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Financial Self-Care — A Social Work Story With a Moral
By Roberta Gastineau, LCSW, ACSW

A social worker once took a trip on a plane. When she was seated, the flight attendant explained that if the plane were to lose altitude the oxygen masks would drop down and everyone should put their own mask on first and then help others.

Alas, the social worker only heard the part about helping others and when it happened that the plane did lose altitude, she ran up and down the aisle comforting others and helping them to put on their masks. When the plane regained pressure, everyone was alive and well, except for the helpful social worker who was found dead from a lack of oxygen. Her mask had never been used.

Moral of the story: It’s important for social workers to help themselves as well as helping others.

My baby boomer generation grew into adulthood singing songs of love and hope, promoting injustice, marching for equality, and hoping to give peace a chance.

When some of us went into social work we gave no thought to the money we would earn. That is true for the new generation of social workers as well. Past or present, social workers have never insisted, “show me the money.”

Oftentimes, social workers have given up lucrative careers in order to roam the streets helping the lost, feeding the hungry, scouring alleys for the drug dependent, comforting the dying, visiting the prisoner, protecting the innocent, advocating for the disenfranchised, and stretching tiny grants into big miracles, while whittling away at mounds of bureaucratic paperwork. Even with a master’s degree in social work, it is often possible to make more money working as a waitress.

While we are helping others, what is a social worker to do? Go on strike for more money? Take to the streets and protest? In these days of budget cutbacks and layoffs it is unlikely that those interventions would be successful. Perhaps, though, we should rethink some of our own attitudes and behaviors regarding our financial security. Otherwise we might become so busy helping others that we forget to take preventive measures and proactive steps to protect ourselves financially.

Of paramount importance is malpractice insurance. Social workers who have high ethical standards and follow the NASW Code of Ethics may believe that they are in no danger of being sued. This is a naïve approach to human nature. The reality is that some of the people we serve aren’t nice and don’t play fair.

This fact was brought home to me when I served for six years on The Arizona Board of Behavioral Health Examiners and was the chair of the social work committee. We heard cases where social workers made a poor choice, and violated their code of ethics. There were also situations where the individual making the complaint was not truthful and was hoping to profit with funds from a lawsuit gained at the social worker’s expense. It isn’t right, but it happens. Malpractice insurance means that you have resources in your corner when you need it most.

Some social workers might argue they don’t need malpractice insurance because their agency carries it. Nice thought, but agencies have been known to minimize their loss in a lawsuit by looking out for their own best interests first. Having malpractice insurance doesn’t mean you intend to do harm; it protects you from harm.

Social workers who count themselves lucky to be healthy and strong may not believe they need short- or long-term disability. That’s what I thought until I fell off a ladder and ended up in the hospital, and for the first time in my life I flunked an exam—the Mini-Mental State Exam, to be exact. Luckily, I regained my smarts (or so I claim). Disability insurance made a huge difference to me and it could do the same for you if you find yourself in similar circumstances.

Some people think if you don’t think about death it won’t happen. It isn’t necessary to think about it; it is necessary to plan for it. A wise person wouldn’t take off for parts unknown leaving family behind with no food in the house; it makes no sense to risk taking that final journey without having a plan for those left behind.

Some agencies offer some sort of retirement plan. Will it be sufficient so you don’t end up in your own caseload? You won’t do much self-actualizing in your later years if your place of residence is living behind a dumpster. No plan is a plan and not usually a smart one.

While helping others, make sure you are taking care of your own needs. Financial issues can be complicated, so don’t be afraid to seek professional advice if needed … no, wait, isn’t that we encourage the people we serve to do? Considering options while they are available only makes sense.

It is said that old social workers never die; they just go into the field and never come back. The cold, hard reality is that when a social worker gets to the point where they can’t work, it is nice to have enough income so the professionals that have paid their dues by helping others don’t end up living out of a grocery cart that was “borrowed” instead of that cozy little bungalow they always dreamed of.

— Roberta Gastineau, LCSW, ACSW, is an NASW Diplomate in Social Work. After years as a struggling social worker, she managed to prepare for her later years and is pleased to report she is lucky enough to afford the occasional treat and is able to live indoors, something that is particularly important while living in Alaska.