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Journal of Social Work Practice ISSN: 0265-0533 (Print) 1465-3885 (Online) Journal homepage:

Journal of Social Work Practice

Journal of Social Work Practice ISSN: 0265-0533 (Print) 1465-3885 (Online) Journal homepage:

ISSN: 0265-0533 (Print) 1465-3885 (Online) Journal homepage:


Maria de Fátima de Campos Françozo & Roosevelt Moisés Smeke Cassorla

To cite this article: Maria de Fátima de Campos Françozo & Roosevelt Moisés Smeke Cassorla (2004) REWARDS AND FRUSTRATIONS OF BEING A SOCIAL WORKER: A QUALITATIVE STUDY, Journal of Social Work Practice, 18:2, 211-221, DOI: 10.1080/0265053042000231025

Published online: 12 May 2010.

Published online: 12 May 2010.

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Maria de Fa´ tima de Campos Franc¸ozo Roosevelt Moise´s Smeke Cassorla



This paper deals with aspects of actual professional experience of social workers, in order to grasp a framework for professional rewards and frustrations. A qualitative research tool was chosen, life histories, and ten social workers were interviewed. The subjects were women who graduated between the 1950s and the 1990s from schools of social work in Brazil, and whose practice, present or past, involves direct contact with clients. The reasons explaining satisfying professional situations are rooted in professional experiences which were translated into personal development, the establishment of personal ties and the acquisition of skills. Perceptions of having contributed towards solving a difficult situation and recognition from their clients were positively appraised. These are rewarding situations from which social workers derive the feeling of having created something which is positive for the clients and for themselves. Unpleasant situations were described as unfair situations experienced by clients, poor working conditions and difficulties concerning inter-professional relationships. Inferences on the feminine role as influencing social workers’ rewards and frustrations with the profession, as well as inferences on possible unconscious configurations underlying some of the data were drawn in the conclusions.

Keywords social workers; professional rewards and frustrations


Social workers in Brazil are hired to deal with trying aspects of clients’ lives in a very broad range of situations: from poverty and illness to unemployment and lack of education; from domestic violence to homelessness. The fragility of the country’s social policies, however, significantly interferes with the efforts of social workers. In this sense, social workers’ desire to help people is not always easily accomplished. In addition, social workers claim that the profession is seldom well recognized as far as salaries, fringe benefits and social status are concerned. We may thus wonder how social workers deal with such a limiting reality. It seems that such situations are very frustrating. How do social workers fulfill their desires and goals under such circumstances? What keeps social workers in the profession? To answer such questions one has to look into the real lives of social workers,

one has to look into the real lives of social workers, Journal of Social Work Practice

Journal of Social Work Practice Vol. 18, No. 2, July 2004, pp. 211–221 ISSN 0265-0533 print/ISSN 1465-3885 online # 2004 GAPS

DOI: 10.1080/0265053042000231025


searching for subjective experiences common to the professional group that may be the reasons for remaining in the profession. In this sense, our study aimed at describing, in terms of social workers’ own views, the significance of their professional experience. A question similar to ours was raised by Vincent (1996), who investigated the unconscious motivation related to choosing social work as a profession. She focused on ‘compulsive care-giving’ and ‘parentification’, as well as early parenting experiences, and discussed possible implications of these in relation to professional choice. Csikai and Rozensky (1997) studied ‘social work idealism’ and factors influencing career choice among beginning BSW and MSW students. They found that idealism ran high among all students, and altruistic reasons were reported as more important than professional reasons in career choice. Reynolds (1963) describes her journey as a social worker, discussing the close interchange between personal and professional experience. The questions raised by the authors above, as well as Salzberger- Wittenberg’s (1970) views on psychoanalytic theory and social work, encouraged us to listen to social workers’ stories on their professional journey, searching for their reasons to remain in the profession. First, however, it is important to draw an overview of the context of social work in Brazil.

