Will AI replace Social Workers?
Social work is a difficult profession that attracts people with a strong desire to help people's lives. It can be at times highly rewarding, and others highly challenging. The impact of Covid-19, the cost of living crisis, high caseloads, government cutbacks, and encroachment from other professions, have all contributed to making social workers' jobs more difficult.
There are regional differences between different countries. In the US, social workers tend to have a higher status than those in the UK for example, and are generally better paid. Other countries like Switzerland, the Scandinavian countries, and Australia, also tend to place a higher status (and remuneration) on social workers. In other countries, particularly developing countries, the profession itself is still in its nascent stage. In Vietnam for example, local authorities only started setting up social services departments in the last 10 years. In China, despite initiatives to expand the profession, there are still far fewer social workers on a population-adjusted basis, than in the US.
Social workers are employed by a range of employers, and this too varies among different countries. In countries like the UK, Spain, Italy and Turkey, the largest employer is the government. In others like India, South Africa, and many developing countries, the employer is more likely to be the private sector, or an NGO.
The universal commonality underlying all social work, no matter which country, is working to improve people's lives, whether it is assisting with mental health, substance abuse issues, child welfare, family issues, crisis intervention, or healthcare co-ordination.
And the human touch is critical throughout all.
Empathy and the Human Connection
In considering whether the job of a social worker will be safe from advances in AI, there is an obvious and over-riding factor.
You can argue that in no other profession is the need to connect with another human on a personal, human-to-human level, greater than that of a social worker. Empathy, understanding, a simple touch of the arm... It's unfathomable that AI could ever replace this.
Imagine a humanoid robot attempting to comfort a grieving mother who has just lost her child. While the robot might have been programmed with the right phrases and responses, it's unlikely that the mother would find any comfort in the cold, emotionless presence of a machine.
This is where the power of human connection shines. A social worker can offer a warm embrace, a kind word, and a genuine understanding of the mother's pain.
At the core of social work is the ability to form meaningful connections with people, building trust and rapport that enable effective interventions and support. Social workers often tap into their own emotions, experiences, and sometimes even vulnerabilities, to empathize with their clients, and help them navigate their challenges.
You simply can't replace this with AI.
Is there a supporting role that AI could provide in social work?
A few weeks ago I came across a tweet from somebody who had introduced their father, a widower, who was lonely and suffering from depression, to ChatGPT. (I wish I could find the tweet now).
The elderly father began peppering ChatGPT with questions about topics that had always interested him, and as a result had 'perked up' in life considerably.
This got me thinking that there will be use cases for AI, which can complement the efforts of social workers. If an elderly person cut off from society, or who has lost their friends, can find solace and interest in ChatGPT, that's intriguing.
Taking this to a logical conclusion, with future advancements in AI, it's entirely reasonable to assume that virtual companions will help people in future, who are simply looking for someone to talk to.
This could be a benefit to social workers who are struggling with large caseloads, freeing them up to focus on other, perhaps more urgent cases.
Administrative AI assistance for Social Workers
Another area that AI can assist with is administrative tasks and research.
The following are all administrative tasks that AI could assist a social worker with, freeing them up to spend more time on cases and supervision.
- Case documentation
- Report writing
- Resource coordination
- Costs and reimbursement
- General communications and correspondence
- Meeting preparation
I'd encourage social workers to stay up on developments in AI (Twitter is useful here...) and be open to experimenting with tools like ChatGPT. It's generally a good idea to research and embrace new technologies that will impact on the industry you work in. You can become a thought leader and expert, while others put their heads in the sand.
AI is going to affect many people's jobs (and will thus have an indirect impact on social workers through wider unemployment), but the fundamental nature of a social worker's role in society, to provide a human connection, empathy and understanding, will mean that the social worker's job is safe for many years to come.
There are several areas where AI can provide a supporting role to social workers, for their own administrative tasks, and potentially their clients. Social workers should thus stay up on the tools that are being introduced at breakneck pace, and consider putting them to use.
Conclusion: Very Safe | Time Period: Foreseeable Future