What are the qualities of a good social worker? In this article, I share the qualities of good social workers I have seen over my years working in the likes of the UK, Singapore, China and Peru.
I used to place myself in my client’s shoes, feeling their emotions deeply. During my first placement, I remembered empathising so deeply with a client that I started feeling his headaches as well. But later, I found out that empathy was not always useful. It was compassion that was more helpful. Compassion is feeling for, whereas empathy is feeling with the other. When we feel for the client, we convey our feelings of warmth, acceptance, and concern for the other.
As I sat in the room with the principal, hearing her suggesting the Beyond Parental Control (BPC) Order, I became quite frustrated. The BPC is an order that is mandated by the court to send a child to a delinquents’ home, when it is determined that the parent can no longer control the child. How could she suggest that, even after knowing the difficulties that the parent was facing? I was tempted to shout, ‘You’re CRAZY!’ But I stopped. Taking 3 deep breaths, I stated my opinion that I didn’t think that was the wisest decision.
Social workers are constantly in conflictual situations, where there is great tension. Knowing how to stay calm during those points is very important to ensure that there is constructive collaboration.
In those times, I have always found it useful to take 3 deep breaths, before I say something. That helps me keep calm. Try that, it might help.
Social workers bring hope in moments of darkness. Without optimism, it is hard to see solutions in the struggles that clients face. I remember that there was once when I worked with a boy who had been arrested, had other charges against him, and was unable to find any meaningful work. In the first few placements that I brought him to, he stopped after a few sessions. I was close to giving up on him. But as a social worker, I remembered that if I gave up on him, who would continue helping him? He was close to giving up on himself too.
Optimism brings light into dark situations. We must continue to be those beacons of light.
‘I think it’s been really hard for me here…’ I told my supervisor honestly, as I recounted my reflections of the past 6 months working in this organisation. As social workers, we are not perfect. Yet many of us don’t take the efforts to admit that we need help. Just because we help others, does not mean that we can’t be helped ourselves.
We need to know that asking for what we need, and accepting what we need, is necessary for our own mental health and wellbeing. It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s in our weaknesses that we begin to find strength.
The humility to seek help comes with the honesty to be open about needing help. In social work, we have supervisors with different models of supervision. They might help differently.
However, what must be constant is our honesty. We need to be open and honest about our struggles with them, rather than pretending that everything is fine. This psychological safety that we have with our supervisors, is something that needs to be built with intention.
We cannot expect our supervisors to be open without ourselves without being honest. It is a two-way thing. As Amy Edmondson observes, psychological safety is the feeling that mistakes are okay, and that sharing those mistakes will not result in a loss of ‘face.’ Therefore, we must be open with our supervisors about the mistakes we make, or the struggles we face, or the needs we have. We cannot keep silent.
I lay in bed, finding myself worrying about my client. Was he going to be alright? He had told me that he had tried flinging himself in front of a tram that morning, and I wasn’t sure if he was going to be doing the same tomorrow.
But as I lay in bed, I realised there was nothing I could do. I had done all I could, and that was enough.
Social workers hear stories of suffering every day. But in those sufferings, we must also realise that we need to detach from them. If we don’t, we might end up burning out rapidly. Detaching comes with first being aware of the likelihood of transference, or countertransference. Then, it comes with active steps to combat. For example, when I go home, I make it a point to take a bath and change out of my work clothes, to remind me that I am no longer seeing my clients. I then meditate, to stay present in the current moment.
More productive social work is about being professionally detached to make the correct decision for the client, not for yourself.
Being professionally detached is not being unsympathetic to your client. But it’s about being sympathetic to yourself.
Social workers meet a variety of stakeholders from different organizations to collaborate on solutions to resolve the issues of clients. Furthermore, they are regularly required to chair multi-agency meetings, acting as the lead in driving the solutions forward. Therefore, confidence is a key quality for social workers. in many of these instances, I have found that it has been helpful to give myself little permission slips.
During the meetings that I chair, I write on a piece of paper prior to the meeting: Permission to be wrong. This permission slips were suggested by Brené Brown in her book, Rising Strong, to build confidence in herself and to give herself permission to do things. The power of these little permission slips is unbelievable! Try it!
I was frustrated that my client had skipped school again. I had tried so hard to engage her, calling her, messaging her, and even turning up at her home at 6 in the morning to wake her for school. But all that hadn’t worked. I felt like a failure.
In social work, we cannot control the outcome. Sometimes, this makes us feel like failures. This is damaging for our self-esteem, because we begin to tie our self-worth to the outcomes we get. Healthy self-esteem begins from affirming ourselves for who we are, rather than we do or achieve. Thus, healthy self-esteem starts from an internal locus of validation, rather than relying on external validation to determine whether we are worthy or ont.
To biuld a healthier self-esteem, try writing a letter of love to celebrate the qualities you have. Write down how you have shown these qualities in the past. For example,
Dear John, I love you because you are so compassionate! When others would rather neglect those with special needs, you’ve instead taken the time to volunteer with them, bringing them out and playing with them.
‘*&^% you! You messed up my family!’ Over the course of your interactions with clients, you will face many clients who might be verbally or even physically abusive. This calls for a thick-skin and healthy boundaries. It’s not about pretending that these things didn’t happen. But it’s about realising that hurt people hurt other people. It’s about acknowledging the pain those words cause you, but also not letting it get to you.
A thick-skinned social worker, when faced with verbal abuse, acknowledges that what is said is painful. But he or she also realises that this is not about them, it’s about the client’s own struggles. The social worker has tried his best, and that’s enough.
So, what are the qualities of a good social worker? This list of qualities of good social workers is not exhaustive. There are undoubtedly others I have missed out. Whatever it is, remember, that you are doing great good in the world. Whether or not you have the qualities does not matter. Your work already matters.