What's Your Legacy
by Ellen Fink-Samnick, MSW, ACSW, LCSW, CCM, CRP
The annual theme for Social Work Month always provides me ample opportunity to pause and reflect on new considerations for the workforce. The 2015 theme, Social Work Paves the Way for Change, served as a reminder of the distinct difference social workers make in the lives of patients, clients, members, and consumers.
There is a general consensus across the industry of how much energy social workers invest daily in their work with diverse client populations. I was especially struck while thinking about the many ways in which the workforce facilitates change for clients through interventions transcending the micro, mezzo, and macro domains. From clinical intervention across the developmental life stages to advocacy for social change, social workers strive to engage populations affected by shifting societal constructs—among them technology, health literacy, fresh views for end-of-life care, and immigration challenges. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) and Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA) continue to leave practitioners, clients, and other stakeholders untangling access and reimbursement issues.
In turn, a powerful force should motivate each social worker to pave the way for change—the strength of one’s professional identity. Industry changes have an impact on practitioners across the health and behavioral health realm from new regulations to modes of reimbursement. A constant restructuring of organizations yields revised job titles, roles, and functions, along with innovative models of care delivery. The escalating incidence of workplace bullying and violence brings new implications for workforce safety, increased incidence of burnout, and subsequent attrition (Fink-Samnick, 2015)
The question beckons: What factors leverage a social worker’s competency to achieve the strong professional identity necessary for success in today’s tumultuous practice climate?
Professional Identity as a Competency
Social workers receive specialized education and training and then enter a practice realm in constant evolution. I often joke that the only constant is change, but truer words were never said. What does this mean to today’s professional social worker?
Social workers are weaned to grow solid professional boundaries, which promote their ability to flex and bend while engaging diverse clients across the broad societal schema. Yet, social workers must equally engage with other disciplines in a way to reflect unique confidence and inner strength. These are competitive times with new and seasoned professionals amid swift competition in the job market.
There are vast opportunities on the horizon, courtesy of health care reform. Enhanced focus on integrated behavioral health has led to expanded job opportunities for social workers. Further emphasis on the population-based cost of care has yielded roles for social workers across the transitions of care, especially in programs focusing on persons with chronic medical and mental health conditions (Integrated Care Resource Center, 2015; Piper Report, 2011; SAMHSA, 2013; SAMHSA, 2015). The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects employment of social workers to grow 12% from 2014 to 2024; this is faster than the average for all occupations (BLS, 2015). Social workers must be prepared to present with a professional presence to assure sustainability in the job market.
To this end, there are four vital steps I want to emphasize and elaborate on as a framework for achieving professional prowess:
- Lead with Competencies
- Embrace Lifelong Learning
- Get Licensed
- Leave a Legacy
Lead with Competencies
We are in a competency-based practice world and have been for several decades. Competencies are a vital factor in the quality health care equation. They set the tone for academic and professional accreditation by defining education program priorities and required coursework (Treiger & Fink-Samnick, 2016).
Social workers should lead with competencies always, for they appear across academia, state boards, and accrediting entities (e.g., the Council on Social Work Education, or CSWE). Competency-based skills and practice behaviors are appearing with increased frequency across job descriptions.
Amid the fluid nature of the industry, competencies are that constant by which organizational return on investment is measured and validated (Treiger & Fink-Samnick, 2016). Three established resources stand out:
First, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) has released competencies for baccalaureate and master’s students (CSWE, 2015). The nine social work competencies ground learning and operationalizing of concepts for the next generations of social workers.
- Demonstrate ethical professional behavior.
- Engage diversity and difference in practice.
- Advance human rights and social, economic justice.
- Engage in practice-informed research and research-informed practice.
- Engage in policy practice
- Engage with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities.
- Assess individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities.
- Intervene with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities.
- Evaluate practice with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities.
Second, the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) has four levels of the licensure exams. Content outlines are divided into content areas; competencies; and knowledge, skills, and abilities statements (KSAs). Competencies describe meaningful sets of knowledge, skills, and abilities that are important to the job of a social worker within each content area (ASWB, 2015).
