I remember volunteering with an organisation that serves the needs of the intellectually disabled in Singapore. On a hot Sunday afternoon, I was helping a boy. He looked just like you and me, and he could speak English and Mandarin Chinese. We were trying to write the alphabet ‘A’ in block letters. After struggling for 10 minutes, he looked at me and said in Mandarin, “I don’t know how to write this!”
At that moment, as a junior college (JC) student, I paused. All my life, I had been chasing after the academic ‘A’s in my life, the CCAs to build my resume… but I had never stopped to think about the privilege it was to pursue these things.
That incident inspired me to become a social worker. I wanted to be remembered for leaving an impact on people’s life. I did not wish to leave a legacy where I was remembered for being rich, smart, or powerful. I just wanted to make a personal impact.
As I did more and more social work, I realised what a unique privilege it is to walk with a person through the darkest journey of his life. It is special to be able to share help and hope, walking with them to see the light again.
Social work has many challenges. Here are two challenges that I often face and how I’ve overcome them.
Social work might not be financially rewarding
Compared to other professions such as computer programmers, bankers and lawyers, a social worker may not earn as much. However, to say that being a social worker is not financially sustainable is a myth. In recent times, the National Council of Social Services in Singapore has introduced salary guidelines that recommend salaries that social service agencies should pay social workers. This is pegged to other professions, and strives to give a fair pay to social workers.
How did I overcome the financial disadvantage? I believe that it is by asking for what you are worth. As social workers, we are not heroes. But we play a big impact in people’s lives – whether it is counselling a youth not to take his life, bringing a mother out of domestic violence, or giving food rations to a needy family. Can we truly place a value on these actions?
These might seem small, but they are important. Asking for the salary that would be sustainable for you is the first step towards recognising the value you bring to people’s lives.
Social work can be emotionally draining
When I was a student social worker, I worked with a refugee who had been tortured. He was plagued by headaches that never seemed to stop, no matter how many medications he tried. He wanted to end his life. As I went home each night, I found myself worrying about whether I would still find him alive the next morning. It was almost as if I could never switch off from my work.
Overcoming the emotional difficulties in social work involves a commitment to self-care. This means that we need to take time to deliberately care for ourselves. Self-care is not selfish. During that difficult time, I took time to see a therapist to talk through my feelings. I also spent more time exercising and meditating. This helped to focus on the here and now, rather than the sufferings of my clients.
Despite this, there are many rewards to social work.
You are crafting a better world
Being able to craft a better world, one person at a time, might seem small and insignificant. But when we help people through their problems, we give them hope of a better future. As a student social worker, I helped a man who had been homeless for 14 years to get his own flat for the first time.
As I saw the efforts he took to decorate his home, it struck me that for the first time, he had a home where he belonged. He would no longer have to sleep on the streets, or find another friend’s sofa to sleep on. He had a place of his own.
These actions build a better world, bit by bit.
You learn so much about yourself
As a social worker, you begin to understand more about yourself. Due to the suffering you see daily, you are forced to question the things you take for granted. You see the stereotypes and assumptions you hold.
I once worked in a hostel for the homeless. One man shared with me about how he had ended up in jail for trying to defend himself. He ended up losing his home, job, and money. I was initially afraid of meeting him, because I thought people who ended up in jail were all bad.
But he was gentle, kind, and motivated to find a job to improve his circumstances. Since that experience, it has pushed me to question my assumptions about others. It has challenged me to stop judging people, and to start from a position of acceptance.
You become a better person
During my last day as a student social worker, I visited a mother and her daughter for the last time. “You listened. You really listened. I felt that for the first time, someone had listened to me. And that was so important.” The mother looked at me, and thanked me for my help.
I never expected that. Three years ago, I had been sacked from my job for not being able to listen to instructions, and for refusing to listen to my teammates.
But the process of a course in social work changes you. You learn things that you never think are important. Topics like how to listen to someone, how to show empathy, how to speak to someone respectfully, are common things that are covered in a course on social work. I remember the time that I was examined for how I spoke to a client. Feedback from my examiners revealed that I had only tried to tell her what to do, instead of listening to her needs. It made me re-examine my tendency to ‘fix’ people, rather than accept them.
I studied social work at the University of Nottingham in the UK. I now write regularly about social work at my blog, www.savethesocialworker.com, a resource to help newly qualified social workers with questions that they have.