Team Brandon Painting the Social Worker’s Office at Pulaski, Wisconsin, USA – Photo Courtesy: Bhenak
Confronting ethical dilemmas is one of the most important elements of being a social worker, and it’s how a social worker handles the question of what is morally right or wrong that most determines their success. No matter what area of social work they specialize in, there are inevitable conflicts between what clients need and their personal rights.
Examples of these conflicts include separating a parent and child because of abuse or possible danger, choosing whether to commit a mentally ill client to a facility, or simply choosing between two alternative forms of relief for a client when neither is very palatable. What helps social workers make these decisions?
The National Association of Social Workers claims there is a direct link between level of education and confidence in making ethical choices, and 57 percent of social workers rely on their higher training. However, it might not always be enough.
1. The Impairment Clause
The Code of Ethics for social workers talks about recognizing impairment in yourself or your colleagues which can interfere with your work. Impairment refers not only to a social worker’s mental state, personal distress, and even use of substances; it can also be seen to refer to their personal attachment to a client’s case.
The biggest obstacle to decision-making is compassion exhaustion and an inability to look at the situation rationally. Doing what’s best for clients can mean making difficult choices that put their needs above their rights and can cause long-term resentment, anger, and pain. It’s impossible for social workers to understand the gravity of their decisions if they aren’t clear-headed and emotionally prepared to do their job.
2. What Rights do Clients Have?
It’s important to remember that although there are situations where a client cannot and should not have things their way, there are certain rights that every client has which should never be violated. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines these rights as non-discrimination, acceptance or refusal of services, ethical treatment, and confidentiality.
There are other more specific examples that have to do with grievance procedures and the rights of both parent and child. One of the reasons that social workers rely so heavily on their training is because these rights can be defined differently based on the state or local area the clients live in, and it’s vital to understand your legal parameters, both when you’re trying to help someone and trying to prevent violence or crime.
3. Fulfilling Needs as a Social Worker
Obviously, not every aspect of social work involves potential ethical dilemmas. Social workers can play a big part in improving free clinics, feeding homeless and impoverished children, and helping patients get access to clothing, housing, and medication. Social workers have a natural obligation to provide safety above all, but that means both keeping your clients safe and making sure that others are safe from their behavior.
In order to help people that may be abusive, addicted, or mentally ill, it falls to the social worker to place safety above personal rights, in collaboration with the courts and law enforcement. Social work is a multifaceted career where helping others can often take different forms.
The complicated situations that social workers confront every day can feel very personal, and yet it’s essential to their success to not let them be personal. The conundrums associated with the relationship of a social worker to his or her clients can often take a toll on their mental state and affect their ability to make rational decisions and confront ethical dilemmas. Facing these challenges is at the core of a social worker’s job, and it’s how they save lives every day.
Robert Neff is an avid full-time blogger. If you see a future in defending human rights and helping others, you may want to think about a degree in social work such as those programs offered at Case Western University.