Social work in Brazil

In Brazil, the emergence of social work is associated with the appearance of the ‘social issue’, understood as the expression of the relation between capital and labor. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the State, the Church and dominant sectors in society were forced to take a position concerning the clash between the increasing number of urban proletarians and entrepreneurs (Iamamoto & Carvalho,


The Catholic Church, as a way of expanding its social doctrine, mobilized the lay apostleship to work with the proletariat, stimulating philanthropy initiatives. Associations for Catholic young women were organized, aimed at finding agents for the Church’s social action. Courses focusing on the education of young women originated the profession of social worker in 1936. It is important to notice that, since its birth, the profession has borne a feminine mark, carrying with it the stereotypes of the so-called feminine professions: the idea that this kind of work is transitory, discontinuous — due to motherhood and childcare — and complementary to men’s work. It was associated with care providing and teaching activities which were seen as an extension of those carried out at home; therefore, they could be better developed by women in view of their ‘natural’ skills. Due to those characteristics, women should not assume command posts, but service posts (Safiotti, 1979). Faced with the social issue, the State began to interfere in the relations between entrepreneurs and the working class, searching for legal regulation of the labor market and for the management of social services organization and rendering (Iamamoto & Carvalho, 1982). It expanded its social agencies network, which absorbed many of the first social workers that graduated in the 1940s, hiring them to execute the social policies. It centralized and rationalized social work and the



rendering of social services, legitimizing the profession. The religious characteristic of social work gradually disappeared, being replaced by a secular option; the profession was regulated in 1962. In the 1960s, Latin America saw the emergence of a movement that questioned the profession politically and ideologically, inspired by Marxist ideas. Although it was not a homogenous movement, it undermined what was being developed in the profession, rejecting the theoretical and methodological models that were predominantly North American, as it considered them inadequate to the Latin American reality. This movement revealed the presence of the political-ideological dimension in the social worker’s practice, as well as the need for the professional to bear in mind the reality of underdevelopment and to commit to searching for social change in her practice. In the following years, the Marxist tradition was placed in the center of the profession’s intellectual agenda. In the 1990s, formal criticism of the Marxist groups in the professional field emerged, disapproving orthodoxy and the gaps left by that perspective (Netto, 1996). Since the end of the 1960s, social work has circulated between two paradigms: that of inter-individual relations and that of force, power and exploitation relations. The first one deals with the subjects’ adaptation to different social situations, and the second searches for alternatives to exploitation situations. For social work, the State is the primary field of work. In Brazil, there are approximately 60,000 social workers (CFESS, 2003). The great majority of them are women, employed in public agencies, non-governmental organizations and companies.


The aim of the study was to investigate what Brazilian social workers think and feel about their professional activity. A qualitative investigation, using life histories as a tool to collect data, was carried out. We asked social workers to give us an account of their professional experience, from the moment they chose to be a social worker to their current job. There was a list of topics to help the interviewer fill any gap left in the subject’s narrative. We tried to create a pleasing atmosphere during the interviews, so that the subjects could talk freely about facts, memories and feelings of their professional experiences. The order of events and the chronology of facts were not rigorously controlled. The subject should tell the events according to the associations she established. Life histories become close to psychoanalytic free associations when chronology is left aside, opening the possibility for the researcher to go deeper inside the interviewee’s mind (Bosi, 1979). The subjects were ten social workers who worked directly with the population in public or private organizations, in a broad range of fields. We selected those who had graduated in different decades (from the 1950s to the 1990s), since during this period three different curriculums were implemented in the schools of social work. Only women social workers were chosen because they comprise the vast majority of professionals.


Once the selection criteria were established, we contacted different agencies and schools of social work and asked for names of professionals who would fit the criteria. We selected those who were mentioned more than once. The subjects were professionals who were valued and respected by their peers. We contacted the selected people usually by telephone, explained the research study to them and invited them to participate. Only one social worker chose not to participate. The subjects agreed on the use of a tape recorder in the interviews. Transcriptions of the interviews were sent to each professional, so they could make changes if they found it necessary — none of them made changes.


The social workers’ accounts of their professional lives were rich and complex, as they cope with factors related to professional choice, to insertion in the labor market, to labor crises and successes, to personal, family, institutional and political aspects — all of them were interconnected in a way that was peculiar to each interviewee, but revealed aspects that were common to all. In this study we will present only what we call the ‘rewards and frustrations’ of being a social worker.

Rewarding professional experiences and their impact on personal life

The social workers valued professional experiences related to personal growth and this seems to be important for them to remain in the profession. This growth regards the relationship with other people, different life experiences and values, and the way in which the clients face difficult situations. These factors compel them to think about themselves, understand more accurately their own way of living and learn with the experiences.

I learned a lot with the clients, their problems taught me a lot (…) I graduated from college at the age of 21 and at that age you just start to understand the world, the way people live.

In addition, since different feelings are present in human relationships, they give the professional an opportunity to deal with them and, sometimes, to modify them, as shown in the example below:

My qualitative leap, inside my despotism and authoritarianism, was recognizing that I don’t know much and I had the privilege to learn with the population, with other professionals, other people. Recognizing this takes time. Because we think we know everything.

