Social workers entering the field should be aware of the hazards facing professional helpers. Listening to the tribulations of others and witnessing emotional situations is the nature of the job – particularly for those working in clinical social work settings. Whether you are pursuing a graduate social work program or are on track for an online degree, it pays to be aware of the risk for burnout and to have guidance for dealing with fatigue.
Burnout and compassion fatigue can lead to a sense of disenfranchisement and estrangement from the community and, in many cases, drive the social worker to leave the field. Don’t risk your professional status and compromise your Master of Social Work by opening yourself up to compassion fatigue; prevention will require attention, awareness, and firm boundaries with those around you.
What is compassion fatigue?
It is easy to overlook the early signs of compassion fatigue. This is a condition that caregivers, social workers, and professionals in the field face in the work that they do. Long hours, feelings of unappreciation, and limited resources can take a toll on those in the helping profession. Clinical supervision and talking to your team leader may provide alternative solutions to the obstacles your clients face, which can help alleviate fatigue and feelings of disenfranchisement, overall.
Pay attention for the following signs of compassion fatigue to maintain your efficacy as a social worker:
- Increased irritability
- Difficulty sleeping
- Anxiety or panic attacks
- Depressed mood
- Tendency to isolate or withdraw
- Increased physical illness; low immunity to sickness
- Reliance on unhealthy coping skills, such as gambling or drugs
- Change in appetite
- Lack of empathy or compassion for others
- Feelings of hopelessness or despair
What is self-care?
The most effective arsenal that you have against compassion fatigue is self-care. In the social work field, it is easy to become accustomed to caring for others while overlooking your own needs. Make sure that you are not spreading yourself too thin and that you make an effort – every day – to do something that you enjoy and that makes you feel fulfilled. Some social workers may use spirituality, while others engage in hobbies or sports that give them the outlet needed to recharge and restore for continued practice.
Some ways to take care of yourself and prevent compassion fatigue include:
- Set aside time in your schedule for yourself like you would for anything else important. Set firm boundaries for this time and stick to them to prevent others from infringing on this time.
- Don’t try to be the martyr. Allow others to chip in and lend assistance.
- Practice good sleep hygiene. This includes keeping a schedule and getting ample rest at night. Also, make sure that your bedroom is conducive to rest and relaxation; remove anything too stimulating, whether it be clutter or work.
- Eat healthily and exercise daily. A brisk walk can be an instant mood-lifter; incorporate one into everyday, weather permitting.
- Foster hobbies and leisure activities. Try something new and creative.
- Engage with others; socialize. Get out every week or two for a meal, to shop, or to visit with friends.
- Take time off, and use your allotted vacations.
The benefits and rewards of working in the field far are many, but to maintain a long career, pay attention to signs that you could be burning out. Set and assert firm boundaries with those around you – coworkers, clients, and family members – and carve out time to do the things that you enjoy.
Master of Social Work programs, such as the online MSW program at FSU, offer courses related to self-care and preventing professional burnout, so take advantage of such opportunities when they arise. You may also find many continuing education units (CEUs) required to maintain or renew licensure offer courses pertaining to personal development and self-nurturance. While this concept may seem elementary, it is easy to get lost in the experiences and plights of others and ignore the signs that could lead you to compassion fatigue, and quite possibly, compel you to leave the field of social work altogether.
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