It doesn’t seem too far a stretch to say that social workers are not like everybody else. Armed to the teeth with compassion and will power, social workers often work long hours inside of a complex system to help people get their basic needs, only to have to slay the same dragons the next month, week or hour. Instead of looking for ways to advance themselves, they seek out ways to advance others. When a person falls behind on rent, gets arrested or turns to drugs or prostitution, a social worker looks for solutions to the immediate needs, and then, goes to work on the systemic ones that led to the situation. How do they do it?
If you find social work an inspiring field, you aren’t alone. Social workers routinely cause people to shake their heads in wonder, but just because it warms your heart doesn’t mean you’re cut from stiff enough cloth to make it a career. If you’re itching to get your Masters in Social Work so you can go into the field, make sure you have these attributes at the ready.
A skill that can easily benefit anyone, self-awareness is especially useful in social work because on a day-to-day basis, emotions can run high. While social workers invariably get feedback from coworkers and clients, nothing beats the ability to take your own pulse, know your own motivations and work toward improvements.
Without a healthy understanding of personal limits and the limits of hours in a workday and resources within systems, a social worker’s job will become all-consuming. Set boundaries, and then set milestones that mark your and your clients’ progress so that your expectations remain reasonable. Social work is a field that can feel as though it is drowning in a sea people’s needs. Your boundaries are the raft in that sea.
The skill of identifying and understanding another person’s context and emotions and valuing that context and emotions is a requirement in the field of social work. An intensely emotional and intellectual process, empathy allows for a more natural bridge to helping others solve problems and arrive at difficult decisions. Empathy is often a primary motivator for people entering social work.
When it comes to caseloads and clients, patience is much more than a virtue in a social worker’s day — it is a requirement. Cases and people can be incredibly complex, and the needs within families, systems and institutions can seem — or actually be — mutually exclusive. Change is often so slow as to seem non-existent, and still a social worker must get up every morning, go to work and believe that change isn’t just possible, but that it’s happening. Without such patience, a person can despair.
A handmaiden to patience, good listening skills are a must within social work. A social worker has to understand the needs of her clients and the resources available. Through active listening, clients’ needs aren’t just ascertained, but the clients’ concerns, emotions, fears and desires are validated, which makes them feel valuable — a quality that is essential if they are to work toward their own betterment.
Burnout is a real risk in social work, and without resilience, you’re likely to succumb to it. People who are resilient:
This quality will assist anyone in any profession, but for social workers, it’s vital. Heavy caseloads are the norm, so effective time management, minimal procrastination, easy-to-follow notes, straightforward filing systems and the like are the difference between being effective and feeling crazy. It’s also essential that a social worker’s mind be as free from distractions as possible, and good organizational skills create a context for well-ordered thinking. If you aren’t a very organized person, yet, don’t assume you can’t become one. Like with most things, all it takes is a system and dedicated practice.
Being a social worker, if you’ve got the temperament and wherewithal, is an incredibly rewarding job. While you don’t need every attribute on this list, you’ll be better served if you have most of them. Take a thorough self-inventory, and wherever you see a weak spot, commit to improvement. The field needs compassionate and hardworking people. Can you be one of them?