Contact with the population was greatly valued, as well as the population’s approval of the social worker’s job. The population was frequently mentioned in a positive way by the social workers, who valued the opinion that the clients have of their work and attitude:



I was very struck by two situations. The first one was when a client came to me

and said: you are on our side. So, when he feels I’m on his side, it’s very important. The second one happened when an employee asked why I fight so much for the population’s rights. It’s stimulating when people recognize which side you are on, because they also see that my work with the people is not founded on pity, but on their rights.

Sometimes, fighting for the people’s rights may bring the professional into conflict with the status quo. Even so, the social worker seems to feel rewarded for acting as an adequate mediator, usually speaking on behalf of the client in situations of conflict or difficulty. Human contacts, the possibility of meeting new people, making new friends were valued:

I made good friends, I have friends that now live abroad and send me Christmas cards. It was worth working as a social worker.

The acquisition of skills in dealing with the public was viewed as a form of personal development:

I was ashamed of speaking in public. Today I have no problems in speaking to an

audience of 100 people. The [agency] gave me maturity. I’m not afraid anymore;

those angry clients that come to me don’t intimidate me.

Facing new and challenging situations may cause fear, but at the same time it is a stimulus to remain in the profession, as it brings growth to the professional and gives a dynamic aspect to her daily routine:

job. No day is like the other, I’ve never heard anyone

This is not a boring

saying: nothing happened today! There’s always something happening.

Feelings of reward for contributing to a change of problematic and unfair situations

The changes mentioned by the social workers can refer to the agency or a situation experienced by the population. What matters to the social worker is to do what she believes is good for other people; to solve a difficult situation:

The government created the program for teenagers. It was a very small program. But we worked with the community and today (the program was extended due to the pressure of the community) the program’s coordinators are the teens of yesterday. So, you can always give a personal touch.

Sometimes you don’t have direct contact with the client, but, if you know there is someone who will be helped, then you feel your fight is worthwhile. That is what makes social workers go ahead — knowing there’s someone out there who will benefit from what you’re doing.


The fragments above perhaps summarize the social worker’s ideal: to help someone, even if she does not know this person. In addition to rewarding situations, however, there are frustrating ones. They can be grouped into unfair situations experienced by the population, unfavorable working conditions and problems concerning inter-professional relationships. Rewarding and frustrating situations co-exist, and sometimes the predominance of one of them can mask the other.

Unfair situations experienced by the population

Social workers are annoyed by the attitude of other professionals who attend the community:

The patient goes to the doctor, who asks for a tomography. He arrives at the agency, is examined by the expert and the expert doesn’t authorize it. They feel impotent at that moment. This kind of thing hurts me a lot.

This kind of situation relates to how social workers or other professionals understand and perform the objectives of their work, how they see the service user. And how the agencies see the community and the service provided — as ‘a favour’, not a right. The social workers also questioned the way they attend to the community. This derives from difficulties referring to material resources, but, sometimes, personal difficulties also interfere, such as insecurity about being helpful or fear of being invasive:

In visits at hospitals, I interview the patient. I question myself a lot: am I being helpful or am I bothering the patient? I ask him if he has any complaints or suggestions. Sometimes I see this as a good thing, because I’m giving attention to the person. Sometimes I think he’s in pain and doesn’t want to say anything. It feels like I’m invading.

Bad working conditions

A wide variety of examples was given by social workers to illustrate bad working

conditions, especially with regard to low salaries and lack of opportunity to advance

in the career.

I was very disappointed: you don’t earn a good salary, and you must think about the salary too — I’m not a philanthropic person. If you develop a good work, you must be well paid; you must have good working conditions.

Associating bad salaries with philanthropy is not fortuitous, for, as we have seen, the profession originated in charity towards the poor. One of the social workers explained the reasons why she keeps the job in spite

of the bad conditions:



If you talk to the professionals, you can’t understand why they’re here. The salary is low, there are political problems. Some of them are young, committed to the profession and politically engaged — and still, they are here. It’s karmic! It’s the only explanation: it’s karmic! Or you get the bug.

The speech fragment above suggests that some social workers feel frustrated due to the bad working conditions, but seem to feel rewarded for their involvement with the population and for their political engagement, which suggests a healthy rebellion against the status quo, mixed with situations of personal sacrifice. It would be necessary to investigate to what extent many of these professionals work moved by guilt and maniac reparation, and which professionals are performing actual reparations. Some social workers revealed dissatisfaction at political interference in their professional action:

We were able to humanize that place. But I saw it being destroyed. When things there started to come out right, outsiders started to come and interfere. The state governor put one of his relatives as the agency coordinator. He didn’t have any experience and the things we had built deteriorated.

