I'm a Social Worker. "Oh, so what do you actually do?"
'What do you do for a living?'
This is one of the most dreaded questions for people in my field. Following the question, I am inevitably drawn into a two-hour debate over a) what a social worker actually is and how to become one b) why I picked social work and c) whether I think my work is worth pursuing.
To be specific, I actually work in child protection. Now, if you want to guarantee a stranger who has just asked you what your employment is will pucker up with awkwardness, I suggest you tell them you do my job.
They squirm. They flounder. Their eyes go wide and all of their body language screams 'why on earth would you do that? Why would anyone choose to do that?' Add to it that you were previously employed at a sexual assault crisis centre and well, the conversation is pretty much dead in the water.
Take a moment to Google 'reasons to become a social worker'. Go on, open a tab and do it. I did, and the first article I opened was 'Nine Reasons to Become a Social Worker.' Here they are listed below:
1. You won't be bored.
Ouch. Not a promising start. You absolutely cannot stick to a schedule in this job. You will be thrown into chaos at the whim of a phone call. You sometimes spend days putting out metaphorical fires. To be fair, most social workers are employed in some form of crisis position and if you are bored, then you either have zero empathy or aren't listening to your clients very well. This is not meant to be a comfortable job.
2. It is not a desk job.
Well no, but there is usually an astonishing amount of paperwork and record-keeping, especially if your employer is a government body. But hey, you will be running back and forth between hospitals and police stations, between schools and welfare centres, over to houses that may or may not be pizza stores in disguise. The community is the place you want to be as a social worker and the community is not often all that pretty. It is varied and it is wild.
3. It is a diverse career.
Correct. I've met social workers who specialise in everything from disability support to play-therapy to child protection to hospital liaison to educational reform to practice leadership to adult guardianship. You can hop from one to the other if you like and I highly recommend doing so.
4. It will challenge you in ways few other careers will.
Oh, boy. My friends who know me quite well and got past the initial shock of my career choice are not shy and will ask me upfront for some of the worst/funniest situations that I have been put through. Look, we all have war stories. I haven't met a social worker yet that isn't carrying one around with them, even if they're not willing to share just yet. But I know many psychologists, counsellors, police officers, doctors, nurses, emergency staff and even school teachers who are in the same boat. We are all challenged by the issues of society. Sometimes we don't notice it straight away but anyone in a position to witness another person in crisis will face a similar challenge as a social worker. In fact, I'd almost argue that any parent has probably faced similar challenges to a social worker.
5. It will teach you things you never knew about yourself.
Really? How is this a motivation? No one I know walks into an interview and says 'yes, I would like this job to learn things about myself.' It may, but oftentimes this is a side-effect of facing the aforementioned challenges present in this line of work.
6. It will make you a better policy-maker.
Debateable. Some people get very impassioned by their work and fail to grasp what actually makes good policy.
7. You get to be the person who changed someone's life for the better.
We are finally hitting the nitty-gritty, nuts and bolts, hearts and feelings motivations for becoming a social worker. The harsh reality is that you may never fully accomplish this. You may never change a person's life for the better. Sometimes, you are not meant to. Sometimes you are there just to be present and help someone out of that deep, dark corner of the world they have stumbled into. But despite your best efforts and intentions, people make their own decisions. When you can pull off this Herculean task, it is amazing. It is a reward like no other. But I cannot stress enough that if this is the box you want to tick after a day of being a social worker to affirm that your job has meaning and purpose, be very careful. It is a rare and precious moment when it happens.
8. It teaches you the true value of things.
Now we're getting very Zen. It is true. It becomes harder to fret about things like whether you should have bought low-fat milk versus plain milk when you've spent the day trying to find a house for the homeless. You do feel very fortunate, when your life is placed in perspective. Yes, I appreciate now more than ever that I have people around me who care about me and a roof over my head and I'm not starving. But you can also on the inverse side of this equation become quite beaten by the side of humanity that teaches you this perspective. It can be a fine balancing act - to appreciate the good in the world while staring into the face of some of the bad.
9. You get to stand up for human rights and social justice.
Some days you may feel like a little superhero, defender of the weak, a modern-day avenger for those less fortunate in the world. If that sort of thing makes you smile and gives you a strong purpose, then go to it. Fair warning - it can also be damn exhausting. Not many people want to hear about human rights when there is money to be made elsewhere. Sad fact.
Well then, we made it. The two-hour long conversation has been extinguished. What social work encompasses and the major motivations to enter the field have been explored. But that stranger is still staring at you like a deer in headlights and you're awkwardly swirling your drink around in your hand, waiting for their comment.
"But, is it worth it?" they ask, grimacing as they hope not to offend you. "Being a social worker? Like, do you actually like your job?"
I think back on all the nights that end in tears, all the drama that made me want to rip my hair out, all the poker-faced meetings I've had, all the swearing I spat out trying to get through the day, all the frantic hours operating on nothing but coffee, all those words I typed praying that someone in the legal system would agree with them, all those days I begged for funding.
But then, there are those moments. Those plans that worked. Those kids that went to safe places and thanked me for my help. The smiles. The triumph. The people who are getting along just a bit better. Those colleagues that bought me a drink and told me I was a pleasure to work with. The jokes. The laughter at the ridiculousness of some days.
"It is one of the best jobs there is," I answer.
I know I might never be able to explain why my work is so fulfilling but truthfully, it is.