An in-depth interview that may help you decide whether you'd like to become a support worker.
Note: Social workers and support workers both play a vital role in looking after adults and families dealing with problems ranging from drug addiction through to physical disabilities. Support workers tend to be based in one or a small number of locations, such as hostels and community centres, often living with the people in their care. The biggest difference is that support workers do not need a degree, unlike social workers. Officially, no qualifications are needed to be a support worker, therefore starting salaries are lower than for social workers.
The interviewee wishes to remain anonymous. The name 'Susan' is used as an alias.
I meet Susan on Commercial Drive, one of her rare afternoons off, to learn about the world of support work. Right off the bat, she tells me that she doesn't like interviews; she finds it strange acting as the expert, the one doing all the talking. But as soon as she starts telling me about her work — about her clients, her coworkers, her crazy all-over-the-map schedule — Susan comes alive. Her passion for what she does is obvious.
What does she love most about her job? "Every single day through our work we make tiny little changes," she smiles. "I can't really say that I would do anything else."
Tell me about your current position. What do you do?
I am a support worker in supportive housing. Essentially what that job entails is any sort of support that the clients need, so that involves talking to them, advocacy, stuff around the building, basically any number of things. But the main aspect is just supporting the clients.
Who are your clients?
It varies, because I have a number of different places I work at in the same role, so there are different mandates in terms of who accesses our resources. Most people accessing our services are folks on disability or income assistance, often who face multiple barriers such as varying levels of mental wellness and substance use, long histories of trauma and subsequent PTSD, facing multiple oppressions, poverty, and varying histories of homelessness. Basically, it's people who benefit from subsidized housing and extra support.
How long have you been a support worker?
Five years, I think. I did about three years of volunteer work before that in the same field.
Is that how you got into it? What path lead you to this career?
It started with volunteering. I started volunteering and trying out what things worked for me, what things didn't. Through trial and error, I found my niche. I just sort of fell into it; it fit really well with who I am and now I can't really imagine doing a job that's in an unrelated field.
Is that a pretty typical way to get started as a support worker?
Yeah. I also think a lot of people have gotten into it because of personal experience, which did play into why I got into it as well. A lot of people have dealt with their own abusive relationships or homelessness or poverty or mental health issues or addiction, and went into support work partly because they wanted to give back and partly because of the personalities that people have. Almost everybody that I have ever worked with has the same type of personality as me, which is the person that everybody goes to for help in their personal life as well. That's just the role that they've always played, and that just extended into their professional choices as well.
What kind of personal experience motivated you to get into this line of work?
I guess I initially went into transition house work, working with women who were going through all sorts of abusive and toxic relationships. That was something that I'd had quite a bit of experience with, having relationships that were not healthy for me, having relationships that tore me down. Through that work, I found a lot of empowerment: being able to name these things and being able to work with women who were on their own path for empowerment. So that was really part of how I got into the field; I gained a lot from it in terms of my own personal journey.
I'd had quite a bit of experience with having relationships that were not healthy for me, relationships that tore me down. Through my work, I found a lot of empowerment: being able to name these things and being able to work with women who were on their own path for empowerment.
Everybody has their own paths. Some people went through addiction and then recovery and now work with people who are on their own path to recovery. Or it might be people who have lived on the streets in the past and now work with people who are in varying levels of homelessness. So I think a lot of that plays into why people choose to do this work.
It must be so inspiring to work with people who are motivated by something so close to their hearts.
Yeah, but that motivation quickly dwindles.
People tend to burn out quickly in this career?
I think the "shelf-life," so to speak, for support workers is around two years. Most people that I've worked with have been doing it for ten years or something. Everybody has their own journey, and I think it can be frustrating, especially if you come from that background, to watch people going through that journey. It can also be very disheartening, to see how little you can actually do as an individual. You can do your best, you can use what little resources you have to mitigate the pain that people have everyday, but you can't really fix people; you can't fix their circumstances and you can't fix their lives.
Anybody who goes into this field has a lot of empathy and is essentially a "fixer" — wants to make things better for everyone. But you just can't; you don't have the resources and you can't do it on your own. You can't really do it within ... the systemic oppressions and systemic contexts that play into why people have so much pain. You can't really fix that by yourself. I think that can be really frustrating for people, and that's a really big cause for burnout.
Anybody who goes into this field has a lot of empathy and is essentially a "fixer" — wants to make things better for everyone. But you just can't; you don't have the resources and you can't do it on your own.
Not to mention things that are just inherent to the job: that it's very emotionally draining, that the hours are all over the place. Often you have to do shift work, overnights, late nights, early mornings, weekends, holidays. A lot of people have to do overtime, things like that. I think that definitely plays into it.
