Name any profession that you have even a rudimentary understanding of what the people in that job actually do, and there’s a good chance you can accurately come up with the personality traits and basic skills that you’d find in many of the people in that profession.
For example, Firefighters likely have excellent stamina, a high level of physical fitness; a genuine concern for educating people on how to safeguard themselves against injuries or death caused by fire. Fashion Designers likely share creativity; a flair for fashion in general, and enjoy clothing others perhaps with colour, affordability, trends or materials foremost in mind.
Those drawn to Social Services work are no different. There are common traits and qualities that dominate those who you find in the profession. Let me amend that statement. There are common traits and qualities that dominate those WHO ARE SUCCESSFUL in the profession. For the field of Social Services is just like all other professions in that you’ll find similar qualities amongst most of the workers but you’ll always find a small percentage who don’t align with the majority.
What becomes magnified and of tremendous importance is that the few in the field who don’t represent the majority, ply their trade and go about their work all the while interacting with fragile, vulnerable people who can ill afford to be served by people who would appear to be, ‘in it’ for the wrong reasons.
While most people drawn to social service work have the very best of intentions to serve and assist the vulnerable, you may just find others with different agendas. Yes some in the field are in because they want a 9-5 job, maybe the benefits that go with it, maybe it’s something they can do that isn’t too taxing on the body or the mind. Depending on the employer, you might also see some in it for the money, the benefits, the stability and protection of a unionized body behind them.
Some of my colleagues in the field but with different employers in different areas or countries will laugh out loud at that last paragraph about being in it for the money. I can tell you though, in some jurisdictions Social Workers and Social Services staff are paid quite well; just as in all professions there are some who are paid better than others.
It is hoped – at least by me – that those who are drawn to the field of Social Services are the compassionate ones; the ones who you and I ourselves would like to see sitting across from us in our own moments of need. We’d like someone empathetic to our needs with an open mind and receptive ear. We’d like to be believed after being heard, and we’d like a responsive person who can and will work with us to improve our situation whatever it is.
What we’d rather not experience I feel it is reasonable to state is a person who is going through the motions, detached from their job, abrasive, disinterested in their work and who forgets that there are people affected by their actions or lack thereof. Ironic isn’t it that some people would be in the field of serving others yet go about their day almost seeming to complain about the people who make their job so frustrating by being so needy!
What I don’t think we in the field have to have as a pre-requisite is having lived the lives of those we serve and support. It isn’t essential to have been homeless yourself; to have had an addiction to cocaine or be a recovering alcoholic. I don’t think having spent time in jail makes you more qualified to help ex-cons than someone else who hasn’t been in the correctional system.
What we all do need I believe is tolerance, patience, empathy, understanding; a willingness to listen without prejudice and judgement, condemnation or preconceived attitudes. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that the ex-con, recovering addict or alcoholic are not the best people to assist those they serve because they revert to their own experiences and sometimes in doing so fail to hear the unique experience of the person in front of them. Someone with no personal experience to shape their opinion will be listening in the conscious moment hearing the person they hope to help as they tell their story.
Sure it’s nice to think that we in the field can make a difference; that we can influence others for good, help support people who want to make positive changes in their lives. Honestly though, and as someone who has been in the field for some time, you’ll be disappointed in the setbacks some of those you have high hopes for experience. You might feel let down, or that you let them down. You might feel frustrated that someone didn’t follow through on your plan of action; that they were weak and succumbed to temptation and had a number of false starts.
You are human. It’s most important to be there. If people always call you first when they are the most needy, rejoice in that because your name came to their mind as the one person who is most likely to give them what they need in their moment of greatest need; what a privilege.
Talk to people in the profession you’re drawn to and see if you personally ‘fit’. Now that’s good advice.