Social Service: Not everyone's cup of tea

Let’s go straight to the point. All of us talk of change, some only of the minuscule ones and some of the really drastic, influential changes, which would take the society by a storm and bring the holistic change everyone wants out of life. Now, let’s also face this reality. How many of us are willing to actually work for that change, be it by standing up, collaborating, giving back or helping each other create the change we want to see in the society?

Unfortunately, the number of persons desirous of doing genuine social work is very small. It was not for nothing that the government was obliged to cancel the registration of so many NGOs, which were ostensibly doing social work but were in reality pursuing different agenda. At individual level we notice many people do it for a photo opportunity and forget about it the moment the camera button is pressed.  Some would do it with a desire to show off, some would do it to continue to wield influence and some others would do it just to placate their own ego. Curiously they find many companions of the same ilk to pat each others’ back.

Social service is not everyone’s cup of tea. True, social service demands a lot of dedication and sacrifice on various fronts of one’s personal life and comfort. It requires a diverse and demanding range of professional, emotional, and cognitive skills. While many people who become social workers have a natural aptitude for these skills, it is essential for others to acquire these skills to succeed in doing real good and genuine social service.

The first and foremost requirement for a social servant is empathy. Understanding others intellectually, culturally, and emotionally is very important in social work. Stepping into someone else’s shoes and recognizing that experiences, perceptions and worldviews are unique to each individual would enable the social workers to better understand and build stronger relationships. Empathy, though rare, can be understood and honed like all other skills. Most people who choose to be social workers are already naturally empathic, but those who have spent most of their productive years otherwise may find it difficult to cultivate this important trait later. Retired government servants should watch their behavior in particular since most of them are used to ordering people around, unmindful of their sensitivities. This proves to be a big handicap in seeking the cooperation of the ground workers and occasionally even of the beneficiaries themselves.

Communication is another vital requirement of people engaged in social work.  The ability to communicate – both orally and in writing – clearly with a wide range of people is essential. Social workers must be able to communicate in many different ways and with many different people. It is important to be clear and transparent about the scope of services that one can provide as their social worker. This also means saying what is within the realm of possibility and what is not. These can be hard conversations to have, especially when one wants to do all one can to help. In addition to being cognizant of body language and other non-verbal cues, this means communicating appropriately and effectively with social groups regardless of the cultural background, age, gender, literacy skill level or disability. Social workers must also be able to communicate effectively with care providers, colleagues, and agencies, and must have the ability to document and report information in a clear manner. For a good communication social workers have to be active listeners. Listening carefully, concentrating, asking the right questions, and utilizing techniques such as paraphrasing and summarizing also helps social workers to engage and establish trust with individuals and social organizations.

Social workers encounter an array of circumstances and a variety of individuals in course of their work. It is important to have patience to work through complex cases and with other social organizations or individuals who need longer periods of time to make progress. This empowers social workers to understand the given situation and avoid hasty decision-making and frustration that can lead to costly errors and poor outcomes. Social workers are required to work with diverse groups. Being culturally responsive and approaching others who are from different racial, socio-economic, and ethnic communities with respect and openness, forms a core component of social work practice.

Many people who decide to be social workers already have a high EQ, or emotional intelligence. This includes high levels of self-awareness, empathy, and sensitivity to others. Social work will often require balancing what one knows and what one may intuit. Social work can at times be emotionally draining and challenging, especially when one is dedicated. It can take its toll and to prevent this one should have the inner strength to handle such situations. It is essential to one’s health and the efficacy of one’s practice that one takes care of oneself, emotionally and psychologically both. By taking steps to fortify one’s personal strengths and capacities, one shall find one’s role more fulfilling from one’s work relating to alleviating oppression, marginalization, mental illness, addiction, and trauma.

People especially those in social service arenas tend to be complex, and they often seek help for problems in many domains of their lives and organizational set-ups. Being able to stand on one’s feet and to think critically and creatively allows one to do the job more effectively. Critical thinking being the ability to analyze information gathered from unbiased observation and communication, social workers must be able to objectively evaluate each case by collecting information through observation, interviews and even through research. Thinking critically and without prejudice enables them to make informed decisions, identify the best resources and formulate the best plan to help people.

The life of a social worker has to be very organized. Invariably, they have busy schedules and a wide range of responsibilities in addition to managing and supporting multiple organizations, including documentation, reporting, billing and collaboration. This requires them to be very organized and able to prioritize the needs of the organizations to be able to manage cases effectively. Providing clinical case management and psychosocial support requires a great deal of organizational skills and the ability to prioritize according to the urgency of the organizational needs. Disorganization and poor time management could cause a social worker to overlook the organizational needs resulting in negative outcomes ultimately leading to the detriment of the organization.

It all starts with one’s own self. Like in an air travel emergency one is advised to wear the oxygen mask himself first and then proceed to take care of others. Only when one is physically fit and emotionally sound can one manage his social service task effectively. Social work is demanding and emotionally stressful. It is, therefore, important to engage in activities that help one to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Self-care refers to practices that help one in reducing stress and improving health and well-being. By taking the time to care for themselves, social workers are better able to extend the best services while at the same time preventing burnout and compassion fatigue. We should always remember how the legendary Dr. Kotnis died suddenly to the grief of everyone in Tang County where they said that even the Tang River had wept and the people had felt orphaned. Dr. Kotnis had neglected his own health while serving others.

No doubt, the world is competitive; so are all of us. We want to be the mega-qualified individuals, with a super career on the go, and live with flair. We also want to attain heights unheard of, and want the limelight for ourselves. Well, that may be fair enough; but living in a community, and expecting it to further our personal growth without investing in it seems to be a myopic thought bordering on selfishness; an insulation that would isolate us as individuals from the sense of belongingness towards the society. A social worker must always remain on guard to avoid such pitfalls.

One day we see Craig Newman saying – “It’s not altruism, it just feels right.” and connecting the dots with the very famous one by Winston Churchill – “You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.” the message becomes abundantly clear. No matter how busy we as individuals may be caught up in the rat-race, it is always possible to give back. Don’t wait to be rich enough to give back or to have leisure enough to begin social service. You can start right away if only you have the required will. Who knows what happens tomorrow?

Giving back either through financial help or by active social service means standing up for a cause for the sole reward of the realization that it has made a positive change in society and helped us in self-fulfillment at the same time. Said Moliere, “It is not only for what we do that we are held responsible, but also for what we do not do.”                                                     

Bhushan Lal Razdan retired as Director General of Income Tax (Investigation), Chandigarh.