Some days I feel like my job sets me up for failure. Weekly home visits for 10 families, lengthy progress notes, lengthier reports, phone calls, chasing after collateral information, group supervision, clinically preparing for sessions, meeting model requirements… the list goes on… and that’s when there are no crises. All of these tasks are required to be completed all of the time. In 35 (paid) hours a week. Go!
I have no shame in admitting that at any given time I am neglecting something, often consciously. Eight months into this job, I do feel like I have found my stride in getting quality work done in a timely enough fashion without overworking. But there is this assumption in my profession that has gotten horribly twisted and needs to be called out: social workers aren’t in it for the money has become social workers should be expected to get all the work done in however many hours it takes simply because they care. The altruistic, social justice motivations inherent in the profession have been exploited to make social workers work (or feel like they should work) an insane number of hours each week with no additional financial compensation. After all, we’re not in it for the money, right?
Let me just dispel that myth right now. I am in it for the money. And the benefits. It’s called being employed. And the funny thing about being employed is that I expect to be compensated for my honest hard work because I need to support my life. I’m also in it because I’m passionate about direct practice and the communities I serve, otherwise I could easily be employed at a far less stressful job (and make more money). But that would also be less impactful and fulfilling.
So I feel like I’m faced with two equally unappealing options: 1) complete everything required of me in as many hours as it takes or 2) stick to a 40-hour work week and accept that the quality and timeliness of my work may suffer from time to time. Option 1 is simply not sustainable (or sane). Option 2 doesn’t sound too bad until I realize that much of my “work” is directly connected to my clients’ wellbeing. In other words, it seems my only options are that I can either overwork and burn out or feel guilty and/or anxious for work left undone (and families left unattended to in crisis).
The field of social work loves talking about how to practice self care in order to achieve this elusive work/life balance, but we are working within systems often diametrically opposed to fostering workers’ wellbeing. In fact, I feel like self care takes the onus for our wellbeing off the industry and places it back on us. So not only are we expected to work crazy number of hours and be responsible for an unrealistic amount of things, we also are supposed to make time to take care of ourselves. And when we take off work, we are still expected to meet the same requirements and deadlines… It’s ironic that we work with a population that experiences systemic oppression not totally dissimilar to the oppression we workers face in trying to serve them. No one is surprised by the high worker turnover, but it surprises me how much our profession has come to accept it as inevitable.
Before anyone assumes that this is the rant from yet another disillusioned, burned out social worker, let me take a moment to acknowledge how motivated and fulfilled I am feeling in my work overall and how I feel it is the right place for me to be at this time. I am figuring out how to maintain my peace of mind in spite of the limitations and burdens. This is precisely why I feel the urgency to voice these thoughts and hopefully begin a more meaningful dialogue that goes beyond my own venting, because I really do still care. In order to effectively advocate for our clients, we need to advocate for ourselves. To be skilled, compassionate workers, we need skilled, compassionate treatment from our work environments. Until then, this field will continue to feel like the survival of the fittest.