How do you deal with all of those challenges? How do you stay happy, or even just functional, in your career?
I guess everyone has their own way of dealing. And to be honest, most people — and I'm guilty of this as well — most of us ... also take on that role in our personal lives and tend to overexert ourselves emotionally. So a lot of us don't really self care as much as we should. We always preach it, and we're always preached to about it, but self care realistically falls on the back-burner quite often.
Personally, what I try to do is know what things make me feel better and really try to make time to schedule those things. But then again, if you're doing relief work and you get called in stat, then you're going to take the shift over your scheduled self care time.
Does that happen often? That you have to drop self care for a last-minute shift?
It happens weekly. If you're doing relief work, you don't know when you're going to have your next shift; you get called in at the last minute. The more relief work you do, the more that happens.
So how would you describe your work-life balance?
Often, the hours, at least, have affected my personal life. Things like getting called in at the last minute and having to move around or cancel or postpone plans — that's definitely affected my personal life.
Also things like not being able to be there emotionally. Being emotionally and psychologically present for the people in my own life is hard because I just spent all week doing that at work, emotionally exerting myself. When it comes to being a friend or being a partner or being anybody in someone's life who needs support ... I am so exhausted from doing that at work that I don't have the energy and the patience to be that person for the people in my life. I think that as much as I try to avoid that, as much as I try to be present, there's only so much that I can give. So I think quite often, I have to take away either from myself or from my personal life. Realistically, I take it from myself rather than from the people in my life; I will be there to talk to them if they need it, even though I don't feel like I can.
Generally, I really try not to take my work home with me; I try to not think or talk about work as much. But, you know, anybody who works full-time, work is a big part of their life. I think that maybe, emotionally, my work differs from other jobs in that it sort of crosses the work-life balance a lot more because of the emotional aspects. But I don't know that I have a worse work-life balance than people in other fields. QNA>
You've told me a lot about the challenges that come with support work. What's the thing that you love best about it?
I don't know if there's one thing that I love best, but I think the most important thing for me is the relationships you build with other people: the co-workers and the clients. Just having those connections that are very deep and intimate because so much of the work is so emotional. You create these really strong bonds.
And being able to be there, even in little ways. I said earlier that you often feel helpless and that you're not doing anything or you're not doing much, but there are those moments where you are. Maybe you haven't dismantled patriarchy or anything, but you've been there for a person when they needed it, and you know that that made an impact. Or you advocated for someone when they couldn't advocate for themselves. So you made a little change. Every single day through our work we make tiny little changes. That gets lost sometimes, when you're so tired and you're overworked and you're so helpless. But as soon as you can remember that, that's really rewarding.
I guess I can't imagine doing other work. I can't imagine living in a world where there's so much pain and so much oppression and so much suffering and not being able to do anything and not even trying. Even though there are many challenges, I can't really say that I would do anything else.
I guess I can't imagine doing other work. I can't imagine living in a world where there's so much pain and so much oppression and so much suffering and not being able to do anything and not even trying.
You mentioned that you have very strong relationships with the people you work with. Can you just tell me a little bit more about that? What kind of people are you interacting with and what kind of relationships do you build?
I think this is a good opportunity about boundaries. That's one of the challenges as well, building a relationship with someone that is still professional but yet is not authoritarian and you're not in any way invalidating that that person is an expert in their own life. With clients, that's pretty difficult, but also really rewarding. Somebody will come to you in a moment when you know that it's difficult for them to seek help, difficult to reach out. But they do it — they come to you. That sort of moment is really, really valuable and really rewarding. You know a lot of information about them, just because you had to put it in the file, or it's part of their intake package or something. You have all their traumas on paper, you have all of their information — their emergency contacts, their birthdate, their history, all of that. But actually knowing the person — knowing what snacks they like and don't like, knowing what their normal patterns are, knowing what their favourite colour is — actually getting to know people and being there for them, I think that's what's so valuable about these relationships.
And in terms of relationships with co-workers, that's also a really big aspect of self-care: debriefing with your co-workers — people who are sharing those same experiences as you, who are there everyday, who can not only empathize but are shoulder to shoulder with you. Those relationships are really deep because you share so much tough stuff and so many tough experiences; you're in it together. Those relationships with your co-workers are also part of self care and getting through the job: knowing that you have other people backing you and knowing that if you make a tough decision, they will be there and they will support you. They will have stories of how they made a similar decision and validate you. Having a really good work environment and having good coworkers and good management is so vital to this work.
What is your work environment like? The physical space that you spend your time in?
