A job in social welfare never entails a lumpy pay packet but social work consultant Herman Lo's career reveals something far more rewarding. "What we do in essence change the course of some people's lives," he says.
After graduating with a sociology degree from the Chinese University in 1991, Mr Lo initially took a teaching job, only to confirm that his aspirations laid elsewhere. He then studied for a master's degree in social work at the University of Hong Kong. The qualification fuelled his ambition and in 1994, he signed on with Hong Kong Family Welfare Society (HKFWS), where he now calls his second home.
"I was a bit of an introvert in university but advice from a mentor struck a chord somewhere and my passion for interpersonal communication sprouted," Mr Lo says, explaining his career root. "Social work is tough from the outset but before long you'll find it tremendously worthwhile."
Mr Lo spent his first four years in the field gaining extensive experience in foster care service. "We hoped to facilitate healthy growth for orphans and children who were taken into care, ideally in a home-like environment, so part of my job was to recruit foster homes and put these children into foster care," he says.
In a bid to expand his horizon, he subsequently made a lateral move and became a school social worker while providing mental health service as a sideline.
"Being stationed at a school is a real test of your skills and stamina because you are pretty much going it alone, taking into account the interest of the students, their parents and the school management in any given situations," he says, adding that keeping a distance is sometimes indispensable. "For instance, if you're dealing with a child abuse case, you must know where to draw the line, step back and evaluate the situation judiciously."
As demand for mental healthcare increased, Mr Lo's tenure at school was cut short. This nevertheless afforded him the opportunity to consolidate his expertise in mental health and family counselling services. "I'm very interested in these particular disciplines," he notes. "Back then I was already thinking of increasing the scope of our service."
Family visits proved a challenge but with experience under his belt, Mr Lo was quick to adept. "For the following seven years, I partnered with a psychiatrist and we provided consultation to people who had never been clinically diagnosed but were in need of drug and psychosocial treatments," he recalls.
The opportunity to see life in its complexity enables Mr Lo to put things into perspective. He advises, "Setbacks and frustrations are part of an everyday life. Take hardship in your stride, set realistic goals and follow the right course, you'll find a viable option to your problems."
"Approach your work with a zest and believe in the change potential and values in people"
Training from the US in 2004 enabled Mr Lo to focus his efforts on managed services for adult clients. He remarks, "Clinical services in the US have adopted meditation to help people with physical and mental health problems. Now we run a series of eight-week meditation programmes, incorporating simple stretching exercises or yoga, as an alternative approach to helping our patients maintain their mental health."
In 2002, Mr Lo flew to Australia to partake in an international conference on child and adolescent mental health. Coming back home, he again successfully implemented a revolutionary preventive programme — adolescent resilience enhancement, into primary and secondary schools. "We configured learning materials into interesting activities with an ultimate aim to nurture positive thinking in the younger generations," he says.
The year 2008 provided Mr Lo a change of pace. Under the HKFWS' pioneering "dual path" scheme, he was promoted as one of the organisation's three social work consultants. In his current capacity, he works with his team to scrutinise the organisation's operation from a macroscopic point of view, driving clinical advancements to support the different levels of HKFWS works. "We monitor changes in the society and adjust our service offerings to fill gaps," he expands. "This also means reviewing and drawing up guidelines and SOPs (standard operating procedures) and formulating alternative approaches that can be applied to various settings as part of a risk management mechanism so that staff in the frontline are well equipped to deal with specific situations."
As such, Mr Lo is constantly in meeting with the HKFWS advisory committee and other external organisations. "The consultancy team is also responsible for drafting plans for and implementing staff training, helping to align competency to professional development opportunities," he adds.
Helping people to see straight bequeaths Mr Lo's job great meanings but he cautions that aspiring graduates must come prepared. "You must approach your work with a zest and believe in the change potential and values in people," Mr Lo emphasises. "The nature of the job calls for a certain level of creativity. Textbook knowledge aside, you must be able to exercise dexterity and leverage your social network to connect with people of diverse backgrounds."
The influx of capitalism and accelerating modernisation is fast transforming the face of mainland China. Awake to a range of social problems, the mainland authority is leveraging its proximity to Hong Kong and the city's mature social welfare infrastructure in a move to facilitate a structural development of social welfare on the mainland. "A number of our social work supervisors are assigned to travel to different units in Shenzhen on a regular basis," Mr Lo notes. "This project and other exchange activities with other mainland provinces will continue to require the practical skills and knowledge from Hong Kong, giving our social workers a wider exposure to the field."