Katie Krukenberg is an MSW graduate (2006) from Florida State University and a licensed clinical social worker in North Dakota. She works at the University of Mary and is an assistant professor of social work as well as the director of field education for the social work program.
Many social workers have a desire to make a difference in the lives of others. The social work field is rewarding, but it can also be demanding and emotionally taxing at times. Social workers encounter a wide range of complex challenges in their work with clients and communities. These job demands can factor into risk for burnout, defined as “a syndrome with dimensions of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced feelings of personal accomplishment” (Lloyd et al., 2002). Students in Florida State University’s online MSW program learn about burnout and the importance of practicing self-care to reduce this risk.
A Closer Look at Social Work Burnout
Burnout has been the focus of several research studies and findings, and all indicate elevated risk for burnout in the social work field. According to a study assessing burnout in social workers by Siebert (2006), results indicated a current burnout rate of 39% and a lifetime burnout rate of 75%. Burnout most often occurs in areas of social work where practitioners work directly with traumatized clients; however, compassion fatigue is also rooted in stressful work environments and organizations (Lloyd et al., 2002). Less than optimal outcomes for clients can also be a factor in social worker burnout.
Social Workers and Secondary Trauma
While no one is immune, social workers may be more likely to experience symptoms of secondary trauma when working with the following types of cases:
- Abuse, violence or neglect including physical or sexual assault, injury or death
- Responding to cases related to suicidal ideation
- Assisting cases of death, loss or bereavement
- Experiencing the unexpected or premature death of a client
Stressful Work Environments
- Working as part of multidisciplinary teams, particularly in host settings where social work is not the primary focus of service provision, such as hospitals, schools, or the correctional system can create a sense of competing for intervention priorities
- Stressful work environments may be a factor in staff shortages or high turnover due to burnout, contributing to the demands on the social workers employed there
- Required documentation and paperwork are critical, but can be challenging to get completed in a timely way when there are more immediate client needs requiring the social worker’s time and attention
Despite a social worker’s best efforts, sometimes the desired outcome of work with clients is not achieved. Whether due to addiction relapse, ongoing mental health challenges, or not being fully committed to making a change, lack of client achievement of goals can sometimes result in a reduced sense of efficacy for social workers and contribute to burn out over time.
How Can Burnout Be Prevented?
Burnout does not have to be part of a career in social work, but requires active efforts on the part of agencies and individuals to help prevent it. Some actionable steps include:
- Prioritization of resources available to social workers within the organization, including adequate staffing, supervision, and time needed to accomplish tasks
- Initiating regularly scheduled supervision between trusted supervisors and employees to check-in and ensure adequate support is available
- Social workers can be their own advocate and work with the organization to establish healthy work-related boundaries, creating a culture that supports work-life balance.
- Social workers can take advantage of opportunities for continuing education to ensure they are equipped for challenges encountered in work
- Free counseling sessions are offered through many employee assistance programs- social workers can utilize these services to ease the burden of secondary trauma
- Social workers can be intentional about taking vacation or paid time off to recharge themselves
- Social workers can learn about self-care and burnout symptoms to help with preventative measures
- Individuals and organizations can take part in celebrating success- recognizing progress is important in keeping a positive mindset
Learning how to overcome routine challenges in the social work field is explored through advanced education opportunities, like Florida State’s online MSW program.
Expanding your knowledge of self-care and gaining tools to monitor symptoms of burnout will help you take an active role in prevention and management. Social workers can maintain a high level of satisfaction during their careers.