It’s been 21 years since first responders rushed headlong into the burning World Trade Center while frightened civilians rushed for the exits. Each September, we remember and reflect on their bravery. Heedless of their own safety, they carried out their mission to serve and to protect us in our most devastating time of need.
As social workers, our work is neither as dramatic nor physically as dangerous, but we too rush headlong into a suffering humanity at devastating times as many head for the exit gates.
We train for years to learn to help the homeless, the neglected, the hungry, the ill, the abused. Instead of one catastrophic event, we are engaged in thousands of small crises, year after year. We try to help folks at risk of falling through the gaping holes in the country’s safety net.
These too are small acts of everyday heroism.
We soon discover what our textbooks didn’t tell us – that suffering is never ending but our own personal resources are limited.
That’s when our questioning inner voice becomes incessant – Should I quit?
None of us get our Social Work degree planning to quit. Nine percent of social workers switched positions in 2021, down from the 12 percent in 2020 but still high enough to be worrisome. Even before the pandemic and the “quiet quitting” epidemic that has rocked the country, there was a social worker retention issue.
There is a laundry list of reasons, including increasing paperwork, large caseloads, difficult clients, staff shortages, lack of supportive supervision, increased public scrutiny, low pay, confusing guidelines.
This blog will be a dialog on working in these turbulent times.
I am foremost a social worker by calling. I know what it feels like to try to help someone through a personal emergency that has turned a life, already precariously perched, into a raging inferno. I know what it means to struggle with your own empathy when dealing with a difficult client. I have heard the voice.
I’ve taught social work students as a professor the past 14 years between University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice and West Chester University Undergraduate School of Social Work, and I wonder if I am preparing my students well enough to do the hard things.
When the first responders poured into the Twin Towers, one of the first things they realized was that they couldn’t communicate with each other. Their equipment wasn’t compatible.
It is no different for us social workers. If we cease to communicate with each other, we will feel we are struggling alone. That’s why each month, this blog will explore an essential question where we can share our perspectives. I want us to talk together.
Social work is in the throes of change as America learns we cannot punish our way out of the ills that trouble us. People need assistance with mental illness, immigration, drug addiction, joblessness, poverty. Now, the country is turning to us, its social work force, for better policies and procedures to undertake the systemic changes necessary.
Two years ago, in my hometown of Philadelphia, police shot and killed a young man in the throes of a mental health crisis. His family had called the police but despite his family cries to not kill him, he became another fatality. In the wake of community protests, the city became very serious about embedding behavioral health specialists within the police force.
Turbulent times make room for innovation.
If social workers aren’t at the table, our unique perspectives will be missed. If we aren’t involved in creating policies, we will be forced to follow bad procedures. Bad policy decisions will cost lives.
But first we must create a better working environment for ourselves.
This month – send me your thoughts on building a supportive work environment and what’s missing for you at work.
Let’s begin the conversation.