May 16

Social worker strengths and weaknesses


What are the strengths and weaknesses of a social worker? Social workers have many qualities, but they also have weaknesses. Well, there are many to share about. But for most of this article, I will share about my own personal experiences.

Ability to listen

“What I like most about you was that: you really listened. You did that very well.” As I said goodbye to my service user, she thanked me for my work and gave me valuable feedback about what I had done well. As social workers, do we know how to listen? Evelyn Glennie, in her Ted talk, says,

So when we do listen to each other, it’s important for us to test our listening skills, to use our bodies as a resonating chamber, to stop the judgment.

Evelyn Glennie: How To Truly Listen

As social workers, clients bring stories of suffering day after day to us. Often, what they are looking for is a listening ear, rather than someone who is able to advise them. Listening to them helps them to know that they are not alone on this journey. It shows that someone still cares for them.

When social workers listen, we often practice something called active listening. It is where we tune into the person’s words, and then reflect it back to them. We would say something like: I hear you say that you are hurt and angry at his behaviour.

We would also add regular feedback mechanisms to show that we are listening such as, ‘Yes, go on, umm…, I hear you.’

A social worker’s ability to listen, rather than judge, is probably one of their most important strengths.

Ability to empathise

As I listened to my friend’s stories, I felt like crying. As I was growing up, before training as a social worker, I wished that I wasn’t so sensitive to people’s emotions. Later, a friend told me, ‘I wish I could feel as deeply as you.’

Our ability to empathise and put ourselves in the shoes of our clients is a remarkable skill. Rather than sympathising with them, we empathise. This is a key difference. Sympathy is about saying, ‘I feel bad for you.’ Empathy is ‘I feel for you.’

Empathy can sometimes be dangerous. Singer’s research has shown that compassion might be more useful than empathy. Empathy is feeling with, but compassion is feeling for the client. It’s about conveying feelings of warmth, concern and care.

Without properly tuning our ability to empathise, we might find ourselves bogged down by the emotions of others.

Inability to detach from work

One of the qualities of good social workers is professional detachment.

One night, as I lay in bed, I thought about my client. Was he safe? Would he commit suicide that night? Worries about him ran through my head. As social workers, we hear the stories of suffering. It is human to worry for others, and to think that we are not doing enough to help.

This can be a weakness.

When we do this, we put ourselves through greater stress and anxiety. It affects our performance at work and prevents us from being able to rest.

We need to learn to detach. Doing so requires simple rituals such as meditation, taking a bath, changing your clothes from the ones you wear at work. These activities help you to stay present, and remind you that you are no longer at work. You are at home. You are safe.

Social worker strengths and weaknesses

Inability to set boundaries

‘John, can you put my children’s books into the library’s book drop?’

I did not want to. I was her colleague, not her maid! But despite everything that was in my mind, I said, ‘Yes.’

Social workers are paid to be nice. But that means that we can sometimes find it hard to say no. This is dangerous, because social workers are also human. We cannot do everything. We need to learn to set boundaries, indicating what is okay, and not okay. Being more productive is about saying no to what we don’t want and cannot do.

When we deal with difficult clients who shout at us, and scold us, we need to be clear about what is okay and not okay.

Remember, boundaries are not about being bad. They are about being loving to yourself.

With these strengths and weaknesses of social workers, I hope you can better understand what we do well, and what we can do better. What are your social worker strengths and weaknesses?


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