mosAIC talks to Ms Cheung Siew Li, a social worker with over two decades of experience, on her journey in the sector and her path beyond it.
Ms Cheung Siew Li, Director of Care and Integration in St Luke’s Hospital, grew her career as a social worker at a family service centre for about 10 years. In 2006, she joined St Luke’s Hospital as a medical social worker, and in 2014 she became the first medical social worker from a community hospital to win the Outstanding Social Worker Award presented by then President Tony Tan.
In this first of a two-part story, mosAIC talks to Siew Li about why she joined the profession, the challenges of the job, and her advice for those who are thinking of becoming social workers.
mosAIC: Hi, Siew Li. Thanks for agreeing to this interview with mosAIC! Let’s start from the beginning. How did you get into social work?
Siew Li: I was in junior college, pondering the purpose of life and having an existential crisis! My faith led me to consider two things. First, the brevity of life – it’s so short! I wanted to do something meaningful. Second, to be accountable for how I lead my life. I wanted to make life count by doing good for others.
mosAIC: Of all the professions in which you can give back, how did you come to choose social work?
SL: My parents are both hearing and speech impaired, so I was exposed to disability very early in life. My late father was a teacher at the Singapore School for the Deaf and I was exposed to the challenges faced by parents struggling to cope with their children’s disability or poverty. My siblings and I also became caregivers at a younger than usual age. That experience attracted me to be in the helping profession. I got to learn more about social work while doing a General Paper assignment in junior college. I had never encountered a social worker till then. I was so inspired that I decided this was what I wanted to do too!
mosAIC: What’s the toughest thing about being a social worker?
SL: For me, it is not the long hours or hard work that are most difficult. The toughest part of social work is at times being unable to emotionally disengage from work when I leave the office. It is important to not be overly-emotionally involved, but it takes time to build that skill. If I take a client’s problems and solve them, it makes life better for the client for now. But this is unsustainable; creating dependence contributes to burnout. Empowering the individual and families to build resilience and greater independence is a more effective way of helping.
mosAIC: How do you do more than just give people access to services and resources?
SL: You do for people who cannot, you do with those who have some ability, go alongside those who can and cheer them on. Besides enhancing access to services and resource through referrals and direct case management, there is a role in advocacy, education and imparting of skills. For some others, my role is to simply journey with them by listening and holding their hand to let them know they are not alone.
mosAIC: What is the difference between social work and medical social work?
SL: Social work has many fields of practice, including working with children and, youths, people with disability, or a statutory role like child protection. Social work can also involve counselling and casework service, providing financial aid or helping clients to navigate social and healthcare systems.
Social work is both an art and a science. As a science, it is the systematic approach and practice to bring about changes in the society at different levels – from individuals and families (micro level), communities (meso level), to national populations (macro level), aiming to alleviate suffering and burden. It is also an art as it requires a strong sense of intuition: a gut feeling, and emotional intelligence. There are many generic skills of social work that are applicable to all settings but there is something distinctive about Medical Social Work.
Medical social work, rooted in healthcare settings, uses the bio-psychological-social-spiritual approach. It involves intervention through assessment and holistic integration of health, social and psychological issues, while also considering patients’ ability to find meaning in life in the face of sickness and disability.
mosAIC: It seems like social workers need a wide skillset to help their clients
SL: I use different “tools” depending on whom I speak to, such as a person who is depressed, a person in a vicious cycle of behaviours who gets stuck in negative situations, or a caregiver who is burnt out by stress. I can use the counselling tool, or create access to services, or even do a life review where people review what happened at different parts of their life, to analyse, and recognise cycles and patterns. Sometimes I need to impart life skills to help people need see problems differently and respond differently to create change.
mosAIC: What would you tell someone who is thinking about going into social work?
- Make sure this is your mission, because it is more than a job. It is tough work that requires you to be intellectually engaged, emotionally involved and it can affect you personally. It is important that it is your mission to be in the helping profession as that will be your driving force and motivation to persevere in the social work profession.
- Build resilience both in yourself and in the people you serve. Sometimes it is up to us to model resilience and find a silver lining. Empowering your clients with skills and enabling access to resources can help them cope better with problematic situations, which in turn builds their resilience. I’ve seen many troubling issues and situations – abuse and neglect, addictions, marriage breakdowns, domestic violence, disability, poverty, death and dying. Being resilient allows us to more effectively manage these circumstances with clients.
- Learn to care about social issues; read widely and talk to people to expand your horizon and knowledge! A social worker is concerned about social issues – inequality, injustice, income gaps and caregivers’ issues. As social workers, we risk becoming caught up in the role of helping individuals and families only as unique cases instead of remembering that the challenges they face are symptomatic of wider societal issues. Social workers need to tackle these issues at the micro, meso and macro level.
Keep your eyes peeled for part 2, where Siew Li talks about cases that impacted her and how she continues to grow beyond social work.