The job of a social worker is one that is vital to the community. As a social worker, you will be responsible for helping people deal with, and solve problems in their life. Your patients can range in age from children, to adults, to seniors, but regardless of the age group that you work with, you are bound to make a massive difference in their life.
For all the good that you will be making in the world as a social worker, there are also a lot of negatives to the job. While these negatives don’t have to mean an end to your career as a social worker, it’s still wise to be prepared and understand the challenges that you will face so you can also come up with a plan on how to deal with them.
One of the biggest problems that affects social workers is what’s called social worker burnout. This very real issue is something that shouldn’t be ignored, as there are ways to help prevent it and cope with it, putting the attention on your own self-care. So, what is social worker burnout, and what can you do about it? Let’s examine it a little closer.
What is Social Workout Burnout?
Social worker burnout is something that isn’t new, but it hasn’t always been given the attention it deserves. When a person reaches a point of “burnout” it typically means they are physically and emotionally drained, leaving them incapable of functioning in any kind of normal way. In the case of social worker burnout, it means they are left incapable of being able to perform their job effectively.
Burnout can happen in people’s lives for all different reasons, but again, social worker burnout is a very specific issue that is actually brought on by your career as a social worker.
The fact is that social work can be very high-stressed where you are juggling a number of patients and case files at once. Many of these people will be going through some very heavy, and even depressing life events. While it’s your job to look at them in a subjective manner and help them to work through their problems, it’s next to impossible not to let their stories affect you. Over time their traumas, issues, and problems can start to make you feel burnt out and emotionally unable to take on any more cases.
Is It More Common in Those New to the Field?
Social worker burnout isn’t selective; it can affect both male and female workers of all ages. Whether you are brand new to the field and just being exposed to what the career entails, or you’ve been doing it for decades and thought you had mastered a way to leave all your issues and stress in the office, it can sneak up on you slowly over time, or settle in fast.
What are the Top Signs and Symptoms?
So, how do you know if you are in fact suffering from social worker burnout? There are a number of signs and symptoms that you can keep an eye open for. Keep in mind you may only display one or two of these signs, or the entire list. The severity of the symptoms can also vary from person to person. The key is that you recognize them early on so you can act on them.
- A lack of patience, either sudden or growing over time
- Trouble falling asleep and/or staying asleep
- Feeling depressed or irritable
- Lack of compassion towards others
- Pulling away from family and friends
- You aren’t taking interest in things you usually enjoy
- Anxiety and fear that keeps growing
- Feeling like everything is hopeless
- Feeling tired all the time despite getting enough sleep
- Feeling a sense of resentment
- Not being able to connect with family and friends
- Having a hard time separating your work from your personal life
- A dependence on vices such as gambling, drugs, and alcohol
Even if you only have a few of these signs/symptoms, it’s worth examining your mental state a little closer and determining if you are in fact suffering from social worker burnout.
Is Social Worker Burnout Preventable?
Of course, a logical question is whether or not social worker burnout is preventable. This one is tough to answer. While it would be great if there was a clear-cut way to avoid it happening to you, there are no guarantees. Instead it’s about being self-aware, recognizing if you are starting to feel burnout, asking for help, and putting self-care first.
Why is Self-Care So Important?
And why is self-care so important? Self-care is one of those coin phrases that seems to be getting tossed around a-lot these days, but there is good reason for it. Self-care simply means you love yourself enough to know that sometimes you need some help, and that you need to look after your own self. There is nothing selfish about it; in fact, self-care is important if you hope to be a healthy well-rounded individual that is able to give the very best that they have. Self-care refers to both your emotional needs and state, as well as your physical needs and state. They are equally important and should both get attention.
How to Best Cope with and Combat Social Worker Burnout – Top Tips
This leads us to how to cope and combat the issues of social worker burnout. Florida State University actually published a fantastic article on social worker burnout, outlining a number of ways to deal with it and hopefully prevent it. At the heart of it all is early recognition that this is something you are going through, and that you can’t just ignore it and push it aside.
Here are some of the best tips for coping with social worker burnout, which can also act as preventable measures. There’s no need to wait until you’re suffering from burnout in order to put these tips in play; why not reduce the risk of even having burnout in the first place?
