Dear Future Social Worker,
A social work career is filled with countless lessons, experiences, and emotions. As you embark on this journey, I’d like to share some insights with you.
Many students entering social work face imposter syndrome, overwhelmed by the perceived need to know everything immediately or daunted by the gravity of their responsibilities.
Reflecting on my early social work practice, I realise I did not enjoy being new to the role. I often questioned myself, wondering, ‘Why would anyone want me as their social worker?’, compared to my more experienced colleagues.
Once, a person didn’t want me as their social worker when I was a student because they were in crisis with their housing and preferred someone who had been in the role longer due to the urgent nature of their problem.
Their decision was respected, and I assisted a more experienced colleague. In the end, they acknowledged my input as helpful and appreciated my kindness.
At that time, I was relieved to have another worker alongside me, but now, I would feel more confident handling a similar situation.
I have also worked with people at very difficult points in their lives who went out of their way to tell me they thought I was in the right job because I obviously cared about people.
Reflecting on these experiences, I have realised that everyone is different. Most of the time, it’s not even about the level of experience but about personal differences or preferences, which highlights the importance of having a diverse workforce.
Being a young social worker
You may be surprised to find that even in a profession like social work, there are times when you might feel like you don’t belong.
My advice is to stand strong. By completing your degree, you have already proven your capability, so don’t let anyone diminish your accomplishments. I share this from personal experience.
When I was young and new to social work, I faced comments about my age that made me feel as though I would be harshly judged and that I had something extra to prove.
I even felt pressure to perform as well as seasoned social workers, despite being just a student and still learning to meet the professional capabilities framework (PCF) standards.
However, I was fortunate to have a colleague who, despite her extensive knowledge, consistently affirmed my capabilities and invested time in my development.
She remained hopeful and inspired even after many years in the profession, which I found incredibly inspiring. Her support showed me the importance of mentorship and encouragement in our field.
Now, I realise that even the most experienced social workers continuously learn and evolve. Coming out of university, I had the advantage of being up-to-date with current legislation and theories, which was useful to share with others.
It was enlightening to see that even knowledgeable colleagues can have moments of self-doubt. No one knows everything, and seeking guidance is not only acceptable but essential in this ever-evolving field.
Social work is a profession that can be both immensely fulfilling and extremely challenging. On days when you achieve positive outcomes for individuals against all odds, it can feel like the best job in the world.
Yet, there will also be days when the weight of responsibilities, complex situations, or mounting paperwork becomes overwhelming. It’s during these challenging times that it’s crucial to remember your core values and prioritise what truly matters: the people you serve, not just bureaucracy or ticking boxes.
I’ve had to cling to this perspective at times, particularly in moments when I felt like I was failing everyone — my manager, those I was supporting — and sometimes you feel like you are wading through treacle with it all!
There were instances when I had to remind myself that ensuring a person’s safety and wellbeing was more important than adhering strictly to administrative timelines.
For example, I prioritised helping someone stay safe over completing an assessment despite it being categorised as ‘late’ or ‘in the red’. These experiences have highlighted the importance of focusing on the human aspect of social work, even when faced with procedural pressures. Good managers acknowledge this as well and support you.
It’s important to recognise that a career in social work can present significant challenges alongside its rewards. If you find yourself struggling, remember that it doesn’t always reflect on your capabilities.
Often, factors outside our control can impact on our ability to perform effectively. In such times, self-compassion and seeking support are crucial.
However, it’s also a reality that the support we need may not always be readily available. This highlights the importance of a supportive work environment and understanding management in our field.
If you ever find yourself in a situation where you feel unsupported, it’s vital to advocate for yourself and consider all available options. This might include seeking mentorship, utilising professional networks or, in some cases, exploring opportunities that offer a more supportive environment.
Our commitment is to those we serve, but maintaining our own wellbeing is essential to perform our roles effectively. Remember, making choices for your professional and personal health is a part of self-care and crucial for a maintainable career in social work.
The power of writing
You most likely chose social work out of a genuine desire to help others. It might therefore come as a surprise to discover just how much writing is involved in the profession.
While some paperwork could arguably be streamlined, mastering effective written communication is crucial. Writing not only helps organise your thoughts but also serves as a powerful tool to advocate for others.
Your voice, conveyed through your words, can promote positive change and provide confidence in your professional integrity.
A key lesson I’ve learned over time is the importance of empathy in our writing. Always approach your documentation with the awareness that the person you’re writing about might read it one day.
Early in my career, I mistakenly wrote that someone did not ‘want support to get into work’, not that they were disabled and unable to work.
This error, once realised, was deeply upsetting, both to the individual and to me. It felt as though I had undermined my strengths-based approach in our interactions. This individual even questioned if I had actually written it, as it didn’t seem characteristic of my approach.
This experience was a stark reminder of the importance of taking the time to ensure accuracy and empathy in documentation. Being supported to have enough time for this is crucial, as not having it is one of the worst feelings in social work.
Rushing through paperwork can compromise our aim of helping people. What we say, and how we say it, matters immensely.
The very essence of social work lies in its core values. Being someone who is trusted, who respects every individual and who recognises the intrinsic value in others, especially when they may be marginalised by society, is a testament to the power of this profession.
Find your community
Equally important is the role you play within the community of social workers. Strive to be the anchor that your colleagues can rely on during their challenging times as most of the time the best resource we have is each other!
You’re never alone in this journey. Social work thrives on community and networks. Lean on your peers, your teams, and your managers.
And remember, as much as you advocate for others, never forget to advocate for yourself. Speak up, protect your wellbeing and always strive to work in environments that empower you to do your best.
Social work might not always bring grand accolades. But focus on those small victories, those moments of positive change, and let them fuel your passion.
Your role isn’t to be in the limelight but to enable others to shine and lead their lives the way they envision. In moments of solitude or when you feel like the lone voice in a room, advocating for someone’s rights, remember why you chose this path.
More from Choose Social Work
- ‘We never hear about the children social workers help’: a day in the life of a social work team
- ‘It was wonderful to have somebody show me they really cared’
- When social work becomes a family affair
- ‘You can literally change a young person’s life’: an 18-year-old’s message for social workers
- ‘What I wish I’d known before becoming a social worker’
Kayleigh’s letter is part of Community Care’s Choose Social Work campaign, which aims to champion the brilliant work social workers do every day, inspire the next generation of practitioners and counteract the negative media coverage of the profession.
Read about why we’ve launched this campaign, and the five steps you can take to support it.
On our campaign page, you will find more inspiring stories about the difference that good social work makes, as well as our series of Dear Future Social Worker letters, encouraging the next generation to choose social work as a fulfilling, rewarding career.
Read more articles by Kayleigh here: