Social work is built on the ethos of service to the well-being of others. But what about you? Should your service to others come at the expense of your well-being? Is the profession that advocates social justice and equity leading by example?

In Australia, social work students must complete a thousand hours of work placement as part of their degree. The majority of those are unpaid placements. The 1,000 hours tend to be completed in two 500-hour blocks. So, it can be about 3.5 to 4 months, where students are in placement usually four days a week, leaving one day for academic studies. Some students can negotiate part-time placements of three days a week and, in some circumstances, a two-day-a-week placement. Whichever option, that’s a significant block of time students are required to sacrifice from earning a living. 


Does 1,000 hours of unpaid work create an expectation of giving without compensation?

Social work placements are a formative part of your professional development. They influence how you get started in your career. They’re a fantastic opportunity to transition your academic learning and knowledge into a practice-based experience.

I’m a strong advocate for compulsory placements. I believe they’re a vital part of the social work qualification. But is the unpaid social work placement model sustainable in this day and age? I work with emerging practitioners. I know many students are experiencing significant challenges while undertaking their placement.

Aspiring practitioners are frequently exposed to the narrative that giving tirelessly, even at the expense of their well-being, is not just admirable but essential. This belief system can have profound psychological effects. Many students and practitioners believe this requirement is outdated and unrealistic in today’s economic environment.

The culture of sacrifice. How unpaid placements shape the perception of self-sacrifice as a norm

When you have to sacrifice your own financial stability, emotional well-being, energy levels, and social activities to work sustainably, that sends a message from the onset that there’s an expected self-sacrifice for the good of the profession.

We’re a profession that talks about social justice, equity and advocacy. Yet, our students need to jump through hoops to complete their placements. And it comes at a cost. The consequences of unpaid placements include:

  • student poverty
  • reduced mental and physical well-being
  • feelings of resentment of being exploited
  • increased stress and financial pressure.

So, I’m really curious about how do we go about this? How do we give our students the opportunity to experience placements sustainably? In a way that models the value we place on the profession and allows them to honour their professional and personal value base? These questions don’t have easy answers. But we can take the opportunity to start curious conversations around them.


What are the psychological effects on practitioners who internalise the belief that self-sacrifice is essential for success in social work?

How do unpaid social work placements impact a practitioner’s emotional and psychological well-being? The belief that giving tirelessly, often at the expense of their own well-being, is a required aspect of the placement experience can have profound psychological effects.

How is this narrative of self-sacrifice setting your expectations when you’re entering into the profession? Do you enter the profession expecting self-sacrifice to be a prerequisite for success? And if so, how does that impact your capacity to look after yourself and lead to your long-term career sustainability?

The response to my question about unpaid placements in a social working community group was clear. So many students responded that they were extremely stressed about how they would navigate this requirement. With many considering not continuing or having already changed their degree choice. And practitioners who had already completed their study recounted their stress and disillusionment toward the profession. How can a profession crying out for more professionals place such a mental burden on those wishing to complete their degree?

The psychological effects these requirements have on practitioners are multi-faceted.

Burnout and compassion fatigue

When the belief in self-sacrifice becomes ingrained, it can lead to burnout and compassion fatigue. Constantly putting others first may lead to practitioners neglecting their needs, eventually depleting their emotional and physical reserves. This can result in exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced effectiveness in their role.

Perfectionism and unrealistic expectations

Internalising the idea that self-sacrifice is vital can foster perfectionism and unrealistic expectations. Feeling compelled to excel in every aspect of work and to put others’ needs before your own can lead to heightened stress, anxiety, and self-criticism. And how do you cope when you fall short of your hard-to-aspire-to ideals?

Confidence in setting boundaries

The belief in self-sacrifice can erode healthy professional boundaries. When you’re expected to offer your service for no compensation before you even enter the profession, how do you learn to effectively set boundaries in your career? This early expectation may make it challenging to set limits with clients, managers, and colleagues, which could result in overextending yourself and potential ethical dilemmas.

Impaired self-care

The notion that self-sacrifice is paramount can hinder self-care practices. You may feel guilty for taking time off, seeking help, or prioritising your mental and physical well-being, further exacerbating stress and diminishing resilience.

Impact on career satisfaction

The psychological toll of internalised self-sacrifice can affect your career satisfaction. Over time, you may become disillusioned, questioning whether your sacrifices align with your initial desire to help others. And as some of the responses I received confirmed, it can prevent you from entering the profession altogether.

Implications for personal relationships

The effects aren’t limited to your professional life. They can seep into personal relationships too. Neglected self-care and persistent stress can strain relationships, affecting your overall quality of life.

Resistance to asking for help

Perhaps most concerning, individuals who have internalised self-sacrifice may be reluctant to seek help or support when they most need it. They might view their struggles as a sign of weakness, further isolating themselves.

Understanding these psychological effects is the first step toward breaking the cycle of self-sacrifice as the sole path to success. It’s essential for both individuals and organisations that train and employ practitioners to recognise the importance of self-care, healthy boundaries, and the need to change the narrative around self-sacrifice for the good of others.

In a field with a shortage of qualified practitioners, how do we balance the desire to serve with fair compensation?

