Are All Social Workers Miserable?

That’s the search term that someone used to find my blog recently.

The short answer is: yes. Yes they are. All of them.

Okay, maybe not.

Of course, I’m not a Social Worker. I’m a Social Service Worker. There are differences and I wrote about those a while ago; if you want to try to decipher those differences and explain them to me I’d be more than happy to listen.

But in terms of the personal outlook and moods of Social Workers, I feel fairly qualified to comment due to my ‘related field’ training and experience. I know a few Social Workers, too, which I’m SURE makes me qualified here, right? (Ha!)

People who work in the Social Services field (which includes both SWs and SSWs) are generally dealing with people who have problems. No one comes to us, books an appointment or engages our services, for the purpose of sitting down to tell us all the good things in their life. At least not until they’ve spent a few months telling us the bad shit, dealt with that crap, done well for a while, and then they’re not likely to bother coming back to tell us the good stuff because they’re too busy living life. This is how the whole deal works and, ultimately, that’s how a professional relationship in this field should be.

We work with people who are stuck in crappy situations, who are dealing with crappy things, who are hurt or damaged or traumatized or addicted. We work with people who have no one else to talk to about things or who are being abused or who are coping with a history of abuse.

Quite often we’re working with people for whom “change” from that crappy stuff will either take many, many years or will never happen at all. It will be one step forward and eighty-two steps back. It will be one small gain and thirty-four new problems of epic proportions.

Sometimes I hear stories of my clients’ lives and I have no idea how they function at all. No word of a lie, the sheer number of things stacked up against them is mind-boggling and yet, every day, they get out of bed and deal with it the best that they can. Keep moving.

So, people who work in the Social Services field learn to celebrate the small victories. That’s what I’m saying here.

But that’s hard work. Really hard. It is hard to focus on small bits of growth and small victories.

It’s hard because, after a while, the general human population starts to resemble a cesspool of sludgy awfulness. It feels like every woman has been beaten and raped and every child is left alone and unsupervised and every man has an addiction and hepatitis and everyone is cheating on their partner and everyone is financially broke and no one helps anyone with anything because everyone is suspicious of each other and everyone is scamming everyone else and people steal anything of value and all the landlords are corrupt and companies are evil and .. more. So much more.

And people in Social Services hear about all of it, eventually.

It would be one thing if the people we worked with were friendly, kind, loving people. Most often, however, they are not.

The people we help are, quite often, not really the most pleasant. They’re tired, angry, addicted, used to being looked-down-on, impatient, defensive, traumatized, defensive, desperate – and all of those things, combined, don’t lend to much sunshine. They have often told their story to twenty people and are tired of discussing it and, goddammit, they’d like us to just FIX IT ALREADY.

But the system that is meant to support people is broken, too. There is so much injustice in our society. Many workers are simply trying to duct-tape the gaps closed for as long as possible – in the hopes that the necessary services and agencies get funding before it’s too late. We are quite often aware that the very services that our clients desperately need are totally out of their reach and will likely remain so forever. We try to make things better wherever we can but we know it could be SO MUCH better.

We watch the system make the same mistakes over and over – and ignore the recommendations from the people and the workers who know what services are needed and what methods of working are effective. It’s about money, really. Intensive services that are personalized and customized and holistic are effective – but they cost more, in the short term, than the status quo.

There are a few agencies that are breaking that status quo and, my god, those agencies are like fragile little eggs in our hands. We don’t want to exhale too hard around them in case someone notices that they’re “doing it differently” and shuts them down. They are so beautiful and glowing and a little bit mythical.

But, for the most part, we work at helping people. And we realize that we often can’t. And we keep showing up and trying our best anyway. We watch people keep falling through cracks. It can be agonizing.

What do you do with that, then? How do you go home at the end of the day and recognize that many of the people you’re working with aren’t going to get better? And that, at times, it seems like pure luck when someone does break out of the awfulness.

So, people who work in Social Services are often taught to focus on “self care” which is a great idea – but there often aren’t enough hours in the day to make even the best attempts at self care useful. There’s a high burn-out rate in Social Services employees – often they’re underpaid (and oh, man, I could talk about all the reasons why it is that way – from patriarchy to stereotypes and then some!) and undersupported by their agencies (again, lots of reasons behind that). They go home at the end of the day exhausted from everything they’ve seen and heard – and have a few hours before bedtime to make dinner, eat dinner, watch some TV and.. well, let’s just say that brushing their teeth and flossing can be the only “self care” some people have time to do before getting up and doing it again.

So, are all social workers miserable? No. I have met some unbelievably amazing people in the field – social workers and social service workers – who are funny and smart and bright and glowing. People who find ways to put aside the gloomy crap and who celebrate small victories and, at the same time, inspire the people around them. They’re often the people in charge of, or working at, those little agencies that are breaking the status quo and making a difference.

I love my job and I feel truly privileged to do the work that I do. My agency is very small and, so far, is doing the best it can to deal with a specific problem in the best way possible. Our staff is very open and warm and everyone laughs a lot – and we seem to keep working together to find new ways to deal with things that will help our clients within the constraints of our agency’s mandate and funding. I also get to spend time working at, and with, some of those agencies that are breaking some of the molds – and that’s inspiring, too.

If I didn’t have those ‘perks’, though, I imagine I’d be miserable after a while.

There are days when I come home and I’m sad – and, every single day, I am incredibly aware of my own luck and privilege. Those aren’t bad things. Perspective is never a bad thing.

So yes, some social workers are miserable and I don’t blame them one bit. But a lot of them are finding ways to fight back – which is just plain inspiring.


  1. Sylvain says:

    “It’s hard because, after a while, the general human population starts to resemble a cesspool of sludgy awfulness.”

    That paragraph struck as oddly familiar. Then I remembered where I had heard something similar before. From a very good friend of mine who is an officer.

    Much like her, you deal with a small percentage of the population, but it’s ALL you see, over and over and over. It’s easy too lose perspective, and certainly takes it’s toll.

  2. Jo says:

    I really enjoyed this entry

  3. Kelly M says:

    I only know one social worker and she is not miserable. She is quite the opposite in spite of having been in the field for over a decade. She, like you, is drawn to the hard core stuff, the front lines. My father and all his colleagues, who comprised the village that raised me, were all profs in the school of social work in a university. They were not miserable, but they all drank.

    I especially loved the paragraph in which you compared the mythical, effective agencies to fragile eggs.

  4. MayB says:

    I know I am!

    • violet says:

      You TOTALLY need to come work where I do, MayB. I’m sure the commute will be worth it!! (But you might have to fight our Social Worker for the job.. Hmm..)

  5. Jim says:

    My girlfriend is burnout and just about quit her job again, she is a social worker substance abuse counsler and is $70,000 in debt in student loans, her job dosent pay her health insurance cause it is a small community center. Her rent is $600 a month, her student loan bill is $700, she has two 8 and 10 year old boys and she raises her 15 year old brother, she is overwhelmed and slipped into clinical depression again. She is 28 and her mom died of a stroke in front of her when she was 17 and she tried to kill herself. Social workers helped her and that’s why she wanted to become one, now she hates it. She is overworked and underpaid.

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