It is impossible to help someone without taking on vulnerability. Loan someone money, and they might not pay it back. Help a stranger, and they may trick you into a harmful situation. Some of us choose to roll the dice when we see a car and driver stranded on the roadside or a homeless person, but most of us choose to drive on. However, social workers have no driving on – they have to roll the dice every time.
Since social workers are in a position of vulnerability, their risk of harm is much higher. The nature of these risks, including the circumstances that encourage them, varies depending on the nature of the social worker’s specialty and work environment. However, in most instances across the social-work spectrum, the risks include physical endangerment, stress-related illnesses, and the risk of worsening a client’s situation.
Physical Risks for Social Workers
Home visitations are over-represented in the public perception of social work. Thanks to the dramatized Hollywood and media portrayals of the career field. Unfortunately, however, the kind of social worker who makes home visits is at a statistically greater risk of physical harm than their facility-based colleagues. This was the case with Lara Sobel, a Vermont social worker who was tragically shot and killed by a client who lost custody of her daughter.
Retribution isn’t the only physical threat to social workers, though. Several other factors can contribute to the risk of physical harm, including:
- Environmental hazards: Social workers often visit homes and apartments in low-income areas, increasing their exposure to mold, pathogens, exposed wires, nails, warped steps and floorboards and so on. This increases the risk of injury or illness.
- Mentally unstable clients: As in the case of Lara Sobel, patients with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other mental illnesses can display erratic and violent behavior. Similarly, clients who use drugs may become unpredictable.
- Facility safety: Social service departments are notoriously underfunded in most states. Metal detectors and armed security are rare in these facilities, so the potential to be harmed by a disgruntled client is still high.
- Lack of defensive training and equipment: Thankfully, social worker safety advocates are always working to acquire grants that would provide self-defense training, tracking and communications systems, pepper spray and other safety-focused improvements. Until then, however, physical endangerment is still a primary concern for both facility-based and roaming social workers.
More than three-quarters of a pool of 2,000 surveyed social workers reported that their stress levels affect their job performance. Some respondents described that they used alcohol as a coping mechanism, while others used antidepressants. Common stress-related illnesses among social workers include:
- Chronic fatigue
- Generalized anxiety disorders
Researchers and social workers claim that stress in the social work field is caused by complex factors. These include poor access to workplace counseling, lack of oversight, packed caseloads with minimal time to reflect, and more.
One comment, in particular, was echoed more frequently than the others: the stigma against speaking out. Like a personal trainer asking for exercise tips, social workers often feel that they can’t request counseling services from their managers because it would make them appear incompetent in their own profession. However, social workers’ prevalence of stress-related illnesses speaks to the deeper truth. Everyone needs support sometimes. As the data explains, healthy stress levels can compound into harmful ones without it.
Fear of Unintended Consequences
The final risk social workers are commonly subjected to doesn’t affect them directly, but its fear can contribute to stress. Many social workers wrestle with this fear on a subconscious level.
What if I make things worse?
A self-motivated client may benefit from the recommended services. However, for clients who don’t want to help themselves, any intervention by a social worker is met with hostility. This can initiate a downward spiral that drives a self-defeating mentality and other unintended consequences in custody cases.
Because of the government’s vested interest in certain programs, social workers are often deprived of the tools they need to address every problem. What’s worse, some departments push their social workers to emphasize unneeded programs.
Even when a social worker is provided with an ample range of helpful services, the circumstances surrounding their clients’ predicaments may create ethical dilemmas. Sometimes, a social worker is torn between two appropriate, ethically sound decisions, but one will make the client’s situation worse. This requires critical thinking to assess every possible outcome of each decision.
How Do Social Workers Manage Risk?
Not unlike police officers, social workers regularly interact with people at their lowest points. Considering the amount of time they spend on the “front lines,” it is not surprising that social workers are at risk. However, that doesn’t mean social workers, the agencies they represent, and the government(s) that fund them can’t manage these risks.
As mentioned, advocates are working to protect social workers with proposals for grants and legislation to provide self-defense training, improved monitoring, and improved facility security. In addition, social workers need to overcome the stigma against speaking out when they need counseling services to address stress-related problems on a more individual level.
Finally, a targeted funding increase would give social workers a greater selection of programs and services to offer, improving case outcomes. Adequate funding would also increase manager oversight and counseling services for social workers. However, none of these changes can happen unless a vocal community of social workers fights to encourage risk awareness and management.