Third, state boards have regulations, which include scope of practice, and often define competencies to demonstrate mastery and/or proficiency. Examples of demonstrating minimal competencies from state boards include, but are not limited to (Virginia Board of Social Work, 2015):
- identified theory base
- assessing the client for risk of imminent danger
- development and appropriate use of the professional relationship
- application of a differential diagnosis
- establishing and monitoring treatment plans
- implementing a professional and ethical relationship with clients.
Competencies serve as the essential foundation for each practitioner. Social workers need to empower themselves to discover their own competencies and showcase them to others. This involves some “out-of-the-box” thinking beyond the traditional roles of social work (Fink-Samnick, 2010).
Embrace Lifelong Learning
To be successful, social workers must have the initiative and motivation to engage in continuous learning. Both the times and practice evolve far too quickly; from new patient populations and practice trends to fresh interventions and models of care delivery (for example, patient-centered medical homes, accountable care organizations, expanded telehealth initiatives). Consider how innovation and technology alone have influenced how clinical treatment is rendered. One can no longer afford to be complacent in the acquisition of learning.
Twenty-two years ago, I moved from one region where I had a robust social work résumé, full of administrative and supervisory experience. I was told that my résumé would speak volumes and land me a job anywhere. Little did I know how much the job market would change. The strange and alien world of case management had appeared in hospitals, as if overnight.
I received countless letters from directors of social work in hospitals across my newly adopted region. They shared similar language:
You have great experience and an impressive résumé. I would love to hire you. However, our model is changing. As a result, there are no opportunities at this time for administrative social work supervisors. Thank you for your interest and best of luck in your job search.
Six months into my job search, the grand realization hit. If I wanted to survive the role transition and stay in my beloved health care world, I had to learn new skills, such as grander focus on fiscal and resource management. I needed to reframe the way I presented my strengths and expertise to potential employers. Learning how to market myself in a way more reflective of the business sector was not going to be easy, but would be necessary.
With the guidance and support of peers and colleagues, I reframed my social work skill set, developing a new list of strengths to reflect my expertise as a:
- system thinker
- strong leader
- team facilitator
- skilled communicator (oral and written)
- critical thinker
- motivated learner
- strong advocate
- keen clinician
- swift assessor, who could quickly develop and implement treatment plans.
Add to the list my new appreciation for fiscal and resource management, plus outcomes-driven practice, and I became sought out by case management leaders. Within one month, I received two offers from hospital case management departments. I was elated.
The list I developed continues to drive the success of those I mentor in the new health care culture moving forward. To participate in new opportunities, social workers need to educate themselves about these emerging models of care delivery and pursue how they can contribute their expertise in psychosocial aspects of care and obtaining community resources to support the patient (Fink-Samnick, 2010).
Become licensed at whatever level you are eligible, and then seek to advance your practice to the level you strive to attain. This action will demonstrate your commitment to quality professional practice and the licensure process. It will also speak volumes to employers. The legal context for social work practice is supported by licensure. Clinical social workers are always licensed. In most states, master’s level social workers are licensed, whether or not they are in clinical practice. Many states also license baccalaureate social workers (SocialWorkLicensure.org, 2015).
Licensure is about public and professional protection, while setting a standard for practice. Professionals are beholden primarily to licensure in the state(s) and jurisdictions in which they practice (Treiger & Fink-Samnick, 2016). Whether one is focused on clinical intervention or social change, you can demonstrate your social work excellence through licensure.
Leave a Legacy
What will your professional contribution(s) be? I never thought about this question when entering the profession more than 30 years ago. Yet, it was foremost in my mind when I left the hospital world to engage in a new career journey. After more than 20 years of advocating for and intervening in hospitals with acutely ill patients and their families, I made a conscious decision to shift my energy, although I had no idea where that energy should be directed. I forced myself to reflect on what inspired and drove my own professional passion.
