This is Part 2 of a two-part series on the topic of: What’s in it for social workers? Part 1 focuses on factors that can make social work unattractive. With that established, in Part 2 I focus on how we as social workers can thrive in our professions and personal lives.
In all honesty, this Part 2 was unplanned 😂 (as with the many things I write- contrary to population assumptions, its more often that people write to think, rather than writing to express something already thought through). Also, it is with a little trepidation that I am writing this, aware that I am still very young in the social work field. Still, pressing on to give unsolicited thoughts (as with the other things on this SWE blog)-
How can social workers thrive, both in our professions and personal lives? Astute readers will note the duality in this question, intentionally phrased to help us consider the social worker as a person in the environment as well.
1. Make the most of your take-home salary
Apart from saving and prudent spending, in this VUCA world it has become almost a necessity to grow your salary as well, as part of retirement planning. I am not qualified to give advice on this, but there are resources and people dispensing great financial advice out there that can help one to make the most out of one’s salary. I like posts from The Simple Sum for their relatable financial reminders that are often timely for the working-class person, and the MoneySmart blog is a great place for information and links to other (sometimes sponsored) products/services. Safe places to start might include the CPF Investment Scheme, Singapore Government bonds or Endowus SG. Personally, my risk appetite is quite low because of my lazy reluctance to learn more about higher-risk investments, so I outsource my investing (and pay a fee) to the financial company. When the SG Government bonds had a really good rate in the past, I also invested in those and I tell you, it felt very good to have ‘random’ surprises of money credited into my account over the years 😄
2. Nourish your unique strengths
While it may be more natural to downplay one’s talents, intentionality in noting down your unique strengths is important! If you like, you can make a corresponding list of your weaknesses, which can come handy for job interviews and personal growth too. Intentionally jotting this down and adding on to it over time allows one to make note of transferable/marketable skillsets to other work opportunities, even if it may be in a different industry altogether. This might help to open options, because you will grow to TRULY believe that you have the skills for that job that may not be directly related to social work. I started a OneNote page after musing that my potential social service employers may not want PhD graduates because I will basically be either over-qualified (as a doctorate) and under-qualified (with my clinical skills) for a typical Social Worker role 😂 (I have since came to realise that there are other options, albeit less traditional). It has allowed me to notice that apart from the research skills, through the PhD I have developed different competencies in project management and knowledge/information/perspective synthesis. Noting these down can surface these strengths to one’s consciousness, which in turn can make it more natural to work on these strengths in everyday work and life.
3. Nourish and maintain a personal vision
As mentioned in part 1 of the series, system barriers can be a discouragement for many (potential) social workers who enter the social work field seeking to “change things”. I know, because I am one of them. It takes time to identify a personal vision and clarify what exactly one is working towards, as if ‘normal’ adulting isn’t hard enough.
Yet taking time to continually return to one’s personal vision and seeking clarity in this does help in making sense of the everyday work and toil. A wise friend (thanks KB!) commented this regarding the system barriers discussed in part 1: There are two groups of social workers- either being okay with the small incremental changes in the systems (e.g. online application for ComCare), and the other seeing that these are not enough- seeking to overhaul the system with big changes (e.g. no means testing for schemes). I would see this as a spectrum- and awareness on where one lies on this spectrum is a starting point for working to fulfill one’s personal vision.
Being part of a social service agency that receives a large bulk of funding from the State likely means that one needs to come to terms with confronting system barriers in everyday work, and intervening with the systems mostly at the micro level through case-based advocacy. On the ground level, it may be hard to see this translated to systemic advocacy to effect changes on policies and programmes, even though this may be happening as evidenced through incremental changes in our social and welfare systems.
One might find another paying job that aligns better with the personal vision, but that often might not be feasible due to other considerations (e.g. finances, family commitments). What other avenues are there? There other various civil society efforts that one can do in a personal capacity- i.e. CCA outside work. However, I would also like to add that we don’t need to ‘save the world’ by doing everything- it is definitely impossible and maybe sometimes we just need to know where our role lies in this world.
4. Doing things in one’s personal capacity
We need to cultivate our personal sense of agency even as we are seeking to do so for people we serve. Being plugged into groups with an eye for the kinds of systemic change that one believes in can help: some places might be Project Hills (I am eagerly waiting for their research page), A Good Space, the Community Development Network, Beyond Social Services (they have an ad hoc volunteering Telegram channel). These places can be where social work skills are a big value-add, albeit without monetary remuneration.
Further, cultivating personal agency for me is through not ignoring the different reflections that spontaneous pop up through my everyday experiences, but penning it down. For example during a seemingly interminable wait at the polyclinic, I realised that there might be a ‘time burden’ on the low income, and this burden is an invisible one that might prevent them from access to opportunities. Because of the need to save money, people with low wages might need to spend time to access needed resources. In this case, it is queuing at a polyclinic instead of going to the GP. Other ‘micro’ examples might include shopping around for the cheapest grocery item, or travelling to places to access free Wi-Fi for home-based learning. This has been shelved for possible future research or opinion piece.
4. Maintaining friendships
Lastly, and this is probably an obvious point that needs no explanation, maintaining friendships is important too! Social worker friends are great for already having a mutual understanding of the work, so they are more likely to understand you with minimal explanations. However, social working everything can be draining at times, after all, this profession only exists because there are problems in this world. One needs to take a break from seeing problems or talking about solutions to them sometimes. Having both social worker and non-social worker friends to talk sh*t and do life together with is a wonderful thing about living in itself 💛
Concluding, I believe that social workers can thrive and find that sweet spot- their place in this world where they can apply their expertise for the welfare of others. Social work is really one of the few professions which you can wholeheartedly embrace and integrate with your life mission. <Insert meaningful quote which I can’t recall at this point 😂>