Humility over Heroism

Social workers aren’t and shouldn’t be heroes. I have seen some articles recently touting the ‘heroism’ of social work but that’s not what the profession is or should be about in my view.

I’ve been a social worker for a while now. I’ve had different roles but the majority of that time has been working with older people employed by a local authority. There have been ups and downs, of course. Probably, if I’m going to be honest, the overriding emotion that I’d say reflects my career to date in social work is frustration. I have never reached particularly dizzying heights of the profession to a level able to change some of those things that have frustrated me most but with the tools I have, I believe I have genuinely tried to do my best.

Sometimes, I’ve worked long hours but more frequently, I’ve been very disciplined about leaving work on time and not working over the weekends. I have always attempted (not always successfully, I have to say) to separate work and ‘other things’ to ensure that my view of the world stays balanced. It’s easy to develop an adjusted sense of the world if you have worked in social care for many years.

I don’t want to be a hero though. I don’t want to feel I am expected to work over the hours I’m paid to work on a regular basis. Occasionally, I can understand it but it should never be an expectation. This is where I think the ‘hero’ stance can be damaging. We are paid to work. We do not have to be defined in all aspects of our lives by it. Some of the best social workers I’ve worked alongside don’t feel defined by their profession alone. They have other things in their lives that happen and mean that they can’t necessarily work the long hours or adopt the ‘I’m helping people because I’m a good person’ approach.

Social work as hero implies sacrifice. Sacrifice, whether it’s time with family or hobbies leads to resentment. Resentment leads to burnout. So let’s not be heroes. Let’s be human. Let’s not pretend we are ‘better’ than anyone else by virtue of the job we choose to do. Some people choose ‘people work’ like social work, teaching, medicine and nursing. Other people choose engineering, retail, banking and insurance. Society needs all of these professions as well as those who have vocations which are not defined by earning power — like caring for family members, whether older or younger. Choosing or being fortunate enough to work in an area that one enjoys does not instil greater worth or value on someone. It certainly does not imply heroism especially if that heroism signifies sacrifice.

So let’s not be heroes and let’s remember that for the great work that can be done, it isn’t through heroism. It’s by following a course that we have chosen and are lucky enough to be paid for. Nothing in our job makes us special, simply be virtue of choosing the path or taking the course which qualifies us. It may be that in the course of work, we, like any others, have opportunities to make a difference to other people and that is a privilege we need to treasure and respect, rather than use it to boast our own feelings of self-worth.

If you ask me, and I know no-one will, where the real admiration comes professionally, it is as much those whom I’ve worked with as users of services which my employer has provided (or increasingly not provided).

For me, the best social work needs to be done with humility rather than heroism. Humility for us to acknowledge how we can learn from all around us, those we work with, for and alongside and how we can learn from other professions and those with no profession who change things and improve things despite lacking the power we will invariably have.

Mostly, though, we need humility to understand the power we have and acknowledge how it impacts society, using that power to promote positive outcomes and to advocate on behalf of those who rely on strong and positive social work rather than moaning about the perception of social workers.

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