The social work profession provides abundant opportunities for practitioners to find fulfillment. Newcomers enter the field with high enthusiasm for their work with community members. The Fitzhugh Mullan Institute for Health Workforce Equity found that 90.4% of new social workers were satisfied with their career choices.
While enthusiasm remains high within the field, it is equally important to ensure that social workers take the steps needed in order to avoid burning out on the job. Social worker burnout is a phenomenon that all social workers need to be aware of as they face complex situations in their jobs, and it is vital for them to establish habits to prevent burnout, recognize the signs of burnout, and know how to properly adjust. Below, we will examine social worker burnout, and provide five self-care tips for social workers.
Sources of Social Worker Burnout
Dr. Christina Maslach - an expert on occupational stress - defined burnout as, “a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors on the job.” Social workers help clients of all ages during their most challenging moments and share at least part of their stress. The threat of social worker burnout is always present but may not be addressed in its early stages.
Social work professionals are served well by their empathy and compassion for struggling clients. These interpersonal skills, however, can be overwhelmed by high caseloads of clients facing substantial obstacles. The Fitzhugh Mullan Institute’s 2020 report on new social workers identified the most common characteristics of their clients:
- Below the federal poverty level (68.5%)
- Medicaid eligible (66.9%)
- Mental health disorders (65.8%)
A 2021 study of social work burnout surveyed 273 practitioners about their emotional states. Researchers found the following percentages of respondents for each consequence of stress:
- High emotional exhaustion (70.3%)
- High depersonalization of clients (48.7%)
- Low sense of personal accomplishment (36.6%)
Secondary trauma and compassion fatigue aren’t left at the office at the end of each day. The mental health impacts for social workers extend beyond the workplace to their personal lives. An effective self-care routine built on the following five tips takes a proactive approach to the burnout threat.
1. Establish Boundaries with Clients and Colleagues
Social workers enter the profession with hopes of helping people through difficult situations. They want to do all that they can to help their clients and colleagues. Home visitations, school meetings, and counseling sessions present repeated opportunities for emotional overextension.
An empathetic mindset is best harnessed with a clear set of boundaries at the outset of every client relationship. Unclear or inconsistent rules contribute to social worker burnout and ineffective interventions. Your boundaries also recognize that while you can’t save the world all at once, you can help the person in front of you.
The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) notes that “exceeding your professional boundaries with clients sets up your colleagues and organization for failure.” The organization recommends the following boundary-setting steps for practitioners:
- Stick closely to your practice’s policy for client communications
- Avoid adding or communicating with clients through social media accounts
- Regularly consult with supervisors for level-setting on client relationships
- Advocate for uniform services rather than ad hoc solutions at your practice
2. Ongoing Reminders of Professional Mission and Goals
The daily challenges of a social worker can obscure what is good about the profession. Client interactions can seem disconnected from what attracted you to social work and what drives you to succeed. Exercises that focus your attention on the positive impacts of your work reduce social worker burnout.
Human services firm Northwoods suggests every social worker create a positivity file. This document includes client compliments, success stories, and positive interactions during work. You can stay centered on the importance of your work by consulting the file on bad days.
Stressful or difficult days can clutter your brain, thus making it difficult to relax and rest. A good self-care habit for social workers is to write down bad thoughts after work is over. You can then throw away or delete what you’ve written to purge professional stresses.
3. Set Healthy Habits
Physical and emotional health are interlinked as key elements of wellness. The National Wellness Institute defines wellness as “an active process through which people become aware of, and make choices toward, a more successful existence.” Your self-care routine can be built within your work schedule to ensure wellness.
Exercise, diet, and sleep are important factors in how you perform on the job. Social workers may neglect their physical health because of time constraints and emotional distress. The following tips are useful in preventing social worker burnout:
- Completing 30 minutes of your favorite exercise per day in small increments
- Planning healthy snacks and meals with your schedule in mind
- Carrying a reusable water bottle for consistent hydration
- Meditating for at least five minutes at bedtime to slow your mind for sleep
Breathing exercises can reset your mind and body throughout the day. You can stretch or do basic yoga when space is available to ease tension. It is possible to fit these activities in small pockets within your schedule and stave off work-related stress.
4. Maintain a Support Network
An extensive support network is necessary for every social worker’s mental health. You’ll frequently work with colleagues and supervisors to maximize the impacts of interventions on clients. There are opportunities for relationship-building with other stakeholders in the most common employers of social workers as found by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):
- Individual and family services
- Local government agencies
- Ambulatory healthcare services
- State government agencies
Your personal support network is also essential in reducing the chances of social work burnout. Friends, family members, and significant others help to refocus your attention outside of work. Planned activities and impromptus conversations also provide the balance necessary for healthy living.
5. Seek Mental Health Services
The National Council of Behavioral Health (NCBH) estimated that 77% of U.S. counties lack sufficient psychiatric services. Clinical social workers increasingly fill the gap for frontline mental health services to children and adults. Intense counseling sessions with individuals and groups can accelerate paths toward social work burnout.
The aforementioned tips for social worker self-care may not always be enough for your mental health needs. Psychologists and psychiatrists seek personal therapy to counter the emotional impacts of assisting clients with their problems. The growing importance of social workers in mental health services makes therapy a valuable self-care tool.
Social workers should also consider therapy for the following reason offered by Dr. David Lopez, former president of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry:
“Typically, people who want to become therapists have an interest in connecting with people. When they are doing therapy that needs to be redirected, to be tamed so that it does not get in the way of not being objective.”
Preparing for Social Work Careers at Keuka College
An advanced social work degree and a good self-care routine help you persevere through difficult situations. Keuka College’s Online Master of Social Work (MSW) trains students for the challenges and stresses of clinical social work positions. Every student receives personalized support and field placement services for a seamless learning experience.
The Online MSW program offers an Advanced Track for students who already hold bachelor’s degrees in social work. Advanced Track candidates complete 33 credits and 500 field hours in less than two years of study. Social work professionals build on previous experiences with advanced lessons in areas like group process and trauma assessment.
Keuka College also trains career-changing students for social work positions with the Traditional Track. This path requires the completion of 60 credits and 900 field hours over three years of study. Faculty members still working in the social work profession teach Traditional Track students about:
- Human Behavior & the Social Environment
- Social Work Ethics & Applications in Diversity
- Social Work Practice with Couples and Families
Online MSW graduates are prepared for future success through rigorous courses and placements. The College’s Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accreditation shows the high-quality education received by social work students. U.S. News & World Report confirms Keuka College’s regional reputation with a No. 126 rank in the Regional Universities North category.
Find out more about Keuka College’s Online MSW by downloading the program guide today.