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Guanajuato, Mexico by Tomas Castelazo - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, link

Elisa Cerros Rodriguez
Jefa del Departamento de Trabajo Social, Universidad de Guadalajara, Mexico

The State, Social Policies and Social Work in Latin America

Today's social work schools face a major challenge of reflecting upon the type of social workers they are training, the theoretical and methodological knowledge being taught, as well as the type of professional intervention developed in the different areas of intervention in many regions and countries. Hence, this article will analyse the role of professional training in social work, its impact on the professional practice of social workers, as well as examining their professional performance in light of this training and of the subjectivity that permeates this intervention.


In the last decades we have witnessed in our countries and regions a series of transformations provoked by neoliberal policies, for example, there is less State intervention in social problems, more inequality, precarisation of labour, underemployment, unemployment, social exclusion, more poverty and hunger; they are a clear manifestation of the weakening of the Welfare State. These transformations have had a significant impact on the professional space of social workers. For example, we have found in our different areas of professional practice frequent budget cuts to social programmes that provide assistance to vulnerable groups, where social workers make real efforts to "do more with less," as well as the reduced recruitment of qualified staff; in consequence, this has reduced work spaces and blurred professional spaces. What implications has this situation had for the training of future social workers? In what way does it affect their psychophysical health?

The purpose of this article is to reflect critically, analytically and, above all, in a propositional way the role of social work schools as social worker training agencies, as well as the role of subjectivity in the professional performance of social workers in the different areas of intervention. Training Social Workers

Social work has faced since its origins a common denominator: human pain in all its manifestations; the pain of living in poverty, the pain of not having a home, the pain of having health issues, not having a job, experiencing physical or psychological abuse, marginalisation, discrimination, etc. To deal with these situations, social workers require theoretical and methodological knowledge, as well as the tools to provide professional assistance to anyone who requires his/her professional services, which are addressed and studied during his/her academic training. In this sense, the schools that train social workers must constantly evaluate and update their study programmes based on the critical positioning of reality (Brain & Ornelas, 2011); in order to develop the students’ knowledge, skills and aptitudes that allow them a critical and autonomous professional intervention as well as an adequate professional performance according to the needs of the population with which they work. These training processes should visualise two spheres: the personal sphere and the professional sphere of future social work professionals that aim to promote their comprehensive development. In this article I will focus the discussion on the first sphere.

...more inequality, precarisation of labour, underemployment, unemployment, social exclusion, more poverty and hunger; they are a clear manifestation of the weakening of the Welfare State

In the personal sphere, it is necessary to create auto-reflexive processes that strengthen the mental health of future social workers. It is important to work in this sphere during their formative stage, since social workers are the first professionals in contact with the service users, and they are more present throughout the process of care they experience in an institution. They also frequently work in physically and emotionally draining environments that affect their psychological well-being. This makes them more vulnerable of experiencing professional burnout in the short term, compared to other professionals who work in the same institution.

Lázaro (2004) and Facal-Fondo (2012) have highlighted the existence of factors that influence burnout among social workers: on the one hand, how work is undertaken and, on the other, the tasks carried out by social workers. Therefore, for example, social workers who practice in hospitals, face a highly stressful environment, they lack institutional protective factors and are the front-line workers for patients and their families, and in fact, are frequently responsible for the entire service.

The psychophysical health of social workers is altered due to their highly stressful work environment, firstly, because of the constant, prolonged, and intense contact with human pain, secondly, due to the difficult balance between the users’ needs versus the resources provided by the institution (professional and material). Unfortunately, a great number of institutions where they work do not have mental health programmes for their professionals.

Burnout among social workers justifies the need for including in social work education subjects, such as emotional support and how to promote mental health of future professionals, develop skills to deal with highly stressful situations as well as to prevent and cope with emotions such as sadness, anxiety, fear and depression (Cerros, 2016). Additionally, this may have a positive impact on professional performance and, hence, on the institutional outcomes where they will work.

Specific institutional programmes are needed to address and prevent professional burnout; they must be promoted in a coordinated and collegial way with the various institutions and professional associations. The emotions experienced by social workers are in response to the meaning they give to the events they are exposed to, where assessment plays a preponderant role. Culture significantly influences the assessment process, providing the “codes” to interpret an event.


Neoliberal politics in Mexico have affected the dynamics of the employment market where social workers are inserted, establishing changes in the public and private field, as well as in the provision of social services and social management to approach social problems. These transformations pose the imperative need that social work educational programmes must update their academic curricula, based on critical reflections about the new scenarios where social workers carry out their practices. The educational processes in the classroom and field practices, the essential coordination between practice and theory, as well as the personal and professional development of future professionals, who need to be infused with more and new knowledge, skills and abilities to favourably impact their environment.

A critical perspective in social work educational programmes must become an answer to the current situation in our regions and countries; new challenges require new skills and professional abilities. Today we need a new educational profile, as reality is overtaking us; we are challenged to embrace the complexities and possibilities provided by reality, all with ethical responsibility and united under a common social work body.