With everything we need to learn during our MSW programs to become social workers, we don’t spend a lot of time talking about the social worker life itself, and specifically about burnout. Burnout is what happens when we do an excellent job taking care of our clients at the expense of ourselves. Some symptoms of burnout include becoming rigid or closed to input from colleagues, irritability, quickness to anger, compassion fatigue, anxiety and depression. Symptoms often occur in the work environment or can manifest in overall negative feelings about clients and the work we do. Burnout is the natural emotional exhaustion that results from spending forty hours or more per week giving to others and forgetting to take care of ourselves.
One specific type of burnout that’s receiving a lot of attention at the moment is Secondary Trauma Stress. This is when helping professionals exhibit symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after extensive work with clients in traumatic situations. Symptoms include feelings of hopelessness, lack of self-care, chronic exhaustion, poor boundaries, cynicism, social withdrawal, minimizing, and sleeplessness. There are both informal and formal assessment measures social workers and supervisors can use to assess whether workers are experiencing Secondary Trauma Stress.
Burnout can happen to the best of us, and it doesn’t make us bad people or bad social workers, but we do need to recognize it and know how to eliminate the problem.
Tips for Avoiding Burnout
Take Care of Your Body and Brain
It’s easy to go home and veg out in front of the TV after a long, stressful day, and it’s tempting to blow off steam and forget about your stressful job with the help of drugs and alcohol. However, this is exactly what we teach our clients to avoid doing. Lead by example in your personal life. Making healthy choices can help you deal with the unavoidable stress of being a helper.
This is both the easiest and hardest way to prevent burnout because it’s entirely up to you to find the time and energy to care for yourself. Social workers have an uncanny ability to think of a million reasons why they should not take a vacation, treat themselves, or spend time doing something non-work related that they love. In a time when workers are being asked to do more with less, it is especially important that you make time to take care of yourself. If this is something you and your peers at work all seem to be struggling with, form a buddy-system where you can hold each other accountable.
The relationship you have with your supervisor is one of the most important tools to preventing burnout. If your supervisory situation is such that you do not feel that it is a safe place for you to talk things through, find a colleague you feel comfortable with whose insight might be more helpful. If you are the boss at work, find a community group, such as your local chapter of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), and partner with other social workers for support.
Educate Your Colleagues and Leaders about Secondary Trauma Stress
As a continuing education concept, Secondary Trauma Stress is still pretty new. It’s something that can easily go unrecognized, especially in organizations where folks are over-extended or understaffed. As such, these toxic work environments are the agencies where Secondary Trauma Stress is most likely.
Make time to attend conferences, participate in local, state, and national social work organizations, and join online social media groups with others in your practice area. Sometimes talking through the emotions you’re experiencing and knowing that you are not alone with those feelings makes all the difference in the world. Additionally, learning new tricks or techniques at a conference may be the refresher you need to take a new approach to your work.
Like passengers on an airplane, we have to put on our own oxygen masks before we can help others. We can’t do our best work with our clients if we are tired, stressed, angry, or otherwise overwhelmed. Social workers are human beings, after all!