Finally, some social workers take the situation personally, considering themselves responsible not for political interferences, but for the consequences they bring to service rendering. In the account below, the social worker warns her colleagues of this problem.

I say to my colleagues: don’t feel suffocated, don’t blame yourself for something that is not your fault. You did what was possible, what you could do.

This interviewee told us that social workers tend to feel responsible when they are unable to find solutions for users’ problems. What is viable is seldom taken as a good reason to soothe the professional. At the same time, the difficulties seem to attract professionals:

I think that, to be a social worker, you must wish to deal with the impossible.

I see challenges in the profession; I think that we like challenging situations.

Problems in inter-professional relationships

The relationships established between people in the agency may condition professional actions. Since psychological mechanisms act over the group’s interaction, professional practice is influenced by the kind of relationships established among professionals.

What frustrates me is team work, because people are different, have different knowledge and experiences. They could help one another, but the interchange of experiences doesn’t happen. There is insecurity — if I’m doing something different, my colleague gets worried because I may be better than her.


Although interdisciplinary work may be a rich experience, it is also a place where there is competition, envy and fear. Those feelings can make threatening fantasies emerge — fantasies of being attacked and destroyed, as shown in the fragment below:

The atmosphere is hostile, there is a lot of struggle, so if it’s not alright, if you don’t like my temperament, there is no ethics. I may disagree with your opinion, but I should respect it. But this doesn’t happen, it’s an emotional instability (…) suddenly you become a threat, a nuisance.

This social worker talked about the difficulties in promoting an objective relationship with her colleagues, without arousing anxieties and feelings of persecution. Other interviews also revealed aspects of the problems in inter-professional relationships, such as self-devaluation, competition and envy:

It’s complicated, because I don’t know what happens with our professionals that they think that whoever is close to you isn’t good. Those who come from outside are better. They don’t take the opportunities that appear. You know, they miss the train and cry afterwards.


The method used provided complex, interconnected data on each social worker’s perception of her work and its effect on her personal life. Deep investigation of each individual situation would only be possible if we reported each interview completely, but, in doing so, we would be carrying out case studies. Although it loses track of individual dynamics, partitioning the whole data set into categories allows us to notice factors that are common to the interviewees. One way to understand many of the feelings of frustration and reward in the data is by seeing them in the context of feminine work, that is, by relating them to the situation of women’s work in Brazil. For instance, low salaries, as well as lack of professional recognition can be related to the devaluation of the so-called feminine professions. Feminine work is viewed as subsidiary, and a woman’s salary is considered to be complementary in the couple’s earnings. These ideas, together with that of lower qualification of the feminine workforce, favour salaries that are not as high as men’s, and are responsible for the fact that women perform those functions that receive the lowest pay (Safiotti, 1979). Despite conquering new spaces, women are still discriminated against, have more difficulty in assuming leading positions and earn less than their male colleagues in all professions, even those in which women’s participation is higher (Bruschini, 1994), as is the case with social work. Social workers are frustrated when their work is not recognized by the institution — either because it does not pay them well, or because it interferes in their activities and does not provide growth opportunities, or even because it considers their work as secondary (a professional says: ‘you’re good to carry the piano, but when it’s time to plan things together, they don’t call you’).



Therefore, many of the social worker’s complaints regarding salaries and recognition result from the context of feminine work in Brazilian society. And, more importantly, they should not be understood as isolated facts, but as issuing from a certain political, economic and cultural environment. Although social work is associated, as we have seen, with feminine characteristics, the accounts also showed traces traditionally considered as masculine:

