Working as a social worker can be both challenging and rewarding. As social workers seek to improve the welfare of others, they can often find themselves in vulnerable situations. To avoid these possibilities, it is crucial for employees to take steps to ensure their individual safety on the job. Here are some examples of the actions social workers can follow to protect themselves as they carry out the responsibilities of the profession.
Promotion of workplace safety
Social workers operate in a variety of environments. While some may work in offices in health care or social services settings, others find themselves regularly out in the field visiting clients.
Regardless of the situation, supervisors need to promote workplace safety. This means administrators should continuously monitor the work place and actively encourage and seek safe practices and protections for staff. The National Association of Social Workers recommend the following precautions be put in place for social workers operating in both office and field locations:
- Access to alarm systems that alert employees to safety risks or breaches
- Work spaces that easily enable social workers to exit potentially violent situations
- Visually open meeting spaces or the ability for social workers to operate in tandem when working with a client who may be verbally abusive or aggressive
- Restricted access to objects that may be used as weapons such as scissors, staplers, etc
- Well-lit hallways
- Secure entrances to employee workspaces, separate from public spaces
- Secure entry and access, including bulletproof glass, security guards, metal-detector screening, etc
- Completion of a risk assessment that includes an analysis of the environmental factors and potential vulnerabilities
- Discussion of safety with the client, either as a formal mutual safety contract or informally as a conversation around mutual safety
- A safety plan should a risk be identified
- The ability to state concerns surrounding the situation – with management support – and develop an alternative safety plan
- Accompaniment to field visit by colleague, supervisor, or law enforcement
- Ability to change the day and time of the visit, alter the location to a safer site, or postpone the visit altogether should a safety concern arise
Ask for additional training
Social workers can often overlook their personal safety in their desire to better serve their clients. While this is certainly one noble aspect of the profession, employees in this field have to be cognizant of a variety of factors related to their safety.
To be able to handle numerous facets and responsibilities of their job successfully, social workers should look for examples of situations where they felt exposed or at risk. These experiences will highlight the need for additional training in this area from employers, peers, and social work leaders. Professionals should not be afraid to ask for extra help.
In addition to the preparatory work these employees complete on a client-by-client basis, social workers should be trained to assess a person’s potential for violence, defend themselves against attacks – often through self-defense – and defuse tense situations, according to the Massachusetts chapter of the NASW. Other areas of study should include a greater understanding of cultural stereotypes, bias, and racism as they relate to social work and how professionals interact with and treat their clients.
Understand personal needs
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most social workers operate on a full-time basis, and many also put in extra hours during the evenings, on the weekends, and on holiday.
While the dedication to the field is admirable and can create positive change, it can also result in negative consequences. Employees who work too much can be stressed and overwhelmed with their caseload. Not only does this affect quality of care, but social workers with too much on their plate could be more susceptible to risky situations. With their guards down, these professionals could face an increasing number of dangerous events. It is crucial for social workers to understand their personal needs, to set limits, and to communicate those to their employers. By taking care of themselves, social workers can better provide for their clients.
Most people don’t realize they are at risk until something happens to them. Other social workers may cite inexperience or criticize certain actions as the reasons why risks become reality. Good judgment and familiarity with possible social work situations can only go so far when it comes to avoiding dangerous circumstances surrounding the profession.
Instead of shifting the blame and being apathetic when handling these situations, leaders within this field need to focus on promoting empathy and sympathy. The willingness to learn more about both the cause and effect of these potentially dangerous experiences will only help social workers in the future. Examining real-life examples aids social workers in identifying signs of risk and the ways in which to avert danger to both themselves and those they are assisting. By fighting what some consider to be endemic apathy over personal safety, social workers can eliminate one of the largest hurdles to workplace safety the field is currently facing, according to Christina Reardon, MSW, LSW, writing in Social Work Today.
Find an accredited program
In the pursuit of additional training for safer workplace practices, social workers may seek a higher education. A Master of Social Work degree offers students extra clinical guidance as well as the ability to study both management and policy.
In searching for an institution that provides this advanced level of instruction, professionals should look for a school accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). This organization defines the standards that relate to competent preparation and ensure that collegiate programs meet those requirements. CSWE added a mandate obligating universities to describe how their instruction will include criteria, procedures, and policies for enhancing not only student safety, but also workplace protections after graduation.
The Rutgers Online Master of Social Work program is a strong example of a prominent social work program that is accredited by the CSWE. Students who enroll in this advanced training can complete their coursework online and will graduate with completed requirements for licensure in their state of residence.
It is important for those in social work to be as safe as possible on the job. With these tips and an advanced degree from an accredited university, social workers can enter the field with the training necessary to protect them.