I realized how grossly concerned I had become about what presented as a worn, torn, and tired health and behavioral health workforce. There was a stagnant aura that manifested and now presented as an epidemic. I realized the industry could talk about the quality of care until the cows came home, but without a quality workforce, no quality care would be rendered. At that moment, I gained the incentive to switch gears from empowering the patients and their families to empowering the professionals.
After careful consideration and input from my own mentors, I defined a creative path—one that allowed me to foster the professional core of the next generations of health and behavioral professionals through education, training, and mentoring. I challenge you each to consider: what will your legacy be?
The job market is ripe for social work opportunities. Integrated behavioral health programming has taken flight. Care coordination and accountable care organizations have attracted national attention as important components of service delivery (Fink-Samnick, 2010). From direct practice to social change, the world is the social worker’s oyster. Whatever path you choose across the vast social work field, remember to leverage your professional identity through the four L’s:
- Lead with Competencies
- Embrace Lifelong Learning
- Get Licensed
- Leave a Legacy
Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). (2015). Exam Content Outlines, Retrieved September 9, 2015, from https://www.aswb.org/exam-candidates/about-the-exams/exam-content-outlines/
Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2015) Occupational Outlook Handbook, Social Workers, Retrieved April 22, 2015 from http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm
Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). (2015). Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards for Baccalaureate and Master’s Social Work Programs, Council on Social Work Education, Commission on Accreditation, Commission on Educational Policy. Retrieved September 9, 2015 from http://www.cswe.org/File.aspx?id=81660
Fink-Samnick, E. (2015). The New Age of Bullying and Violence in Health Care: Interprofessional Perspective, Professional Case Management, 20 (4), pp. 165-174.
Fink-Samnick, E. (2010). Understanding Care Coordination: Emerging Opportunities for Social Workers, The New Social Worker. Retrieved May 25, 2015 from http://www.socialworker.com/feature-articles/practice/Understanding_Care_Coordination%3A_Emerging_Opportunities_for_Social_Workers/
Integrated Care Resource Center. (2015). State Integration Activities. Retrieved September 9, 2015 from http://www.integratedcareresourcecenter.com/stateintegrationactivities.aspx
SAMHSA-HRSA. (2013). A Standard Framework for Levels of Integrated Healthcare SAMSHA-HRSA Center for Integrated Health Solutions. Retrieved September 9, 2015 from http://www.samhsa.gov/children/behavioral-health-care-integration-resources
SAMHSA. (2015). SAMHSA’s Efforts in Health Care and Health Systems Integration. Retrieved September 9, 2015 from http://www.samhsa.gov/health-care-health-systems-integration/samhsas-efforts
SocialWorkLicensure.org. (2015). Social Work Licensure Requirements. Retrieved September 9, 2015 from http://www.socialworklicensure.org/articles/social-work-license-requirements.html
Treiger, T., & Fink-Samnick, E. (2016). COLLABORATE® for professional case management-A universal competency-based paradigm, First Edition. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Wolters Kluwer.
Virginia Board of Social Work. (2015). Verification of clinical supervision form, Revised 4/2015. Retrieved June 1, 2015 from http://www.dhp.virginia.gov/social
Ellen Fink-Samnick MSW, ACSW, LCSW, CCM, CRP, empowers health care’s transdisciplinary workforce through professional speaking, mentoring, and consultation. She is a popular presenter with hundreds of offerings to her credit and the author of more than 60 publications. Ellen has received awards and global recognition for her innovative practice models, including the Professional Resilience Paradigm©, E-Tech Ethics©, and E-ACTS©. With Teresa Treiger, she is co-author of the book COLLABORATE® for Professional Case Management: A Universal Competency-Based Paradigm. She is also author of the Ethics, Social Media and Electronic Communication chapter for the Core Curriculum for Case Management, 3rd edition, to be published in 2016 as well as the new Collaborative Care chapter for the Encyclopedia of Social Work Online published by Oxford University Press and the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Press. Ellen serves on the Editorial Advisory Board for the Professional Case Management journal, and is moderator of Ellen’s Ethical LensTM on LinkedIn.