Social workers face multiple challenges

Photo courtesy: National Association of Social Workers’ website

Social workers  often feel underpaid for the depth of their work. It is a huge issue that has been going on for years.

According to 2022 national estimates by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics,, Florida is ranked with the second highest employment level of social workers behind only California, but it is also reported to have one of the lowest annual mean wages of social workers in the nation. 

Oftentimes people do not realize how much social workers impact the public, nor does the public appreciate the different realms of all the professions that fall under the umbrella of social work. Social work can range from forensics social work to high-profile domestic child welfare cases, military social work, civil mediation, school social work, licensed clinical social work, behavior analysis and the list goes on. 

When asked to discuss the effects this job has on employees, Todd Terry, a visiting professor in the master’s of social work program at Florida A&M University, says the immense pressure and emotional responsibility of the job often weighs heavily on them and can lead to what he calls “burn out.” 

“A lot of social workers face burn out due to the nature of the services we provide because we’re going into the depths of what is ailing a person, understanding their story, understanding their history, understanding what affects them now, and developing plans for them in the future for them to do better in life. It depends on what role you’re in, but you can have as many as 50, 60 to 80 cases and they aren’t just cases. These are people’s lives you have in your hand,” Terry said.

He says that social work attracts big-hearted people who commit to a lifelong dedication of selfless feats. 

“The clinicians in social workers have big hearts. That’s why we came to the profession. We care about each and every one of the clients and that’s kind of what leads to that drain because it is emotional. You want to go in and not have those emotions and just do what you’re supposed to be doing but it’s hard when you have children on your caseload or if you have elderly individuals on your caseload. Some may remind you of your family and you want to do more for them,” Terry said.

Another one of these big-hearted individuals in the field is Katisa Donaldson, whose 22-year-long commission included initiating the intervention of FAMU’s student-athletes by providing them with safe spaces to facilitate their well-being. Her motto is “you have to be selfless and you have to love people.”

Currently serving as the chair for the Department of Social Work and the program director for the mast er’s program at FAMU, Donaldson describes being a social worker as “a hat you can never take off.” 

She says that gradually, employees begin to permanently embody the role they suit up in every day. 

Donaldson says that  experience in the workforce causes qualities like empathy, vigilance and problem-solving to become second nature. She also provides some of the preventative measures she would take to ensure the safety of her client as well as her own safety.

“We go into situations where we have to always be covered. When I used to do home visits, I would bring an extra pair of socks. So if I knew the home had fleas, by the time I’d get to my car I would take my socks off. You always kept an extra pair of clothes, because when you go into homes, we’re not always going into the best homes, but we can’t make the person feel less than. We don’t wear skirts, because when you sit down, something can crawl up your leg, or you’re more at a disadvantage if you get attacked,” Donaldson said.

Social workers have to pay close attention to detail, be emotionally intelligent and know how to compartmentalize.

Tera Bivens leads a staff of departments at a local agency that supports those in vulnerable communities by administering and developing programs to help them gain self-sufficiency. Bivens says that she often advocates self-care and mental health for her staff.

“I’m not going to say it’s impossible, but it’s hard not to bring home that heaviness of what someone is going through,” she said.  “Every once in a while we take our staff off of calls and off of visits to have a check-in and also to give them some time to talk through what they may be holding inside just because they had to put on a strong front for a family, but you just never know what your own staff are dealing with. It could have been a trigger for them to have heard what story they heard that day. So being able to make sure that we’re being supportive of our staff and being mindful that they also have challenges and feelings that can be very real for them when they’re working for our families.”

“It’s hard to even fully release it 100%. I mean, you’re going to carry with you in some way. It’s just finding a way to manage it along with your own life,” Bivens added.

Although the mental effects and emotional toil that is packaged with the job isn’t compensated in salary, many social workers are motivated by the impact their work has on their clients.

When asked what has motivated her diligence for 17 years, Bivens answered, “It always rejuvenates me to be able to come back and continue to do what we’re doing and really see that immediate impact that we have from supporting them in their time of crisis.”