Social work continues to be one of the fastest growing professions, serving individuals, families, and communities in a variety of ways. Whenever I ask students what drew them to social work, the top response is a wholehearted desire to help, serve, or empower others. The depth of care our students have for their clients is remarkable.
Good social workers are empathetic — and though it's a deeply rewarding profession, risks like burnout and compassion fatigue in social work are common.
What Is Burnout In Social Work?
As we hold sacred space for our clients to reflect upon and navigate painful life situations, inevitably, we empathically feel those feelings with our clients. (See this article on empathy.)
Further, we’re often deeply impacted by our clients’ stories and can’t simply turn these feelings “off”, many times bringing the day’s complex, traumatic, and heartbreaking stories home, wondering what else we could have done to help. To avoid burnout in their profession, social workers must find a balance between empathy for their clients and professional self-care.
What Is Professional Self-Care For Social Workers?
I admit that I was fortunate to have taken a “Professional Self-Care” class during my MSW program, in which we learned how the complex issues social workers face in their daily work can impact their personal well-being and functioning. This topic is critical to our profession. In fact, the National Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics highlights the importance of ensuring we pay close attention to avoid impairment, which can arise when we aren’t taking care of ourselves.
Of course, when I mention professional self-care, I’m not talking about binge-watching movies all weekend, though movies may be a way to practice self-care. Rather,
professional self-care is an intentional, preventative, continual effort of recognizing that in order to engage in ethical social work practice and care for others, we must reflect upon, identify, and tend to our own bio-psycho-social-spiritual needs.
I often use the phrase, “we cannot draw water from an empty well,” with my students and invite them to reflect that if we are not taking care of ourselves, how can we take care of others, or worse, what impact does that have on our clients?
Integrating Care to Avoid Burnout
In the same way we talk about doing a bio-psycho-social-spiritual assessment with clients, understanding all aspects of their lives in order to best serve them, I recommend students create a bio-psycho-social-spiritual self-care plan at the beginning of the semester, implement it, and in the spirit of the evidence-based practice process, evaluate it! In fact, I value this so much that I even have assignments and extra credit around professional self-care because I believe we must continually practice caring for ourselves to promote resilience for difficult seasons.
Here are some practical professional self-care methods for social workers to avoid burnout:
1. Start with a plan.
You are as much of a holistic, bio-psycho-social-spiritual human being as your client. Looking at the months ahead, identify what strategies you need to tend for each of these areas of your life and evaluate what does and doesn’t work. Pay attention to ways you can promote:
- Physical health (e.g., vitamins, water intake, sleep, exercise, physical check-ups)
- Psychological well-being (e.g., engage in fun activities, practice gratitude, or see a therapist – see Dr. Kevin Tarlow's website, Low Cost Help, if cost is a barrier)
- Strengthen your social support or make new friends (e.g., take a hobby-related class, join a local shared-interest group, or reach out to friends for regular get-togethers)
- Tend to your spiritual growth and development (e.g., joining a local faith organization, practicing meditation or centering prayer, reading a religious text, or going on retreat).
Be sure your plan attends to each area.
2. Build a diverse toolbox of skills.
Some self-care strategies are brief and provide in-the-moment relief (e.g., deep breathing or a glass of water), whereas some require a bit more time but have a greater impact on our day (e.g., 5-minute meditation during lunch, or drinking green tea instead of coffee), or promote resilience (e.g., 20-minute meditation each morning or going for a walk three times a week). It’s critical to have a mix of strategies to pull from and promote resilience, seeing which work best for you.
3. Evaluate what does and does not work.
We are each unique and require unique self-care plans. I recommend trying a self-care strategy for at least a couple of weeks before deciding if it’s right for you (at least for right now – you may find in a few months your needs have changed!)
What’s important is to pay attention to how you feel after, discerning if the strategy is filling up your well and offering you more energy or positive emotions. Sitting on the couch all day and watching movies (or scrolling through social media, or shopping) may sound like a way of practicing self-care, but if you do not feel better after it, then it’s not really self-care – it’s numbing!
4. Be patient.
In the same way it takes a broken bone time to heal, it also takes time to heal from the occupational hazards of social work, such as burnout, secondary trauma, or vicarious trauma. Be patient as you emotionally/psychologically heal from these and practice self-care to promote resilience. Finally, do not be afraid to set the appropriate boundaries you need to continue to practice self-care.
Burnout Is Not a Badge of Honor
Dr. Jonathan Singer, host of The Social Work Podcast, had the authors of The A to Z Handbook for Social Workers and Other Helping Professionals on the podcast last year talking about this very topic. One of the primary takeaways I had from this episode was the reminder that “burnout is not a badge of honor” – we must individually and collectively combat this narrative that glorifies busyness to the point of burnout… but it begins with us.
Not only do we need to be taking care of ourselves to effectively serve our clients, be fully present to them, and practice ethically, but we also must do this to empower the next generation of social workers to do the same.