Leave Your Work in the Workplace
You don’t have to be dealing with social worker burnout in order for this to be an issue. One of the hardest things people can encounter is learning how to leave their work at the workplace. At the end of the day, at the end of your shift, it’s important to leave it all there and go home to your personal life. The two shouldn’t merge and become connected at any point.
Now this is a rule that will take time, practice, and patience, but eventually it will start to become second nature to you. Your brain needs that chance to switch gears and turn off the social worker mode.
Make Sure You Are Getting Enough Sleep
It is incredible what a lack of sleep can do to a person. Without enough sleep, you won’t be able to think, react, or perform to the best of your abilities both at work and at home. It will make it harder for you to make decisions, perform tasks, concentrate, and will even affect your relationships with family, friends, co-workers, and patients. It’s quite normal to feel edgy, irritable, and just have a lack of understanding in general when you’re so tired that you can’t think straight.
So, what is enough sleep? It is recommended that you get seven to nine hours of sleep each night. If that seems impossible, then you may want to use some of the many tips and tricks meant to make sleep come easier, and make it possible for you to stay asleep through the whole night.
Eat a Healthy, Well-Balanced Diet
Another key is to adopt a healthy eating lifestyle. This doesn’t mean going on some sort of crazy fad diet – what it means is making sure you have balance in your diet. The USDA Food Guide outlines what you should be choosing from each food group and how to essentially fill your plate. It can take all the questions out of healthy eating until you feel confident enough to make your own choices.
Keep in mind that eating fresh is always the best plan, and will provide you with the greatest number of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients.
Be sure to also stay well-hydrated, with water being your drink of choice.
It’s Okay to Say No Sometimes
Learning how to say no is also incredibly important and freeing. You can’t say yes to everything that comes your way, as you still need down-time for yourself. If you are constantly on the go and taking on one responsibility after another, if career-related burnout doesn’t get you, then personal life burnout will.
Set Up Personal Boundaries
Personal boundaries are another big thing to learn and adopt. When you are at work as a social worker, you will be discussing your client’s issues and problems – yours don’t have a place. This is typically something you would learn through school in an ethics-style class. If not, it doesn’t hurt to read up on ethics in the workplace and how to set and stick to personal boundaries.
Get Active and Engage in Physical Exercise
Stress is one of the main ingredients to social worker burnout, so a great way to not only to cope with it but also help prevent it is to work off your stress. One of the best stress reliefs out there is physical activity or exercise. This can mean joining a gym, a class, taking up a solo activity like jogging or biking, or even going for daily walks, which will all help to get your heart pumping and burn off some of that stress you’re feeling.
Besides combating stress, regular physical activity will also help to keep you healthy in general. This means you’ll have more energy, feel stronger, have a more positive outlook, and be able to fight off common colds and germs that much better.
Make Use of Your Holiday Time
If you’re the type who routinely doesn’t take advantage of your holidays and take time away, now is the time to make some major changes. Even if you don’t want to, or can’t afford to go away somewhere, a stay-cation is just as wonderful. The point is that you take time off work, you completely shut off, and not think about it at all. Be sure not to make yourself available while on holidays, you are not to be disturbed until your holidays are finished.
Another tip is to take single days off here and there rather than take a whole week or two at once. This will spread out your holidays throughout the year, and can provide you with recurring breaks from work if you will.
Don’t Be Afraid to Talk to Someone About Your Feelings
Finally, it’s important to recognize when you need help and not be afraid to ask for it. As a social worker, you are providing help to people all the time, and you better than anyone can see how beneficial that is for them. There is no shame in asking for help; in fact, it takes a strong person to recognize they need help and ask for it.
That support can come in the form of talking to a close friend or family member, or you can even speak to a counselor or therapist about how you’re feeling and make it more of a regular thing to check in with a professional. Professionals can offer some great tips and advice that are specific to you, your needs, and your lifestyle.
Taking Charge of Your Personal Well-Being
Social worker burnout isn’t just a passing phase, or a made-up term. This is a very real issue that faces social workers of all ages across the country. In order for you to be able to do your job to your best of your abilities, all while maintaining your own personal health and well-being, it’s important to make self-care a priority and get proactive in looking after yourself.
Photo credit: JBSA