New Social Service Workers: Please Read

Congratulations and thank you. I do not know what led you to choose this career, or for some of you it may simply be a job; but here you are today and I for one want to thank you for stepping up.

As you work daily with the population you are hired to assist, you’re going to be sneered at, resented, envied, respected, thanked, ignored, forgotten, remembered; and all these things will both test and define you. I do hope you are strong enough. Don’t be a knight in shining armour; for that only means your metal hasn’t been tested.

If you are in it for only the pay or the job security, I pray your exposure to and impact on people is minimal; for if you didn’t already realize it, every single day of your working life you now have the power to influence people and your words may raise someone’s hopes, or at the extreme, you may literally bring about someone’s death. With this job, comes immense responsibility. Take it, but not yourself, seriously.

However, let’s go on the assumption that your heart is one that cares. What I’d like to pass on is my advice being a peer in your field. For starters, be enthusiastic. I don’t mean animated and crazy, but throw yourself into your work with vigor and energy; people are watching and modeling what you do, how you act, what you say, if you do what you preach.

Learn to actively listen. You can learn so much by saying far less than you’d like to, and when you say less, others fill the void with the space you leave. In this space, what often comes out is their truths and realities, and the more you are trusted, the more people will reveal. The more they reveal, the better your understanding and ability to respond effectively to their needs.

Develop a personal philosophy, and every now and then examine what you believe, and be open to admitting that what you previously believed might need an adjustment, or an entire overhaul. It’s called growing. Think about your values, beliefs, thoughts and core priorities. Ask your peers what their working philosophies are, what they value, and put their answers in perspective with where they are in life. Take from others what works for you.

When you are just starting out, do something peculiar and imagine your retirement party. Suppose the top person is giving a speech thanking you for your many years of service. What characteristics would you most like them to cite and be remembered for? Now start acting consistently in every way to deliver upon those characteristics. Choose your own of course, but it’s hard to go wrong with compassion, adaptability, genuine caring, love and giving others your full attention.

Learn from your peers and supervisors, books and training events for sure, but learn more from your clients and those beneath you on the organizational chart. When you demonstrate interest, you validate others. You may never know the full impact of your influence on another person. Your attention, or your lack of interest could be the best part of someone’s day, or the final straw that breaks someone’s spirit. As a new colleague of mine always signs off in his communications, ‘be awesome.’

You might question openly or in secret older workers on your team. While they may move slower, appear to think slower, or be resistant to new ideas, they may be conserving energy, letting new ideas bounce around in their brain, or be thinking about how your new ideas haven’t worked when tried in the past. These people have life and work experience, wisdom, insight, reputations and feelings. Is it fair to have compassion for your clientele but not for the apparent shortcomings of your peers? Hold your tongue.

Be dependable always. Social work is demanding and can take an emotional and physical toll on you. Every time you are absent or unable to fully do your job, others have to stretch a little bit more, give a little bit more, and you’d be wise to make sure they get a word of appreciation when you return. If you can’t be reliable for reasons beyond your capacity, think long and hard about your future here.

You cannot satisfy every single client nor save them all. You can’t take them home and let them experience your better quality of life, nor can you live their lives for them. That’s arrogance and ignorance. You can provide an ear, give them your time, hope, and advice if they are open. The responsibility is theirs to do what they choose with their lives, so don’t impose your values, your expectations and your goals on them. Whatever they set for themselves may be small or great compared to you but it’s their life.

This is a career where work/life balance is critical. If you give and give and don’t take time to replenish yourself, not only will you burn out, but your capacity and ability to aid others will be exhausted. Give yourself permission to have fun, shop and spend without guilt. And while you shouldn’t flaunt your life, don’t hide it either. Your life may be what they aspire to have for themselves, and those that have forgotten the dreams and hopes they once held might do well to be reminded of what could be.

Social Services/helping professions are wonderful professions. It is an honour to serve; it’s humbling. Empower those you can, and do it all with enthusiasm!

By Kelly Mitchell, BA


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