One of the most satisfying aspects of social work is that it is a constantly evolving profession. There is always something new to learn, improving your understanding of the issues your clients face and giving you better tools to help them. Here is a look at five pressing issues that are shaping modern social work.
Recognizing systemic issues
If you follow the news, you can’t have made it through the past year without hearing something about Critical Race Theory (CRT). Despite all the attention it’s been given by the media, this theory is widely misunderstood. It addresses the fact that racism is a systemic issue, with people of color disadvantaged by the way society is structured – for example, by patterns of school funding related to the demographics of different localities or by statistically identifiable biases in court rulings.
Learning to recognize this makes it much easier to identify the barriers that individual clients might face in living their lives and better appreciate the cumulative impact of microaggressions. It also helps to improve your cultural competence so you can connect more effectively with diverse clients’ perspectives and understand why a strategy that is effective for white people might not be useful to people of color. To a lesser extent, similar challenges present themselves to other groups, such as disabled individuals and LGBTQ+ people, so this learning can be applied more widely.
Corporate social work
One of the first places to take the aforementioned systemic issues seriously was the corporate world. When groups of people keep encountering the same difficulties and productivity suffers, corporate bosses want to know why and have a vested interest in breaking down barriers or helping their employees to overcome them. For some, this also emerges from a genuine commitment to corporate social responsibility.
Partly as a consequence of this, the new field of corporate social work has developed, with specialist social workers working on a contract basis or in-house at big companies to help employees with their problems and ensure that they don’t find themselves compromised by unnecessary struggles either at work or in their private lives. Corporate social workers also help to distinguish healthy and unhealthy working practices, letting employers know when they are asking too much of their employees or when pressure is counterproductive. They can tackle workplace bullying and help to ensure that all employees are positioned to achieve their full potential.
Social work dealing with problematic behaviors used to focus primarily on means of tackling the behaviors themselves, but today, trauma-informed practice is changing the standard approach. There is a growing emphasis on the causes of such behaviors and the effects of trauma, which is present in around 50% of women and 60% of men.
The causes of trauma can range from obviously distressing experiences like sexual violence or war to more subtle causes, such as emotional neglect in an otherwise comfortable childhood. The ability to cope with this varies widely, and sometimes an individual who comes through a big event well can be seriously affected by one that seems much less significant on the surface. The main point to remember is that unprocessed trauma can lead to self-destructive behavior and unhealthy coping mechanisms, which are much easier to resolve when the underlying trauma is dealt with directly.
Responding to the pandemic
A major cause of trauma in recent years has been the COVID pandemic, which has caused harm not only on an individual level but also on a social level, especially in cultures that are not very good at acknowledging death or processing grief. Experiences of separation from loved ones at vulnerable times exacerbated the problem, and some clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) people continue to have to limit their social activities and may also face economic exclusion as a result.
On top of this, the direct economic impact of lockdowns and loss of life damaged some communities in ways they are still struggling to recover from. All of this amounts to a social crisis that requires ongoing intervention from social workers, especially those with experience in advocacy. On the positive side, it provides opportunities for teaching resilience, and it’s a chance to identify issues and develop solutions in advance of future pandemics.
One trend that emerged from the pandemic was an increase in remote working, and although this is not suitable in every situation – not least because there are still problems with digital exclusion, which some social workers are making a big effort to tackle – but it offers strong advantages in some situations. For example, some neurodivergent people are much more comfortable engaging remotely, and when clients live in places that are difficult to access, it makes it easier to maintain regular contact. It’s also great for out-of-hours services. For example, it can help to ensure that people who are struggling with addictions can access support quickly when faced with temptation.
It is also helping social workers develop their skills. For example, in Cleveland State University’s advanced standing MSW online, you’ll find that there is a strong focus on helping you develop the specialist communications skills you’ll need for remote work with clients. This program also focuses on developing awareness of trauma and the skills for tackling it, so it’s well suited for several of today’s key trends in the profession.
New trends emerge in social work all the time, but this does not mean that the learning you acquire now will go out of date because each new development builds upon those that have gone before it. Keeping up with developments enables you to keep using your existing skills, and there are always opportunities for further learning. It’s the combination of fresh skills and established experience that really lets social workers stand out and make a positive difference in the lives of all those they come into contact with.
Image source: Getty Images