Many who pursue social work careers are naturally compassionate with a high degree of empathy and an even higher work ethic. These are attributes that lend themselves well to working with clients and colleagues but make the need for awareness of possible burnout critical. From poverty and homelessness to mental illness and substance abuse, social workers serve our world’s most vulnerable populations but too often forget they’re vulnerable too.
Call it chronic work stress or compassion fatigue, burnout typically happens when social workers devote so much time and energy to taking care of their clients that it results in the neglect of their own mental and emotional well-being. Social workers are known for dealing with a routine of crushing, back-to-back caseloads. Many social workers spend most of their time among the communities they work with rather than in an office. They tend to be responsible for making an impact in immediate ways, whether attending court hearings, meeting with clients in their homes, supervising family visits, or advocating for their clients’ needs on the local, county, state, and national level.
It’s incredibly easy for social workers to feel overwhelmed by a rotating schedule of traumatic events, lacking resources and, sometimes, a sense of guilt at their inability to fully meet the demands of their many vulnerable clients.
Burnout is incredibly common in social work. In one survey of 1,000 practicing social workers, 34% self-reported a current state of burnout and 75% reported dealing with burnout at some point in their careers. In the same study, researchers found that while 7.8% of the general population experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) over a lifetime, 15% of the social workers surveyed met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD within the week before being surveyed.
More and more social workers are feeling tired and lonely at work. The more exhausted they are, the more isolated they feel, setting a cycle in motion that leads to feeling ashamed about their work. An experienced social worker who began to burn out after 24 years on the job described the experience like this:
"At first, I started to depersonalize from my clients, not “caring” about their situations as well as blaming them and everyone else for their problems. I isolated myself from colleagues and avoided participating in departmental meetings. Coworkers commented that they missed seeing me smile and hearing me laugh. Most importantly, I no longer felt passionate about my work and became disenchanted with the system as a whole."
Sound familiar? In cases of burnout, a lack of patience can often result in irritability, manifesting in feelings of ineffectiveness or uselessness, disappointment over a dip in productivity, worsening performance, or the sense that you're not able to do things like you used to.
Experienced social workers who have suffered the emotional ups and downs that go with the profession, advise taking a constant emotional self-inventory. “Don’t get used to feeling exhausted and frustrated with everything and everybody, telling yourself it goes with the job. That's heroism that leads to collapse. By recognizing the signs of burnout in yourself, you’ll be able to take action and minimize its effects on your work and life."
- Recognize that you are in a high stress profession that requires constant emotional self-monitoring to remain healthy.
- Persistent fatigue is an early sign of depression.
- Irritability is an early warning sign of burnout. Heed this sign.
- When caring deeply about your clients begins to feel like a burden you may be slipping into depression.
- If "the faster you go - the behinder you get", you are working too hard and taking on too much. You are falling into the "heroism" trap. It's time to set reasonable boundaries.
- Skipping meetings and social engagements because you're "too busy" or "too tired" is a warning sign of approaching burnout.
Experienced social workers who have struggled with depression and burnout shared the following insights:
- As a social worker, I knew that peer support would provide me with the tools to get better. I felt like people understood me and did not judge me or what I was experiencing. My social work training and experience taught me that feeling validated, empowered, accepted unconditionally, and encouraged were key to developing and maintaining hope for the future. Without hope, it’s hard to move forward on the recovery journey.
- I learned to set limits for myself. In fact, I learned to say no for the first time in my life without feeling guilty.
- Listening to others with similar experiences helped me identify how I was feeling, normalize my experiences, and encourage me toward accepting my mental health issues.
- I learned that I do not have to try to fix others.
- I no longer live with a sense of urgency. I have learned to slow down. Above all, setting my limits is crucial.
- I had to accept that I was not a “superwoman”.
- I needed to overcome my need for approval.
You Are Not Alone
The battle that social workers wage every day against injustice takes its toll. Do not be reluctant to seek help when the burden begins to weigh you down.
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