Our space is usually an office within a broader house or building. In the past, I've worked in transition houses, for example, which are very residential and have rooms with communal spaces like washrooms, bathrooms, living room. There are also supportive housing buildings that have self-enclosed units, like apartments, where clients may access staff less often than in more communal living spaces, but where we are still responsible for a number of things, including the safety of the residents and the building.
Could you walk me through a typical day?
No. I go to work and I have absolutely no idea what's going to happen. I'm literally just physically there, and whatever the day throws at me, I deal with it.
I go to work and I have absolutely no idea what's going to happen. I'm literally just physically there, and whatever the day throws at me, I deal with it.
On certain days there are certain meals and things like that; there are some constants. But for the most part, every single day is different. It could be a really, really quiet day where nothing happens; people come down to talk, you hand out some bread or something like that. But some days will be just crazy and so much stuff will happen. Sometimes it involves emergency services, you're calling the cops or something. Sometimes you're just talking to somebody for hours. Sometimes it's really relaxed and nice and you're just hanging out with people; you don't even feel like you worked that day. So it's not always tough, but every day is different.
So what kind of hours do you work in a typical week?
I work weekends and then a combination of early mornings, late nights, overnights throughout the week. Every week is different; I never have the same days off. It really depends on what needs to be covered.
What kind of person would you recommend a career in support work to?
Anybody that has a lot of empathy and wants to make change, but has a really tough skin. So that's why boundaries, again, are so important. Empathy isn't enough; you can get so involved with your work, so involved with the people you're working with that you're not going to last more than a couple months. And you're not really going to be serving people either, because they don't really need somebody who is feeling the pain that they're feeling so much that they can't do anything to help them. They need someone who is empathizing and understanding but is still in a position to actually do something: advocate with other organizations and make the calls that need to be called. Somebody who still has that position and that strength and those resources.
I don't know if I could do this job if I didn't have a sense of humour ... Sometimes I'll be in a situation with bodily fluids or something, and I'll just be like, "Well, what can I do?" I'll just laugh, I'll just make a joke, and my co-workers will laugh with me. Let's just clean this up and laugh. Sometimes it's all you can do.
If I didn't have a sense of humour and I didn't have a tough skin, I don't think I could function in this job. But also if I didn't have empathy and if I didn't care about people. I think you have to have infinite understanding and patience, which are both things that dwindle as you get more burnt out.
Is that usually why people leave this career? Burnout?
I think a lot of people in the field have had to take stress leaves and then never really came back. Or their doctor said, "You can't go back." Especially people who've worked nights a lot, graveyard shifts — that affects your body a lot.
What kind of advice would you give to someone who was looking to enter the field?
That you're not the expert. You may have a degree or a certificate or a diploma, you may have years of experience, and you may have a lot of personal experience. But every person is an expert in their own life; they know themselves best, they know what they need best. You may not think that that's what's best for them and you may not agree with their choices, but you're there to support them and to mitigate any harm that might happen; to be a presence that they know they can come back to. Someone who's there to support them no matter what, someone who's there when they need it.
And also to not take things personally, to not think it's a personal failure if you didn't manage to help somebody. Maybe they weren't ready, or maybe you weren't ready, but none of that is your own failure; that's just circumstance. You do what you can.
What kind of training does a person need to enter your career?
It really depends on the organization, but for the most part it's really, really open. I have a lot of co-workers. Most of my co-workers don't actually have a bachelor's degree. They may have a diploma or a certificate and some sort of community work or something like that, but ... it's predominantly a combination. You could have all the degrees in the world and not have the personal experience and understanding to actually make you good at this work.
You could have all the degrees in the world and not have the personal experience and understanding to actually make you good at this work.
There are so many different paths to this work and so many different paths to being good at this work. So most of the time these job postings are really vague: education and/or experience or a combination. It could be that you have a technical knowledge and understanding; or it could be that you have the personal experience, so you've been there and you know; or it could be that you've been in this work for ten years and you've seen it all, you know what this looks like. It could be a combination of the three, which I think is the best case scenario.
Do people tend to stay in this work for a long time?
Some do. It's very difficult to stay in this line of work for your entire career, but I have known quite a few people who have done it.
Do people tend to move around a lot? Or do they usually stay in one organization, one position?
There are some people who have been in the same position for years and some that have moved around a lot. Some that started off in front-line work and then did higher education and then became a social worker, or something like that. It really varies, depending on the person, because there are so many paths to this job and so many paths to continuing this work.
Is there anything that you really wish that you knew before going into this career?
No, because everything that I've learned, I've learned on my own. I've learned through experience, and that's been the most valuable part: how much I've learned.