Aspiring social workers are typically drawn to their fields by a sense of altruism. They genuinely want to make a difference in the lives of those they serve. However, the stark financial reality of unpaid placements can clash with their intrinsic desire to help. How can you serve others when you’re consumed by how you’ll pay your rent or mortgage or feed your family? When your own most basic needs aren’t met, how can you help others meet theirs?

Some students commented they were fortunate enough to complete one placement block as a paid placement. However, that still leaves a block of 500 hours unpaid work. Others have mentioned they used annual or long-service leave from their paid positions. Some had to resign from their employment. Unfortunately, some students have to stretch themselves thin financially and psychologically by working two or three part-time jobs after finishing a full unpaid day on placement. Few have been fortunate to be in a secure, supported financial situation that hasn’t placed too much strain on them.

The impact of unpaid placements on diversity and accessibility in the profession

Financial strain is only one impact of unpaid placements. Many of our social work students come from cultural or community groups with their own needs. Unpaid placements intensify ethical concerns regarding diversity and accessibility, particularly affecting students with significant financial, family, and caregiving responsibilities. These requirements deter aspiring students, limiting the profession’s ability to address the complex needs of diverse communities.

Marginalised students face compounded challenges, such as limited access to resources and support, making a social work career seem out of reach. This perpetuates a cycle of inequality within the profession and society as individuals struggle to balance their own needs during placements. This lack of diversity can have profound consequences for the profession’s ability to address the complex needs of a diverse society.

The impact of unpaid work on increased burnout rates among social workers

Unpaid placements take their toll on the well-being of social workers and have long-term consequences for the profession when practitioners are expected to overextend themselves without adequate compensation. Social work is emotionally taxing. Long hours juggling unpaid placements and part-time paid jobs give students no time to debrief, destress and practise self-care.

If students feel they can’t financially and emotionally sustain themselves, they may opt for careers that enable them to earn a living wage while studying. This can lead to a shortage of dedicated professionals in critical fields. The high drop-out rate of social work students reflects this, as only ‘48.3% of students complete bachelor degrees within six years, and 14.5% don’t return after their first year of studies.’

Are there alternative models that better support students while maintaining the quality of service provided?

As mentioned above, I believe placements provide students a wonderful opportunity to learn their profession. I also understand the challenge for organisations to host students. Whilst it’s a great reward and benefit for experienced practitioners to work with students, it takes time and energy investment from organisations. Especially so in organisations that are already resource and funding-stretched. So, there’s definitely time and effort involved for many people.

Are there alternative models that can balance supporting students and maintaining the quality of service provided? While some industries offer students placements that pay at a reduced rate, vocational placements that form part of a degree and count toward course credit are lawfully unpaid.

Addressing the ethical dilemma of balancing the desire to serve with fair compensation involves a multi-faceted approach. It requires re-evaluating the current system and committing to creating more equitable and sustainable pathways for aspiring practitioners.

Some examples are post-graduate research fields, which offer stipend scholarships to provide a living allowance for students. These have to be applied for by the individual student and come with many requirements.  A stipend could mitigate the financial burden and enable students to study social work without compromising their well-being.

There are increasing calls from sector leaders, such as the Submission from the Australian Council of Heads of Social Work Education, headed by Professor Beth Crisp, to the Australian Universities Accord Discussion, calling for more equitable placement opportunities.

Encouraging students to advocate for themselves and their peers regarding fair compensation, such as this open letter initiated by education and social work students campaigning against student poverty on placements.

Establishing financial assistance programs or scholarships that alleviate the financial burden of mandatory unpaid placements would ensure students from diverse backgrounds can undertake study. Increased funding for educational institutions and organisations to direct towards placements could provide students with a basic income.

Universities and institutions offering social work degrees can play a crucial role by actively seeking funding to support students during placements.

Employers and organisations can also take ethical action by reconsidering their reliance on unpaid labour and exploring more equitable ways to support students.

Fostering sustainable careers. Prioritising self-care and well-being for social workers

Until the system of placements changes though,  it’s vital that aspiring social workers look after their own needs during placement. Don’t be afraid to initiate conversations about flexibility and sustainable working hours with your university and placement provider from the onset, and speak up during placement if you need to take time to prioritise your own well-being.

Focus on adopting a self-compassionate mindset during placement. Acknowledge the struggles and impacts you’re experiencing, connect to the shared experience of these struggles and give yourself permission to explore what you need to look after yourself in the moments of challenge. Then make sure you do what you need to care for yourself.

What ways can you find to implement micro-moments of self-care into your working day?

Learn from the start to schedule 5 to 15-minute breaks between work activities to reflect, rest and reset for the next task. Get playful with habit-stacking brief activities that nourish your mind, body and soul throughout the day. When you go to the printer, can you do a minute of mindfulness and focus on your breath? Can you share a moment of gratitude with your co-worker when you’re driving somewhere?

Placements are a crucial part of social work training, but so is gaining awareness about your own needs, strengths and coping mechanisms. Notice if you’re not making time for the things you rely on for your mental health. Make use of supervision and talk to your placement supervisors about how you can negotiate a sustainable balance so you can thrive not only during placement but beyond into your social work career.

Well-being isn’t just the student’s responsibility to navigate. It’s vital placement providers and universities re-evaluate their expectations and policies to ensure the sustainable well-being of emerging practitioners is valued. Not just with good intentions but in the expectations and actions supporting each student on placement now, and all those in the future.