The Struggles in the Role of a Social Worker

Witnessing clients fall on bad times is one negative experience that social workers encounter.

No job is full of sunshine and rainbows. The social work field can certainly attest to that. Helping people and families can make your life as a social worker extremely rich and rewarding, but the stress that goes along with making change happen can disrupt your work-life balance. From being overworked to being underpaid, a social worker has to deal with her fair share of struggles.

Negative Experiences

As a social worker, you have the opportunity to impact someone's life in a positive way. The highs are high, but the lows can be very low. No matter the potential for bringing good to the life of a person or family, change takes time and you can't help everyone. You're going to witness families who are going through a crisis continue deeper into that crisis, despite your intervention. Individuals who have fallen by the wayside with drugs or alcohol may fall harder yet, even while you put in maximum effort to help them. Seeing the bad side of humanity and society can take a toll on you, and it can make it hard to avoid carrying that negativity into your home life.

Support and Advancement

Although part-time positions do exist, expect to work close to 40 hours a week regularly as a social worker. Some states, institutions and organizations that find themselves in a significant budget deficit may be forced to cut social services spending. Those cuts can lead to fewer social work opportunities, making your position more stressful as you might need to take on additional duties and clients. This added workload may mean less time to spend with clients, making it difficult to foster change in their lives. As duties increase, weekend and evening hours are fairly common. Although promotion opportunities exist, from moving up to supervisor to becoming a program manager, a 2007 study conducted by the National Association of Social Workers revealed that many social workers named lack of advancement as a key concern.


Social work has almost always been a female-dominated field, and 81 percent of social workers were women as of 2012, according to the New York Times. Unfortunately, the national wage gap is reflected in social work; the wage gap is the same as, or even worse than, other fields despite how many more women work in social services. A 2009 study conducted by the National Association of Social Workers found that women's median yearly salaries were about 75 to 79 percent of those of their male counterparts. The wage gap nationwide, across all jobs, was 77 percent. Social workers earned a median annual salary of $42,480 in 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Ethical Dilemmas

There are always at least two choices to choose from for every problem social workers encounter. Sometimes it's clear which choice is ethically right and other times that proverbial line is blurry. For instance, if you're visiting with a client and witness her beating her child excessively, deciding to report it is obviously the ethical decision, versus not reporting it. But suppose a husband and wife get into a fight while you're at their house. The wife storms out, leaving an angry and emotional husband alone with you. He remarks he'd hit her if she walked back through the door. He's been convicted of domestic abuse once before. You're uncertain whether he's made an earnest threat that he intends to carry out, so you're facing an ethical dilemma: should you break confidentiality and warn his wife and authorities? Wrong versus right is not always black and white in social work.

2016 Salary Information for Social Workers

Social workers earned a median annual salary of $47,460 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, social workers earned a 25th percentile salary of $36,790, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $60,790, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 682,000 people were employed in the U.S. as social workers.

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