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Why Empathy is Important in Social Work

Updated: Jan 19

The job of a social worker is dynamic- their days are a balance of uncertainty, strenuous efforts and beautiful moments of human resilience and growth. Social workers are faced with making critical decisions at nearly every minute of every day and in some cases, very precarious settings. On the other side of the fence, they are face to face with families undergoing varying degrees of hardship, conflict, or might be at other parts of their journey. Some have negative experiences with social workers, and might look at the profession as a biased, low-level policing role, who’s job is to turn the family’s life upside down and tear families apart. When adhering to best practices, social workers are really there to help guide families and help navigate any roadblocks to a more healthy environment that’s rooted in safety for the most vulnerable in the community.

The biggest thing that can aid a social worker in their job is to always start with empathy. Like anyone, when you meet someone for the first time, you don’t have a lot of information about the person, their history, their short-comings, strengths, hardships, triumphs or otherwise. Sure, social workers are part of a larger system designed to extrapolate the bad apples from the good seeds and this equips many of them with a stack of information that has yet to be thoroughly vetted. The problem is, this might inadvertently cause social workers to put up an immediate guard (for their own safety and those around them). For those families who are going through a challenging time are left to face the biases of the system rather than sitting down with someone who can truly empathize with them in one of their greater moments of need. These families are hurting and are now entangled into a system they don’t fully understand but villainizes them, leaving them wondering if they are working with a social worker who will see them as a human being or a case.

A social worker can start on their road to empathy first by approaching the humans they serve (commonly dehumanized and called “cases”) in a warm, open and inviting manner. They can make arrangements to meet with their prospective clients in a setting they are comfortable in, one that doesn’t make them feel as if they are being trapped into a ruse. Social workers need to be able to articulate in a clear and concise manner their role in the individual's life and the ways in which they can be supportive. But, most of all, social workers need to listen first.

They need to listen openly without bias or judgement. We are all privy to the biases in which the system operates under and continuously perpetuates. Particular races are labeled as primitive, aggressive, docile, abusive and they all either need to be saved or those around them need to be protected. Working within the system can be difficult but as social workers it is important to find ways and colleagues to help push against this bias and create a more empathetic view on a person by person basis. Not allowing stereotypes to determine how someone will be treated or the types of services they will receive is necessary part of a supportive practitioner.

Again, social workers are a rare breed due to the depth and breadth of challenges they stand face-to-face with, in communities, every day. The high stress environment requires, at times, for social workers to make fast, difficult and ethically complex decisions. . For example, if children are involved, a social worker is trained to assess every detail, and to often include judgement, bias and lack of healing centered care when doing so. All that being said, using empathy even in a role as challenging as a social worker will yield generous results and help to build lasting bonds and relationships rather than crossing off another case number on an ambiguous list.

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