Career Change — Why I Left the Social Work Field? An Essential but Forgotten Profession

Hanwen Zhang
6 min readApr 15, 2021

When I entered the social work school, I thought I had a compassionate heart to change people’s lives for the better and challenge the system to advocate for underserved people. After entering the field, I have witnessed the dark side of this profession and decided to leave. This article speaks about my personal experiences and feelings working as a social worker at a non-profit organization in New York City, USA. I listed six main reasons in the article to explain why I decided to leave the social work field. Please be noted that I can’t refer to everyone’s experience working at the social work agency, and here are just my personal subjective opinions.

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash
  • Recognition

During the peak of the pandemic, I was traveling to clients’ homes and communities, some of them are located in high-risk and dangerous neighborhoods both for covid and crime rate, to make sure their safety, their family situation, and they receive the benefits they needed. However, society seemed to praise other professions like doctor, nurse, police officer, but social workers. I am not here to compare with them, they are heroes, but social workers are essential too! The hard work that social workers do is not recognized enough by the people and society. Social workers are doing amazing works, they deserve recognition, and a lot of them chose to become social workers because they care about people! However, most of them are still underappreciated and overworked.

  • Stress

Clients are difficult to satisfy, and some of them are demanding. Social workers are definitely under A LOT of stress! A friend of mine works at a hospital and has over 100 people on her caseload. Another one works in a forensic setting holding a caseload of nearly 60 people. A smaller caseload does not mean you will have downtime in your work; instead, expecting intensive care to the individual or the family. If the clients you are serving are not happy with your work style, then it becomes your fault! Especially when you don’t have a supportive supervisor and management team, because instead of standing by your side, they would question your clinical skills and ability to do the work. “You are supposed to tell your client blah blah blah,” “You are supposed to know how to do this and that.” On the other hand, I am not saying everyone takes advantage of the system, but some do. Some people just think the world owes them, and they entitle to everything, Here are some examples you will probably hear a lot from your client, “You don’t know how to do your job”, “You don’t help me”, “You have to do this and that”, “My previous worker helped me with this and that, but you don’t”, “I don’t understand what you say”, “I need to speak to your supervisor”, “I will report you”. It becomes very stressful when you hear this kind of complaint frequently while you started with a good intention to assist.

  • Vicarious Trauma

Vicarious trauma is real in this field! Especially if you have issues with your own life, you will be more likely to be more depressed. Growing up, I have witnessed trauma and been in difficult situations in my own life. Conducting therapy sessions for my clients who might have gone through a similar issue just makes my problems magnified. Self-care is always a hot topic in the field, either at school or at work. Because you just can’t take care of others when you can’t take care of yourself. Moreover, surrounding people with negative energy drains you. There is a cliche quote that says “you are who you surround yourself with,” but it is so true. If you surround yourself with happy people, you will be more likely to feel happiness; vice versa, if you surround yourself with negative people, you will more likely be negative. For instance, I would start to complain a lot and get angry easily, I would have negative thoughts on people and things around me and forget to notice the beauty of life. I feel there are just times I am not the original me anymore especially after entering the field. Therefore, I would not encourage anyone to experience the vicarious trauma unless you have a calling and/or a big warm heart for it.

  • Under-paid

Speaking directly, money is important. Without money to support life, passion would diminish. With all the difficult and stressful work physically and emotionally, social workers are underpaid. Social workers are generally not encouraged to talk about “money” because we are “social workers”, we serve the most underrepresented groups of clients who are living in the most difficult situation. However, social workers are human beings too. We need a decent amount of salary to support our family and ourselves. Speaking for myself, living in New York City is expensive. After paying for my rent (a small place located in an old apartment building in a normal neighborhood) and paying for some daily necessities like food and utility, I get nothing left in my bank account. Relocating would be difficult too because social workers are generally underpaid everywhere in the country, and there may be fewer job opportunities in a small town. Then, forget about savings, forget about early retirement, forget about vacation, forget about self-care, and forget about all those fancy dreams.

  • Qualification

In your career years, you will also be expected to attend so much training on top of your caseload. Not to mention that you have to have a Master’s Degree to be eligible for an expensive licensing exam becoming a “qualified” social worker (generally 4 years college plus 2 years of graduate school, 6 years in total), and that credential is probably for insurance, grant-writing, and funding purposes. During my graduate school years, I had to complete the required 1200 hours of UNPAID internships, which is sad to admit that I was doing free work for agencies that make a huge amount of money from tax-payers and donors. I remember in my second year of field internship, I was placed at a substance use treatment facility. Although I was just an intern and not knowing much about all those disorders, I was asked to diagnose people with substance use disorder and put on their billings. And yes, for the insurance purpose, either from Medicaid or private medical insurance. Some clients come to the facility also not because they want to change themselves for the better, but are mandated to attend the program for the sake of benefits and entitlements.

  • Career Advancement

Sometimes it is not about how much you do your work, but it is more important about who you know. Most of the social work organizations are nonprofit organizations that rely on government fundings. Usually, people working in upper management have the power and the connection to make a non-profit organization profitable. Although social workers stand for social justice, it is obvious to notice that people working directly with the underrepresented groups of clients are generally people of color. Speaking for myself, an immigrant Chinese female whose first language is not English, it is difficult for me to move up to the next level. Maybe after years of clinical practice, you have the fortune to pass the clinical social work licensing exam. Becoming a licensed clinical social worker opens the door of opening your practice, but most likely you will have your clients with a similar background as you, which to me is limited.

Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash

What do you see yourself 5 years from now? It is a common interviewing question, but if we take time to think about the answer honestly, it might be a different answer from the one you answer during your interview. To me, I don’t see myself doing social work for the rest of my 30-year career. If I keep working, I imagine I would end up burning out from the work, which will also be harmful to the people I work with. I feel grateful to get to know amazing and passionate people while working as a social worker. I still love the concept and the content of social work, I will keep advocating for social justice and mental health. However, I don’t see myself making a living as a social worker anymore, so I am making this difficult decision to leave the field.

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Hanwen Zhang

Full-Stack Software Engineer at a Healthcare Tech Company | Document My Coding Journey | Improve My Knowledge | Share Coding Concepts in a Simple Way