It is impossible to help someone without taking on vulnerability. Loan someone money and they might not pay it back. Help a stranger, and you may be tricked 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. For social workers, however, there is no driving on – they have to roll the dice every time.

Since social workers are so often placed in a position of vulnerability, their risk for harm is much higher. The nature of these risks, including the circumstances that encourage them, vary depending on the nature of the social worker’s specialty and work environment. In the majority of 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

Home visitations are over-represented in the public perception of social work, no thanks to the dramatized Hollywood and media portrayals of the career field. The kind of social worker who makes home visits, however, 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 was denied custody of her daughter.

Retribution isn’t the only physical threat faced by 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.

Stress-Related Illness

More than three-quarters of a pool of 2,000 surveyed social workers reported that their stress levels affect their job performance. Some respondents went on to describe that they used alcohol as a coping mechanism, while others used antidepressants. Common stress-related illnesses among social workers include:

      • Chronic fatigue
      • PTSD
      • Generalized anxiety disorders
      • Depression

Researchers and social workers themselves claim that stress in the social work field is caused by a complex jumble of factors, including 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. The prevalence of stress-related illnesses among social workers, however, speaks to the deeper truth: everyone needs support sometimes. Without it, as the data explains, healthy stress levels can be compounded into harmful ones.

Fear of Unintended Consequences

The final risk social workers are commonly subjected to doesn’t actually affect them directly, but the fear of it can contribute to stress. Many social workers wrestle with this fear on a subconscious level:

What if I just make things worse?

A self-motivated client may benefit from the services recommended to them, but when a client doesn’t want to help themselves, any attempted intervention by a social worker may be met with hostility. In custody cases, this can initiate a downward spiral that drives a self-defeating mentality and other unintended consequences.

Because of the overseeing government’s vested interest in certain programs, social workers are often deprived of the tools that 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 may be torn between two appropriate, ethically sound decisions, but one will worsen the client’s situation. This requires critical thinking to assess every possible outcome of each decision.

Managing Risks

Not unlike police in a way, social workers interact with people at their lowest points on a regular basis. Given the amount of time they spend on the “front lines,” it’s unsurprising that social workers are subjected to the above risks. That doesn’t mean social workers, the agencies they represent, and the government(s) that funds them can’t manage these risks, however.

As mentioned, advocates are working to protect social workers with proposals for grants and legislation that would provide self-defense training, improved monitoring and improved facility security. On a more individual level, social workers need to overcome the stigma against speaking out when they need counseling services to address stress-related problems.

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. None of these changes can happen, however, unless a vocal community of social workers fights to encourage risk awareness and management.

Tim Kalantjankos

BS Sociology| University of Nebraska at Omaha

AS Physical Therapy | Clarkson College

August 2019

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