Starting out as a social worker? Here's five tips to help you:

  • Remember that you can say no
  • Take time to reflect on your work
  • Be emotionally resilient
  • Ask questions
  • Make the most of your induction

The excitement and anticipation of starting out as a social worker is certain to generate a lot of enthusiasm. After studying hard, learning the ropes on placements and getting through your exams, it feels like time to put it all into practice. You finally have the chance to make a difference to real people, help the vulnerable in difficult circumstances and give adults and children a chance to transform their lives.

At the same time, there are undoubtedly challenges that every social worker needs to overcome beyond the difficulties of the job. These include working long hours, having a workload that can be a struggle to manage, and delivering results sometimes without the money and resources that each case requires. It’s no wonder that emotional resilience is so important for social workers.

Dealing with those stresses may not be naturally easy – so if you’re a newly qualified social worker, read our top tips to help you make the most of your new career.

Top tips for social workers.

Remember that you can say no 

As a newly qualified social worker, you’re probably desperate to prove yourself, both to clients and your managers. With shortages of trained staff, yet no let up in the number of cases that need attention, it’s likely that you’ll be given a demanding caseload. 

As a student, you had a protected caseload, so the prospect of juggling clients can lead to overload. The consequences can be serious, not just for your clients but also your own health. Newly qualified social workers often talk of the emotional strain of managing their caseload.

Saying no isn’t easy, especially when you are still new and eager to succeed. Talk to your manager about the time you’re taking with each client. Work out what parts of your cases are essential. And remember that you may not realise that you’re stretched until you stop and consider it. Saying no is sometimes the best option for both you and your clients.

Take time out to reflect on your work.

When you’re constantly in the moment, digging away at a problem and focusing on one thing, it’s easy to get tunnel vision. Stop. Step away from your desk. Make yourself a cup of tea. Maybe ask a colleague for a fresh insight. It’s the best way to make sure that you don’t end up with a blinkered approach that has missed something. Sometimes, just by articulating a problem that you can’t figure out, you’ll realise what the solution is. 

It’s also important to give yourself a break – both by not being too hard on yourself and by making sure that you have time to wind down every so often. That means taking your lunch break, looking away from the computer screen or stepping away from the client sometimes. Only by maintaining your own health can you be most effective, and that means giving yourself some time. 

Understand the importance of emotional resilience.

Emotional resilience is not the same thing as detachment or callousness – you can remain resilient while still caring deeply for your clients. And they will get more from you if you are emotionally resilient – because you’ll be thinking clearly and be able to put forward the best solutions. This will also help you to influence senior staff and other agencies to get things done. 

The best way to achieve resilience is to be self-aware. Some social workers experience a sudden mass of emotions bearing down on them, because they are focusing entirely on the client’s needs without realising the impact it has on their own well-being. By considering how you feel about something, and what impact it has on you, you’re able to deal with those stresses more easily. 

Stay curious and ask questions.

Even simple cases contain hidden complexities that may not be easily uncovered. Asking questions is a vital social work skill and being new is a great advantage. Don’t be afraid to ask your colleagues questions about aspects of your cases and clients, and take advantage of the benefit of their collective experience.

A fruitful thought experiment is often to imagine your clients as young adults – this helps you think of them as people. What questions would you ask them if they were at their full capacity? What would they want to say to you? 

And don’t forget your training. Even though more studying is the last thing on your mind after completing three years of a degree course, it offers you the chance to refresh your curiosity. Best practice changes and training can help you progress in your career. Don’t forget to find out what your entitlements are to supervision and protected development time – ask your manager.

Make the most of your induction period.

Shadowing colleagues is a great way of learning about your organisational culture, and will save you time later on as you’ll know who you can call on for expert advice and help. It’s all too easy for organisations to downplay inductions and just show you where the kettle is – but you can take some responsibility and get what you need to thrive in your career if you ask the right questions.

Who are the best contacts in other partner organisations and how do they view your role? Who might be a good mentor for you? What are the rhythms of your office and working year? Don’t forget about booking holidays, claiming expenses and other important admin functions that are easily overlooked.

When you come to the end of your induction, don’t forget that your job is not your only identity – make time for your loved ones too. They deserve it just as much as your clients do.