The FAMCare Blog

Empathy To Burnout

Posted by GVT Admin on Jan 18, 2023 10:45:00 AM

Empathy to Burnout in social workers Research shows that social service professionals exhibit a greater capacity for empathy than most of their contemporaries in other professions. Studies also show that this “ability to understand and share the feelings of another” is what motivates well-meaning young people to go into social work in the first place. The irony, however, is that this same capacity to “share the feelings of another” is also the primary cause of burnout among caseworkers.


Burnout is a combination of mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion. While employees in many fields experience burnout, social service professionals are particularly susceptible because of the high levels of empathy required by their jobs. They also experience the stress of working with clients who are often in crisis and of working for an agency where resources may be scarce. It is intrinsic to their work that social workers strive to ease their clients’ suffering, which can lead to emotional and physical depletion.


Christina Borel, who teaches at Simmons School of Social Work, is a social work administrator who encourages her team of clinicians to practice self-care to mitigate burnout. According to Borel, this means creating an environment with “flexible scheduling, lots of continuing education, identifying opportunities for growth and development, increasing time off, and including self-care in their job descriptions, evaluations, and agenda for weekly supervision.” Borel adds, “Another way that we practice self-care at my agency is to actively identify and develop practices that help us “sustain hope in the midst of suffering.” 

Relentless Stressrelentless stress in social work

Feelings of empathy for clients who are in the continuing grip of suffering are particularly stress producing for the social service professional because, by the very nature of the job, the surrounding suffering never abates. Just when the social worker has provided some relief for one client another client is falling prey to their unique pain. To the social worker all suffering is suffering. Even though individual clients may find some relief, empathetic social workers are continuously burdened with their clients’ ongoing collective suffering.

Sustaining Hope

When the intensity of this collective suffering is unabated “all hope is lost”. This is the stressful state that leads to social worker burnout. Borel and her associates suggest the following techniques for sustaining hope when dealing with the unrelenting wave of human suffering that is the social worker’s stock in trade.

  1. Set short-term achievable goals every day. Break down your obligations to small, attainable chunks.
  2. Attach your goals to individual clients. When each one makes progress, it helps you feel hopeful.
  3. You may be tempted to give up on the “human race” but do not give up on your individual clients.
  4. Tell yourself you can quit tomorrow. “You need to do what you need to for today, but you can quit tomorrow. When tomorrow comes, tell yourself the same thing,” says Elise Magnuson, who teaches an assessment and diagnosis class.
  5. Just say NO. Decline to do tasks that will add extra stress to your life. For social service professionals, this can be difficult because they don’t want to disappoint people who are relying on them.
  6. Ask for help. It is OK to remember that even the strongest “helper” needs help at times. You may be tempted to appear “almighty” to your clients but don’t kid yourself. You are probably not kidding your friends and colleagues so turn to them for help when you feel threatened.
  7. If you’re feeling anxiety or stress in certain situations, your brain and body are trying to tell you something. Listen to what your emotions are saying about what you need. In other words, you are your own best expert. Listen to yourself.

Hope Springs Eternal

Caseworkers are fountains of empathy and hope. Be careful not to burn your candle down to the wick or your eternal light could wink out.

What Others are Reading on The FAMCare Blog: 

4 Time Management Tips for Social Workers

Holiday Survival Guide for Social Workers

Case Worker Burnout = Turnover 

4 Ways to Become a Stronger Advocate for Your Health

Topics: case worker stress relief, case manager stress relief

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