Overview of the Social Work Profession
Social workers function in a wide variety of settings and work with many different kinds of people. They work in community health centres, hospitals, residential treatment centres, substance-abuse programmes, schools, family service agencies, adoption and foster care agencies, day-care facilities and public and private child welfare organizations. Social workers often visit homes for interviews or inspections of home conditions. They are employed by businesses, labour unions, international aid organizations, human rights agencies, prisons and probation departments, agencies for the ageing, advocacy organizations, colleges and universities. They are increasingly entering politics. Many social workers have full- or part-time private practices as psychotherapists. It is a profession that seeks to “improve social functioning by the provision of practical and psychological help to people in need” (Payne and Firth-Cozens 1987).
Generally, social workers with doctorates work in community organization, planning, research, teaching or combined areas. Those with bachelor’s degrees in social work tend to work in public assistance and with the elderly, mentally retarded and developmentally disabled; social workers with master’s degrees are usually found in mental health, occupational social work and medical clinics (Hopps and Collins 1995).
Hazards and Precautions
Studies have shown that stress in the workplace is caused, or contributed to, by job insecurity, poor pay, work overload and lack of autonomy. All of these factors are features of the work life of social workers in the late 1990s. It is now accepted that stress is often a contributing factor to illness. One study has shown that 50 to 70% of all medical complaints among social workers are linked to stress (Graham, Hawkins and Blau 1983).
As the social work profession has attained vendorship privileges, managerial responsibilities and increased numbers in private practice, it has become more vulnerable to professional liability and malpractice suits in countries such as the United States which permit such legal actions, a fact which contributes to stress. Social workers are also increasingly dealing with bioethical issues—those of life and death, of research protocols, of organ transplantation and of resource allocation. Often there is inadequate support for the psychological toll confronting these issues can take on involved social workers. Increased pressures of high caseloads as well as increased reliance on technology makes for less human contact, a fact which is likely true for most professions, but particularly difficult for social workers whose choice of work is so related to having face to face contact.
In many countries, there has been a shift away from government-funded social programmes. This policy trend directly affects the social work profession. The values and goals generally held by social workers—full employment, a “safety net” for the poor, equal opportunity for advancement—are not supported by these current trends.
The movement away from spending on programmes for the poor has produced what has been called an “upside-down welfare state” (Walz, Askerooth and Lynch 1983). One result of this, among others, has been increased stress for social workers. As resources decline, demand for services is on the rise; as the safety net frays, frustration and anger must rise, both for clients and for social workers themselves. Social workers may increasingly find themselves in conflict over respecting the values of the profession versus meeting statutory requirements. The code of ethics of the US National Association of Social Workers, for example, mandates confidentiality for clients which may be broken only when it is for “compelling professional reasons”. Further, social workers are to promote access to resources in the interest of “securing or retaining social justice”. The ambiguity of this could be quite problematic for the profession and a source of stress.
Work-related violence is a major concern for the profession. Social workers as problem-solvers on the most personal level are particularly vulnerable. They work with powerful emotions, and it is the relationship with their clients which becomes the focal point for expression of these emotions. Often, an underlying implication is that the client is unable to manage his or her own problems and needs the help of social workers to do so. The client may, in fact, be seeing social workers involuntarily, as, for example, in a child welfare setting where parental abilities are being evaluated. Cultural mores might also interfere with accepting offers of help from someone of another cultural background or sex (the preponderence of social workers are women) or outside of the immediate family. There may be language barriers, necessitating the use of translators. This can be distracting at least or even totally disruptive and may present a skewed picture of the situation at hand. These language barriers certainly affect the ease of communication, which is essential in this field. Further, social workers may work in locations which are in high-crime areas, or the work might take them into the “field” to visit clients who live in those areas.
Application of safety procedures is uneven in social agencies, and, in general, insufficient attention has been paid to this area. Prevention of violence in the workplace implies training, managerial procedures and modifications of the physical environment and/or communication systems (Breakwell 1989).
A curriculum for safety has been suggested (Griffin 1995) which would include:
- training in constructive use of authority
- crisis intervention
- field and office safety
- physical plant set-up
- general prevention techniques
- ways to predict potential violence.
Because social workers are employed in such a variety of settings, they are exposed to many of the hazards of the workplace discussed elsewhere in this Encyclopaedia. Mention should be made, however, that these hazards include buildings with poor or unclean air flow (“sick buildings”) and exposures to infection. When funding is scarce, maintenance of physical plants suffers and risk of exposure increases. The high percentage of social workers in hospital and out-patient medical settings suggests vulnerability to infection exposure. Social workers see patients with conditions like hepatitis, tuberculosis and other highly contagious diseases as well as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection. In response to this risk for all health workers, training and measures for infection control are necessary and have been mandated in many countries. The risk, however, persists.
It is evident that some of the problems faced by social workers are inherent in a profession which is so centred on lessening human suffering as well as one which is so affected by changing social and political climates. At the end of the twentieth century, the profession of social work finds itself in a state of flux. The values, ideals and rewards of the profession are also at the heart of the hazards it presents to its practitioners.