dynamism, ability to face complex problems, leadership in difficult situations. Professional experience contains, therefore, opposite pairs that co-exist in the daily working routine: the social worker is active and passive; she has leadership, but she also submits to other leaderships; she accepts but also encourages struggle. The dynamic aspect was associated with absence of monotony: ‘no day is like the other’. Obviously, there is repetition of programs and actions in the daily working routine. The professional practice is not spontaneous and a-systematic. What makes the routine dynamic is working directly with people, who have similar problems but are always different in their stories, needs and desires. In addition, the professional considers the complexity of problems and situations as challenging, and attempts to use her emotional responses in a creative sublimation. If there are moments in which difficult situations can frustrate them, there are also those that can be a source of reward. They are rewarding when the professional can act in order to eliminate the difficulty, feeling that she is being helpful. Our method does not grant access to unconscious functioning as a psychoanalytic method would. Nevertheless, the reported situations and the way in which they were reported allow us to raise some hypotheses related to that area of experience. The desire to be helpful may be related, from the psychodynamic point of view, to healthy mechanisms of sublimation and reparation (Klein, 1975). Social workers are satisfied with building something, leaving home and entering a dynamic profession, fighting against injustice. According to them, their personal experiences are rewarding, as they provide personal growth. However, in many occasions the social worker is not able to feel creative, and the difficulties or the impossibility to use her resources cause feelings of frustration and impotence. This can occur due to inner difficulties (as in the case of the social worker who is afraid of ‘annoying or invading the patient’s intimacy’, or in the case of the professionals who ‘feel threatened by envy and group competition’), and also to external situations. The professional feels discouraged and incapable, depressed and/or aggressive, running away from or attacking the seemingly frustrating reality. In other occasions, in an attempt to run away from these painful feelings, the social workers deny or transform them into their opposite, using maniac defenses (Klein, 1975). The professional feels she is powerful, believing that she has resources that would promote the overcoming of all obstacles (‘I think that to be a social worker, you must wish to deal with the impossible’). The fact that our sample is composed of social workers recognized as experts suggests that they must have used more adequate mechanisms, and those who used denial, maniac defenses, may have abandoned the profession when they realized they were impotent. Many fragments of the social workers’ interviews also show situations involving relationship problems with other professionals, who can be colleagues from the same or from different areas, or directors of agencies. It is known that in a group or


institution, different psychological mechanisms act in interpersonal relations; that there is an inter-play of phantasies, projections and identifications which, being part of people’s inner world, influence their actions in the external world (Klein, 1975; Bion, 1961; Salzberger-Wittenberg, 1970). It seems that there is a conflict in which the social worker, identified by the desire to create, act, and grow, confronts the institution, characterized as stagnation. Thus, some interviewees feel they need to be careful so as not to refrain from engaging in working relationships, in exchanges, in growing. The professional projects onto the institution certain aspects of her inner world. The institution’s reality may confirm or not to those aspects; it may modify them or not. The professional, in turn, may re-introject them. Those situations were emphatically reported as frustrating, and they were more frequently mentioned than low salaries, for example. In this context, it is possible to identify an idealization of the work group, in which the social workers deny the feelings of competition, envy, and jealousy; or they feel impotent when faced with them. On other occasions, splitting can cause what is good to be projected outside the group or agency, which is denigrated, as it is left with the bad aspects. This may lead to self-deprecation.


It is important to emphasize that the feminine question is one of the strings that ties the different aspects of the social worker’s professional experience, conditioning the different situations viewed both as frustrating and rewarding. The interviewees mentioned the huge difficulties that they face in the profession, such as lack of social recognition, low salaries and the fragility of social policies, which influence the daily working routine. The frustrating aspects are related to social injustice, bad working conditions and problems concerning inter-professional relationships. That is, situations in which they are prevented from accomplishing something, from solving a problematic situation, from contributing to bringing about some positive change for someone else. When we examined the rewards of social workers’ professional experiences, we were impressed by the countless ways in which they describe situations that influence their own lives. Inspired by ideals of justice, citizenship and solidarity, they get involved in dynamic and instigating situations, seeing themselves as helping to solve them. The pleasant aspects of the profession are described by the subjects as situations from which they get the feeling of having created something positive for the clients and for themselves. When they recognize that they can create good things for themselves, the social workers feel that these life aspects are predominant in their inner world. Finally, the data showed that, in the population studied, with some exceptions, the subjects are generally conscious of the good and bad aspects of the profession, which seems to reveal a good capacity for integration.


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Maria de Fa´ tima de Campos Franc¸ ozo is a Social Worker and Assistant Professor at CEPRE — Centre for Studies and Research on Rehabilitation, School of Medical Science, State University of Campinas. Address: Cepre-Unicamp, Rua Tessalia Vieira de Camargo, 126, 13084-880, Campinas, SP, Brazil. [email:]

Roosevelt Moise´ s Smeke Cassorla is Titular Member of the Brazilian Society of Psychoanalysis of Sa˜o Paulo and Full Professor at the Department of Medical Psy- chology and Psychiatry, School of Medical Science, State University of Campinas, Brazil.