Inequality and Social Mobility
Let’s not forget about our social workers

On 15 March 2022, the Singapore Association of Social Workers gathered the social work community and held the annual Social Work Day in celebration of the profession. However, the special occasion might have flown under the radar for many Singaporeans, revealing not only the sector’s lack of visibility, but also hints at the general public’s lack of understanding and appreciation for social workers.

A study by the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) revealed that close to 60 per cent of professional social workers were affected by anxiety and almost 50 per cent experienced depression during the peak of COVID-19 in 2020. These figures may not come as a surprise as the pandemic saw an overwhelming portion of the population experiencing a decline in mental health as well as a rise in domestic violence in Singapore. Nevertheless, such figures are concerning as they reveal the precarious state of mental well-being of our social workers. While social work is indeed a very demanding and emotionally draining profession, not many understand the struggles that come with the profession nor award it the recognition it deserves.

Social workers are often faced with a heavy workload. According to the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), social workers at Family Service Centres (FSCs) each handle an average of 22 cases. However, some social workers have differing first-hand experiences. Member of Parliament Louis Ng revealed that many social workers have shared with him on how they had to manage 30 to 50 cases at once. Anecdotally, I have also heard similar figures from friends who have worked in the field on numerous occasions. Such numbers are alarming and it is truly hard to fathom how they can manage so many cases without compromising other aspects of their life such as their mental well-being.

Moreover, social workers do not just attend to one individual for each case, but also have to build relations and liaise with other stakeholders involved in that individual’s case too. They may even be required to work outside of office hours when their clients are met with an emergency. Hence, their workload becomes heavier and more complex with each case, making them extremely vulnerable to burnout.

Yet, it is not just the number of cases, but also the emotional nature of the profession. Social workers are often exposed to devastating social problems such as child abuse and sexual violence which can take an emotional toll. Furthermore, since social workers are trained to help and empathise with others, they are prone to experiencing vicarious trauma, which is when social workers take on their clients’ trauma as their own, and this in turn can threaten their mental well-being. The work stress can be so overwhelming that it compels some to leave the profession entirely. In fact, the annual resignation rate among social workers was at 17 per cent in 2019 which is much higher compared to the average resignation rates that has been hovering between 1.5 and 2.1 per cent for the past ten years.

Social work is a profession, it is not simply volunteering

Despite playing an important role in helping the underserved and vulnerable, social workers are often not given enough attention or credit for the work they do. Many people tend to confuse social work with volunteering and fail to recognise social workers as qualified professionals. In reality, they undergo years of training to obtain their qualifications and some even choose to specialise in specific areas like addiction and child welfare. They are also held to a professional code of practice that guides them in forming professional relationships with their clients and in navigating ethical dilemmas. Therefore, simply having the heart to help others is not sufficient, as being a social worker is about possessing specific expertise and skillsets too.

The failure to differentiate social work and volunteering not only highlights the public’s ignorance towards social work, but also unintentionally downplays its role and value as a profession. Indeed, Professor Seng Boon Kheng, the lead of the aforementioned SUSS study, reveals that while healthcare workers generally receive a healthy level of public recognition which helps contribute to their sense of well-being, social workers do not receive much recognition for their efforts.

For instance, while public healthcare workers were awarded cash rewards for their efforts in the fight against COVID-19, the cash rewards were not extended to social workers who also contributed towards the fight against the virus by dealing with the mental health crisis brought on by the pandemic.

Supporting and celebrating our social workers

In such trying times, organisational support is crucial in safeguarding the mental well-being of social workers as even providing small incentives can help them to improve their motivation and better cope with their workload. In the UK, the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust and the Chief Social Workers of England jointly developed guidelines on how organisations and managers can better support their social workers during the pandemic.

Yet, sometimes organisational support is simply not enough as there still remains an insurmountable number of cases to be dealt with by the social workers themselves. Thus, there is a need to bolster the recruitment of social workers to help lessen their individual caseload and work stress. Increasing the salary of social workers could definitely help to improve recruitment and retention.

However, besides offering favourable compensation rates, recruitment is also about presenting a positive image of the sector. This is especially important for a sector like social work that is not widely recognised and filled with misconceptions. In fact, the Ha Noi Declaration on Strengthening Social Work Towards Cohesive and Responsive ASEAN Community has acknowledged that limited public understanding about social work can affect the investment and support the sector receives, which in turn can make attracting and retaining social workers difficult. Hence, ASEAN and UNICEF jointly launched the #StandTogetherForSocialWorkers campaign in 2021 to raise awareness about the important role social workers play in supporting vulnerable communities.

Perhaps Singapore could have a similar campaign to help increase the visibility of social workers. Uncovering misconceptions and sharing the day-to-day work of a social worker can help the public to better understand the profession and the challenges that come along with it. This in turn may help the profession gain more appreciation and recognition.

At the same time, it is equally as important to highlight how the profession is meaningful and rewarding since social workers provide essential services that protect the interests and improve the lives of vulnerable communities. The government and schools can present social work as a viable profession that enable individuals to help others, save lives or serve the nation, to spur students and others with the same desires to take on the profession.

Ultimately, healthcare workers and social workers are both soldiers fighting the same battle on different fronts; whilst healthcare workers are dealing with the healthcare crisis brought on by the pandemic, social workers are managing the social and psychological fallout of the pandemic. Thus, as social workers support our communities, they too need support from the community.


Tan Jing Yi is a final year undergraduate at Singapore Management University majoring in Social Science, Psychology and Public Policy & Public Management. She was an intern at IPS from December 2021 to January 2022.

Top Photo from Unsplash.

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