Being a social worker and having intimate access to the lives of others is a privilege we should all be grateful for
Being a social worker means…
You will never be bored.
You will always be frustrated.
You will always be surrounded by challenges, so much to do and so little time.
You will carry immense responsibility and very little authority.
You will step into people’s lives and you will make a difference.
Some will bless you.
Some will curse you.
You will see people at their worst and their best.
You will never cease to be amazed at people’s capacity for love, courage and endurance.
You will see life begin and end.
You will experience resounding triumphs and devastating failures.
You will cry a lot.
You will laugh a lot.
You will know what it is to be human and to be humane.
That poem is floating around all over the internet and you’ve probably seen it a few times yourself. Every six months or so I’ll notice it going viral on social media as a new wave of people come across this anonymous musing on social work that has struck a chord with many people. Yet for all its popularity across our profession, everyone I speak to picks up on something a little different.
People will view the ‘difference’ they have made depending upon the outcomes they have managed to achieve in their own work. Some will assume personal responsibility for ‘failures’ being their own fault, whereas others brush off their failings with a confidence that they did all they could to avert disaster. I’m no different and also see the content of this poem through the lens of my own professional journey in social work with adults.
The line that really sticks out for me is the finale of ‘you will know what it is to be human and to be humane’. There’s something about it that rings so true with all the most powerful things I’ve felt during my time as a social worker and how I’ve grown, not only as a professional, but as a man.
Like the anonymous author of this poem, I too have seen life beginning and ending. I’ve supported people in hospital when their own children or those of their relatives have been born. I’ve had to help identify the bodies of people who’ve had nobody else in the lives apart from ones like me who are paid to be there.
Some have seen my presence during these life and death moments as an overseer of the state, tasked with intervening at times of supposed need before scuttling back to my office to record all that I have seen on clandestine computer systems.
Thankfully, far more have seen my company as supportive, with some going so far as to treat me like a genuine friend. Although my professional status means I must address issues where people become overly familiar or refer to me as a friend, it’s a nice feeling to know that I’m occasionally thought of in this way.
I’ve been blessed and I’ve been cursed
In the case of the blessing, the wide range of cultures and faiths I’ve come across has seen me receive blessings from every religious deity you can think of. I’ve seen people going wild during the Jewish festival of Purim and eaten the most wonderful food you’ve ever come across during Eid. At Christmas time, I spend my last working day before the holidays like a low-rent father Christmas, handing out gifts donated to the Salvation Army from the back of my Honda.
The curses aren’t quite as jolly, however they almost always come from a sense of frustration. I’ve learned never to take it personally and that you can always work past anger to find the true reasons for people letting loose on you. Most of the time it’s about basic human needs to be loved, respected and valued not being met.
Showing people how you care and that you’ll help work towards a solution soon brings an end to the cursing.
Boredom is something I’ve never felt at work. I’ve been happy, sad, lonely, up, down, angry, pissed off, upset, deflated, joyous and everything else in between. I’ve never been bored. How can you be bored when you never know what’s going to happen in the next ten minutes, let alone the next ten days?
For all the affinity that I feel with this poem, I keep coming back to the line it leaves us hanging with at the end: ‘you will know what it is to be human and to be humane’. I’m invited along to a nearby university every year to give a speech as part of a first-year introduction to social work with adults.
As well as putting in a few of my passions and pet peeves in an effort to play a small role in shaping our next generation of practitioners, I dwell on the importance of being humane in our social work. I’m long enough in the tooth to see the gap between the idealistic world of social work that students are trained to operate in by their degrees and the real world they will face when they take up their first jobs. The systematic workplace issues they’ll have to contend with can make even the most altruistic and compassionate graduate become cynical and jaded.
That’s why I go along every year and tell our bright-eyed and bushy-tailed new students that they must always remember the people they are working with are just that, people.
Not clients. Not service users. Nor cases or customers. They are people, just like me and you. There but for the grace of God go I. There but for the grace of God go all of us.
A slight change in our genetics, an extra chromosome in our cells or our mother’s drinking during their pregnancy. These things can shape our whole lives and result in us becoming ‘service users’ before we’re even born. Sexual abuse at the hands of family members, being exposed to domestic violence in the home, chemical imbalances coming about with our developing brains.
These factors can see us ending up as ‘clients’ because of what happens to us during our childhood. Being introduced to drugs by our peers, coercion into sex work by people we are in love with, an accident on the daily commute to work we’ve done a thousand times before. These issues can end up with us becoming a ‘case’.
I’ve worked with rich people, poor people, the working class, middle class and upper class. I’ve worked with celebrities whose names you’ll all have heard of and people who’ve got no official identity at all. Everyone is unique and all their circumstances are different.
The only thing that unites every single person I’ve worked with is that they are, as I said earlier, simply people just like you and me.
This time next week it could be you being visited by a social worker and having your quality of life in the hands of someone you’ve never met before. I guarantee that you won’t feel like a case or a client and you certainly won’t feel like a customer. It’ll also be difficult for you to see yourself as a user of a service that you’re not getting or might not even want in the first place.
No, you’ll feel like the same old person you’ve always been, just with a slightly different set of circumstances. You’ll still like the same things, want the same things and dream of the same things, just that there might be a few extra hurdles in the way.
Seeing the human behind those hurdles is the key to being a good social worker, in my opinion at least. The people we work with are more than a set of problems that need to be solved and more than a list of issues to fix as part of our job. Just like me and you, they still think about their first kiss and the lover from that long hot summer, the one that got away.
When nobody’s looking they fart at will, pick their noses and wee with the toilet door open.
They regret not making more of an effort to keep in touch with old friends, dream of winning the lottery and still get a little bit scared when they hear a bump in the night.
Not cases, not clients, not service users. Just people.
Once you start to see your ‘cases’ as people, you find that your attitude towards work and resultant satisfaction in what you do begins to change.
You no longer have fifty clients, you have fifty people to help.
You’re not closing a case, you’re ending your professional relationship with a person.
It’s not somebody who is using the service you’re providing, it’s a person you’re working in partnership with to help get the same basic things out of their life as everybody else is.
When you start to see your work from this different angle, it begins to dawn on you how much of a gift it is to be a social worker.
That’s when you realise that being a social worker, and having access to the intimate lives of other people, is truly a privilege.
This article is an excerpt from ‘The Truth About Social Work’, the best-selling debut book from Social Work Tutor. The book is now available for only £2.99 on Amazon as part of their January sales for one week only.