Self-care for social workers: Firsthand advice from the front lines
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 — this is exactly why many choose social work.
Social workers are dedicated to supporting people as they cope with challenges. This can include adopting a child, struggling with addiction, navigating a mental health crisis and just about everything in between. For many different types of social workers, maintaining strong boundaries between professional work and personal well-being requires intentional practice and self-care.
“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 University of Massachusetts Global. “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. The importance of self-care in social work cannot be overstated. 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 University of Massachusetts Global.
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. Even if social work is their calling, 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.
Self-care exercises for social workers
There are several elements that go into creating an effective social worker self-care plan. Dr. Bundy-Fazioli suggests engaging in the following four exercises:
1. Build awareness
One of the first steps toward self-care for social workers is acknowledging when stress-related symptoms are occurring. This can help you identify possible triggers for your stress and empower you to 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. Have 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.” For example, the next time you engage in negative self-talk or criticism, stop and ask yourself if you’d say the same things to a loved one. You’ll find the answer is probably “no” because we tend to be harsher on ourselves than others.
3. Set an 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. Once you figure it out, be proactive and make your needs known.
4. Ensure 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.”
Discovering what works for you is key for maintaining a good social worker self-care plan. There isn’t one method that’s effective 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 progress in your career, you’ll develop sought-after skills, like case management, crisis intervention and behavioral health. But remember that crafting and following your own social worker self-care plan is critical. In fact, self-care for social workers is one of the most overlooked core competencies. You have to take care of your own needs before you can help others.
If you’d like further your positive impact with an advanced degree in your field, a Master of Social Work degree (MSW) could be the ideal program to turn your career goals into a reality. Learn more about the ways an MSW can help you put your best self forward and explore our robust library of social work resources.
Become a Student
Have questions about enrollment, degree programs, financial aid, or next steps?