Nip it in the Bud: Signs of Social Work Burnout and Tips for Self-Care

In 1975, health care experts defined burnout as a state of being “inoperative” as a practitioner; this sums it up quite well. Frankly, how can social workers provide compassionate care and guidance when they are not taking care of themselves? Social work is exhausting, demanding, and emotionally draining at times; it can also be rewarding, restorative, and inspiring. It is truly sad to see effective practitioners leave the field of social work due to burnout and compassion fatigue. Caring for others takes a toll, so it is absolutely imperative that social workers learn to first take care of themselves. Some signs of compassion fatigue and burnout are:

  • Sleep disturbances or insomnia.
  • Irritability or depressed mood.
  • Lack of patience.
  • Lack of enthusiasm for things you once enjoyed.
  • Estrangement from others.
  • Increased startle response.
  • Flashbacks.
  • Intrusive thoughts.
  • Fear and anxiety.
  • Feelings of hopelessness.
  • Fatigue.
  • Difficulty separating work and personal time.
  • Preoccupation with work.
  • Lack of compassion toward others.
  • Feelings of resentment.
  • Increased use of vices (alcohol, drugs, gambling) to cope with everyday stressors.

As social workers, it is important to pay attention to self-care and to take steps to avoid burnout and compassion fatigue.

Set limits. Don’t be afraid of setting limits related to your schedule, client needs, and even your family commitments. A structured schedule is the best way to prevent burnout and to clearly identify when you work and when you have down time.

Eat, drink, and sleep well. Good health is important for maintaining the rigorous schedule and demands of social work. When you eat healthily, stay hydrated, and get well-rested, you are less vulnerable to burnout.

Maintain your boundaries. Perhaps the most important thing that you can do to prevent burnout is to maintain firm boundaries with clients, colleagues, and even friends or family. Boundary issues are usually covered in ethics classes, continuing education courses, and work-related retreats, but it bears repeating. Maintain your boundaries and don’t give in to pressures that, over time, could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Make time for you. Do something creative to relieve stress and prevent burnout. Social workers often prescribe creative pursuits like music, journaling, and art to clients to reduce stress, and it can help practitioners, too. Any leisure activity that soothes you and makes you feel restored is an excellent self-care strategy.

Don’t be a sponge. Watch how you respond to hearing clients recount traumatizing events during interventions or interactions; are you preoccupied with this later on? Are you experiencing flashbacks related to the client’s situation? Social workers tend to ‘soak-up’ what their clients convey and share, and in many instances, this can be painful, troubling information. Vicarious traumatization is when social workers are traumatized by the experiences of their client – which can be debilitating and overwhelming. This trauma makes you at very high risk of compassion fatigue without swift and immediate action, such as a vacation or an honest talk with your supervisor.

Engage in physical activity. Brisk physical activity for at least 20 minutes each day can increase the feel-good hormones in your brain and offer an anti-depressant type effect. Start your day with a walk before work, or unwind at the end of the day with a swim at your local pool.

Take time off. You are given personal days at work for a reason; don’t let this get eaten up for other purposes and deprive yourself of much-needed time for you. Plan and take your vacations, too. Even if it doesn’t seem feasible to travel far away, any slight change of environment and scenery can be invigorating – even if only for a day or two.

Talk to someone. Identify someone that you can talk to about work, your stressors, and whatever happens to be on your mind, such as a supervisor at work or a therapist outside of the job. Due to the confidential nature of the job, it isn’t easy to share what is weighing on you with friends or family so find someone that you can open up to and that can offer some guidance and advice. It is truly disheartening to see caring, compassionate social workers leave the field due to feeling overwhelmed and burned out. You work hard for your social work degree and licensure, so be sure to protect it by paying attention to self-care. Don’t wait until it is too late to seek out help and implement strategies to reduce burnout symptoms and alleviate compassion fatigue.

For further reading, check out this blog post: Why Sharing Social Work Stories is Important: A Student Social Work Perspective