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Social Justice

Self-care for social workers: Firsthand advice from the front lines

January 15, 2019 by Brandman University

It’s likely you’re drawn toward the social work field because you’re compassionate, empathetic and supportive. You feel empowered to take on a career that will make a real difference in the lives of those who need your support the most.

Social workers dedicate their professional lives to helping people cope with the challenges they face. This can include adopting a child, struggling with addiction, facing a mental health challenge, coping with a divorce, battling unemployment and just about everything in between. For many practicing social workers, there’s a struggle to keep the line between professional work and personal wellbeing from blurring.

“Social workers in general deal with some of the most difficult life situations on a day-to-day basis,” explains Dr. Catherine Pearlman, assistant professor of social work at Brandman University. “As caring, sensitive individuals, it can be agonizing to see such suffering and pain every day.”

While social work burnout is a real risk for these professionals, there are a number of preventative measures they can take. Self-care for social workers is critically important. Join us as we discuss the factors that make social workers susceptible to burnout and explore ways professionals in this realm can prioritize self-care.

What is social work burnout?

“Any helping professional exposed to pain and suffering is at risk of burnout,” explains Dr. Kim Bundy-Fazioli, associate professor of social work at Brandman University.

In general, burnout refers to a progressive state of inoperability that can manifest in different forms, including rigidity or appearing “closed off” to any input, increased resignation and irritability. In their exploration of the phenomenon, researchers have identified a few key contributing components.

Chief among them is “compassion fatigue,” the overall physical and emotional fatigue social service professionals experience when working with so many clients experiencing suffering. This can also be referred to as “vicarious trauma,” which results from a social worker’s direct exposure to victims of trauma. (Work-related trauma exposure can include listening to a client’s account of their victimization, responding to incidents of mass violence or even simply reviewing case files.)

“Social workers can have a higher rate of burnout depending on the population they work with and their job,” Dr. Pearlman elaborates. “For example, workers in child welfare and the foster care system have a higher turnover and burnout rate.” She adds that while difficult cases can certainly take their toll, things like high caseloads, unpleasant work environments and mountains of paperwork also contribute to a social worker’s stress.

“It’s a highly rewarding job, but social workers must be mindful of their needs to make sure they don’t get depleted,” Dr. Pearlman urges.

Why is self-care for social workers so important?

Dr. Pearlman explains that social workers who are starting to burn out may still be able to go through the motions, but won’t be as effective. They may find themselves missing work more frequently or even losing their temper more often at home.

“The whole idea of putting the oxygen mask on yourself before helping others on an airplane is a perfect way to understand why self-care is vital for social workers,” she says. “Our empathy and compassion for others is very high and often we want to do everything we can for our clients and families.”

Dr. Bundy-Fazioli agrees that social workers need to prioritize themselves. “In social work, the main tool in our tool bag is the ‘self,’” she says. “Our skills are dependent on our ability to promote healthy interpersonal connection. To be there for another person, self-care is paramount.”

How can social workers prioritize self-care?

There are several steps social workers can take to make sure they’re taking care of themselves. Dr. Bundy-Fazioli highlights the following four:

1. Awareness

One of the first steps toward self-care is to acknowledge when you’re experiencing stress-related symptoms. This can help you identify possible triggers for your stress and empower you to more directly address them.

  • Check in physically: Does your back hurt? Is your neck sore? Are you often clenching your jaw?
  • Check in emotionally: Do you feel more sensitive than normal? Are you feeling exhausted, resentful or overwhelmed?
  • Check in mentally: Do you find that you are ruminating on something repeatedly? Are you waking in the middle of the night and getting lost in your thoughts?

2. Compassion

Social workers need to have as much compassion for themselves as they do for their clients. “A key ingredient in self-care is kindness,” Dr. Bundy-Fazioli offers. Rather than criticizing yourself for getting tired or feeling exhausted, she suggests bringing kindness to your thoughts. “Be your best support.”

3. Intention

Ask yourself, “What do I need to alleviate the stress-related symptoms I’m experiencing?” It could be that you simply need a day off. Or maybe you require some extra support from your supervisor. Perhaps you need to make more time to connect with your friends and family.

4. Sustainability

Instead of cycling in and out of exhaustion, Dr. Bundy-Fazioli suggests social workers—and all other helping professionals—ask, “What will it take to engage in a lifestyle that promotes self-care?” She recommends most everyone sign up for a mindfulness class. “Mindfulness is learning how to tame the thoughts, listen to the symptoms and respond with compassion to the distress.”

To find some actionable activities that pave the way for self-care, it’s important to discover what works for you. There isn’t one method that works for everyone. Dr. Pearlman offers numerous suggestions, such as taking a hike, making art, meeting up with friends for lunch and more.

“For me, being outside, getting enough sleep, meeting up with friends and not overloading my schedule are the best ways to practice self-care,” she shares.

Put your best self forward

As you journey toward success as a social worker, you’ll develop sought-after skills like case management, crisis intervention and behavioral health. But remember that self-care for social workers is one of the most overlooked core competencies. Don’t forget the importance of helping yourself before helping others.

One undeniable element of self-care is ensuring you’re heading to work each day in a career that sparks your passion and enables you to be your best professional self. If you’d like to make a difference in some of the most marginalized and vulnerable subsets of our population, a Master of Social Work degree (MSW) can help turn your career goals into a reality. Learn more about the ways an MSW can help you put your best self forward.

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