You need more than 'heart'

PHOTO: You need more than 'heart'

Many see them as problem-solving agents, whose mission is to help the poor and destitute in society. But this social worker confesses that he often feels helpless in the face of other people's pain and vulnerability.

Finding a job for an unemployed client or housing for someone without a place to stay is easy, when put against the deeper issues of life, says Paul.

He asks that we do not reveal his real name or place of work as the social work scene here is small. Plus, revealing explicit details of the cases he takes on is prohibited, he adds. And he could lose his job as a result.

But he decided to speak to The New Paper on Sunday for this column to try to shed light on the struggles that social workers have to contend with.

His clients face a range of issues, including financial difficulty, mood disorders, family conflict or loss of jobs.

"I had a client who came in because she needed help to resolve housing issues; but what she was really stuck with was coming to terms with the loss of her husband, who was the breadwinner.

"Another needed help for a referral for her mother, who had dementia. But in our first session together, she cried and wailed so hard for two hours that after the session, she had no impression of me being in the room with her.

"It was the pain of seeing her own mother's mental faculty degenerate and as a result, call her terrible names because her mum couldn't remember who she was any more," he says, speaking of his experience working at a family service centre here.

"I think some of these pains have no solutions," he admits.

He tries to be constructive about it though.

"Confronted with our clients' despair, if we are able to join them in the dark places, slowly we can find the light together," says the articulate 20-something, who has been in this line between five and 10 years.

The biggest misconception people have about the job is that "all you need is heart", he adds.

Empathy is the cornerstone of the work, but it is far from enough, he declares.

"Clients come to us with issues that can be so complex at times.

"A medical condition may lead to financial problems, then disagreements within the family about how to handle costs and eventually, stress may also lead to depressive symptoms," he says.

"Besides knowing which agencies to put clients in contact with for assistance, it is also important to understand the possible family dynamics and issues that may appear in a given situation in the family's life," he says.

But he says that there are no easy answers and every case is different, so there is never a one-size-fits-all solution.

He admits that the problems of his clients sometimes keep him up at night.

But it is all part of the job, he says.

"Of course we are impacted by our clients. If a social worker is not (impacted), I think he needs to evaluate why he is in this line at all," he adds.

An occupational hazard social workers (and their families) have to contend with is overanalysing a situation, he says with a chuckle.

"Tracing a person's behaviour back to his or her relationship with the family of origin could be an issue, or an issue with self-worth. There can be many maybes.

"But I've learnt along the way that...too much analysis can even be perceived as aloof or uncaring," he says.

And although social work is very much about reaching out and caring for those in need, he is not exempt from dealing with the uglier side of humanity.

"Voluntary welfare organisations often have very limited funding, so when we want to conduct programmes such as team-bonding activities for our clients, it can be a struggle," he explains.

"I've gotten scoffed at because of how little money I have at my disposal, which is a very angry and frustrating experience," he says.

Modest social work budgets also mean that social workers themselves don't get paid very much.

These days, fresh graduates earn about $2,550, according to the National Council of Social Services website.

"While we start on a similar scale with our peers, we don't see our pay rise as quickly as theirs," he says, adding that in a bid to retain staff, social work salaries have gone up.

But there are "billion-dollar" moments which make up for the modest salary.

He recalls a particularly moving anecdote: "There was a client who was often angry, sometimes drunk, and at times verbally and physically abusive.

"After months of man-to-man talk and genuinely affirming his efforts to work for his family (think 18-hour work days and choosing to sleep over at his workplace to save transport money), he said to me: "'I don't think others can understand me like you,' and a tear rolled down his cheek," he says.

"That moment moved me and has continued to be deeply significant in shaping both my personal and professional convictions about my work."