Social worker

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Kirsten, early 30s

What does a social worker do?

As a social worker, Kirsten works in several areas to support people who may have a variety of social difficulties. "You're working in the human services sector," Kirsten explains, "so you're working with anyone including the elderly, the disabled or people from different countries who have limited support and resources in their communities."

Kirsten's career provides good examples of the diversity of social work roles. She has worked in the areas of domestic violence, crisis support, aged care, disability support and "in various hospitals in oncology and children's units". She's worked full-time, but has been working as a locum (temporary social worker) for the last ten months, because "it's really beneficial to have a good working knowledge of other services and what's available to clients".

How did you become a social worker?

For Kirsten getting qualified in social work was a decision that took a few years of careful consideration. Initially she completed a Bachelor of Arts and went back to get her Bachelor of Social Work.

Between the two degrees she travelled and worked in a few other jobs. "I think that was a wise move, because having a bit of experience - work and life experience - is really important in social work."

Kirsten's qualification is recognised by the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) (new window), which is essential for working as a social worker.

What does a typical working day involve?

Kirsten spends a lot of her time working directly with clients - assessing their needs and making sure they get support services. At the moment she's "coordinating a service so elderly people can remain in their homes as long as they can."

On the day she was interviewed, Kirsten met with a Punjabi-speaking family who had elderly parents that they were supporting. Difficulties of language and family politics made this a difficult case, but Kirsten was confident they could provide aid. "It might be five or six hours a week of funding that we have so we can look at bringing in personal care or look at transport assistance for medical appointments."

What sort of skills and qualities do you need?

Social work requires highly developed people and communication skills. "A lot of it," Kirsten reckons, "is about being fairly open-minded and willing to step into the minds of people and trying to understand their situation."

In areas where people are uncomfortable about talking about their problems, you need to be able to communicate on several levels. "Often a lot of the communication isn't verbal in domestic violence," Kirsten explains. "And just being tuned-in to what someone is trying to convey without them having to say it is important."

What's the best part of the job?

For Kirsten the big appeal of social work is that is very much a people job. "I just really enjoy working with a huge range of people," Kirsten smiles. "And often people I might not have met or had anything to do with if I hadn't been working in this field. I'm always learning from them."

The other great upsides are the "little successes" that keep you going. Kirsten remembers working with a young boy who couldn't talk about his own domestic violence experiences and only wanted to play sport. She approached the problem on his own terms and set up a membership at a tennis club with a "tennis coach who offered him a scholarship, and gave him a tennis racket that he had from coaching". It was particularly rewarding "because being a member of a tennis club was something he'd never dreamt of before." It was a positive change that helped the boy overcome a difficult phase of his life.

What about the worst parts of the job?

In a daily environment of "dealing with people who have a lot of issues and concentrated problems" there can be many downsides. Stress can have a real impact on social workers and Kirsten has found "the hardest part is trying to separate your work from the rest of your life, and realising that you can only do what you can."

To cope as a social worker support networks are important. "You've got to be able to talk about some of the issues that are coming up for you at work with colleagues. And need to have good supervision and a good team around you, plus a great partner, someone you can talk to about the stuff that's coming up for you."

Find out more about this career path at myfuture.edu.au (new window) (Note: free registration is required to access the myfuture site).