Bridget Ferris, LSW, Medical Social Worker
It has been argued that one is the loneliest number, but when it comes to medical social work – is it really? Social workers in various settings often find themselves as the sole social worker on the team. An interdisciplinary team consists of a myriad of professionals who have all been trained in their respective fields, but social workers are the only ones who have been trained in social justice. The benefits and consequences of being the only social worker on a team are worth exploring.
The autonomy that comes with being the only social worker on a team is an obvious benefit. As the primary social worker, you are in charge and responsible for your caseload. You sharpen your foresight and decision making skills quickly as you are the primary responsible party for your consumers. You also have the luxury of prioritizing your own workload, which can lend itself to flexibility with your schedule.
As the singular social worker, one also has a unique skill set that cannot be reproduced by any other professional. Our ability to actively listen, conceptualize cases while actively navigating resources and advocate for consumers simultaneously is uniquely ours. Our skill set isn’t “googleable”. We are protected in this way. We cannot be replaced by any other profession on the team and therefore command respect.
Perhaps the most important benefit of all is the privilege to represent social justice within the team. Social workers are tasked with advocating for consumer’s human rights within the context they work. Other members of the team may be trained in business, law or medicine but social workers are trained to be the vehicles for social justice. The responsibility for holding the team accountable to do what is best from a social work perspective for the consumer lies with us.
The drawbacks to being the lone social worker on a team cannot be ignored. Some may find it hard to grow professionally when there aren’t other social workers readily available to process cases with or to seek direction from. This could lead to a decrease in professional performance. One could argue that practicing alone lends itself to less accountability as well. Unchecked burn out or unethical practices could stem from working alone. Finally, some social workers have reported it was a steep climb for them to gain the respect of their teammates due to the lack of presence the profession had within the team or organization.
Ultimately, being a social worker is a privilege. There are benefits and consequences to being the only representative of the profession on a team, but I feel the benefits far outweigh the consequences. What are your thoughts?