Not every social worker’s day-to-day workload looks the same. From working with policymakers to individual families, there are countless career paths a degree in social work can take them. While each environment has its own benefits and drawbacks, the challenges faced by social workers in rural communities can have a significant impact on how they work.
Often, rural social work professionals find themselves to be one of the only forms of support available to their clients. While there are a number of resources designated specifically for these communities, including from the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy, these social workers still find themselves challenged in ways those in urban environments do not. To better understand the differences, we have detailed some of the major difficulties impacting social work in rural communities.
One the biggest challenges in rural social work is a logistical one. In many parts of the U.S., the distance between clients can span as much as 100 miles. While this physical distance can be tiring for the social worker, it can also present numerous barriers for the clients to access services: The cost of vehicle maintenance and fuel can be prohibitive, and rural areas often lack the public transportation infrastructure to make cheaper travel a feasible option. Traveling these distances with less than reliable transportation can lead to missed appointments, the inability to access necessary medication and complications in finding needed child care.
Conducting sessions over telephone or via video calls can be a potential solution to these problems. However, some individuals might not feel comfortable with new forms of technology, and many remote areas lack the infrastructure to provide reliable internet service. Privacy experts also worry about the security of personal devices, and many insurers are slow to cover telemedicine.1
Maintaining confidentiality and appropriate boundaries is a very important concern in rural social work. In many small communities where there can be a stigma associated with mental illness, clients are often worried about having their car identified outside of a social worker or therapist’s office and becoming the subject of rumors.
One of the other challenges faced by social workers is that they usually live in the same community as their clients. That means crossing paths outside of a session is a much more common occurrence. A brief run-in at the grocery store can be easy to navigate, but having a child in the same class presents more nuanced complications.
These dual relationships can potentially jeopardize the client’s confidentiality and the treatment they receive. It is essential for appropriate boundaries to be set up early in the therapeutic relationship, so awkward scenarios can be scripted or avoided entirely. Ideally, arrangements can be made so another mechanic services a social worker’s car, or the two can decide in advance the most comfortable way to approach run-ins at restaurants, school functions or parties. Sometimes the solution is not always as straightforward: Rural communities often don’t have many options for schools or sometimes for mechanics either. In those situations, clear communication and understanding is key.2
Group therapy can be an incredibly helpful tool for social workers and clients, but can present unique challenges in rural areas. Distance between clients can make physically meeting difficult. In addition, the issue of clients’ privacy can discourage participation, because those attending might have preexisting relationships or have accidentally met others in the group outside of the sessions.
For social workers, getting buy-in from those in the group and the community is essential. Group meetings need clear standards of behavior about respecting boundaries and anonymity. It’s also important to understand the history of their community and listen to its members about what kind of support is needed. In one community, for example, a group of social workers started a “survivors of homicide” group after legal professionals and law enforcement saw an uptick in violent crime and a need for additional support.3
Having the support of colleagues and supervisors can be essential to avoiding burnout for any social worker. However, rural social workers often do not find those connections easy to build. Instead, they create that network with other social workers in different regions and states to get the feedback and collaboration they need.
The other challenge of being one of a few professionals in an area is that many rural social workers find themselves unprepared for the wide variety of clients they serve. Burnout can leave them suffering from compassion fatigue and lower job satisfaction. Because low job satisfaction is so common for many rural social workers, turnover is a constant concern. This in turn can lead to poor quality care for clients and challenge clients’ abilities to build strong relationships. 4
Meeting a Community’s Needs
Many of these challenges faced by social workers are not unique to just rural communities. Those working on military bases or specializing in small, tight-knit groups, particularly if they are members of that group themselves, must contend with many of the same concerns.
In Yeshiva University’s online Master of Social Work program, we know the importance of training our students to be able to provide the necessary support in any setting. Learn more about our virtual learning environment, The Heights, which gives students the opportunity to practice in real-world scenarios and engage with rural, suburban and urban settings.
1 Retrieved on March 18, 2020, from store.samhsa.gov/system/files/sma16-4989.pdf
2 Retrieved on March 18, 2020, from socialworktoday.com/news/eoe_012712.shtml
3 Retrieved on March 18, 2020, from researchgate.net/publication/241277670_Challenges_in_Rural_Social_Work_Practice_When_Support_Groups_Contain_Your_Neighbors_Church_Members_and_the_PTA
4 Brown, Aaron Raymond; Walters, Jayme; Jones, Aubrey; and Akinsola, Omotola (2017) "Rural Social Work: Recruitment, Job Satisfaction, Burnout, and Turnover," Contemporary Rural Social Work Journal: Vol. 9 : No. 1, Article 12.