expect that your career will change a lot.
“I have worked in a dozen settings over my career. That’s not a bad thing. It is good to learn different skills,” one social worker offered.
Use your formal education but remain human.
Comments included: “We are all one step way from a diagnosis ourselves. When I was ill, I remember rocking in pain while waiting for my medication. I was thinking, ‘I could be a drug addict.’ I thought of my professional work and of those suffering from heroin withdrawal and remembered hearing comments from colleagues, such as, ‘he is just seeking drugs,’” and “Some cancer patients need medication before they go for their exams, they so fear bad news. So be human and understand.”
Writing skills are as important as people skills. Documentation can make all the difference.
“We can help our clients by documenting needs,” said one social worker. Another noted, “Social workers should write articles more. There is nothing mystical about it.”
Be realistic about what you can do and what you do not know how to do.
Know the community in which you work in order to make appropriate referrals.
Get involved with your state government. Let your legislators hear your voice.
A senior social worker in an administation position in public mental health advised: “Read the newspaper every day. Stay on top of what is happening in the outside world. You can’t be a player if you’re not going to be serious.”
Social work is a field rich with opportunities to engage in meaningful work. The intellectual stimulation and the relationships that can be built through team work, along with the real potential of making a difference, can provide you with a highly satisfying career. As one retired social worker said, “I am really proud of my profession. I think it is valuable. If you don’t, then you shouldn’t be here, because others are going to say, ‘You’re only a social worker’ or ‘Why are you a social worker?’ You have to know who you are professionally and you will feel value from that.”
Beverly B. Lovett, DSW, LICSW, is a social work professor at Bridgewater State College, Bridgewater, MA. Cindy King-Frode, MBA, Ph.D., LICSW, is a professor and coordinator of the BSW program at Bridgewater State College.