Given the emotional and demanding nature of social work, burnout is a significant problem among social workers.
As burnout often results in negative emotional and occupational repercussions, it is essential for social workers to recognize the warning signs, practice prevention, and engage in adequate self-care.
This article will delve into these topics, while also describing helpful resources from PositivePsychology.com. In doing so, it will provide social workers with the tools and information needed to carry out their invaluable work.
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Burnout in Social Work Explained
Social work is a noble profession. It is often entered into by those who wish to help vulnerable populations to achieve justice and receive vital support and services.
Given the nature of the job, social workers are often exposed to various aspects of human cruelty (e.g., abused or neglected children, domestic violence, etc.). As such, social work requires a high level of empathy and compassion.
Additionally, a career in social work is generally highly demanding, with large caseloads and minimal compensation. Imagine, for example, performing a job in which your caseload outweighs your time, your clients are victims of chronic abuse, and you barely earn enough money to pay your mortgage.
You may also have a supervisor who is overworked and cannot recognize your accomplishments or needs. This situation may cause compassion fatigue, which involves stress and emotional fatigue that results from the chronic use of empathy to help those suffering from trauma (Figley, 1995).
The concept of social work burnout is well exemplified in an article by Smullens (2012, p. 1), who noted how her social work supervisor often came home from work exhausted, telling his wife “They [his clients] feel better, but I surely do not.” This experience has also been referred to as ‘secondary or vicarious trauma,’ which occurs when social workers take on their clients’ stress and vulnerabilities (Wilson, 2016).
Of course, those who enter helping professions are often highly empathetic, caring individuals. As such, being exposed to their clients’ chronic challenges and health disparities becomes emotionally and physically taxing. This is especially likely when workloads and resources are mismatched to the degree that making a meaningful change is unlikely.
When this happens, social workers are at a heightened risk for feeling frustrated, depleted, and, ultimately, burned out. Indeed, the research literature supports a connection between high levels of burnout and stress among social workers relative to other occupations (Lloyd, King, & Chenoweth, 2002).
Indeed, in a study including 751 social workers, three-quarters of participants experienced burnout during their careers (Siebert, 2005). Considering these correlations, it is essential that social workers know the warning signs of burnout and take necessary steps toward preventing it.
16 Warning Signs of Burnout in Social Workers
If you’re a social worker who is concerned about potential burnout, here are several research studies that have identified warning signs to keep in mind:
- Lack of enthusiasm about work
- Reduced compassion or empathy for clients
- Mismatch between job rewards (e.g., compensation and recognition) and performance
- A non-collaborative workplace
- Feeling a lack of job control, which minimizes autonomy
- Depression symptoms
- Job cynicism
- Sense of resignation about work
- Quick-temperedness with colleagues or family
- Self-medicating behavior
Kim, Ji, and Kao (2011)
- Role ambiguity
- High work challenges
- Lack of autonomy
- High role conflict
Schaufeli, Leiter, and Maslach (2009)
- Poor fit between values of the social worker and those of the organization
- Workload responsibilities out of balance with the social worker’s needs and priorities
Overall, if you find you dread going to work each day and are exhausted when you return home, you may be suffering from burnout. If this is a concern, it may be helpful to ask yourself the following questions as outlined by the Mayo Clinic (2021):
- Are you feeling disillusioned about your career?
- Are you having difficulty concentrating?
- Do you no longer find satisfaction in your achievements?
- Are you having trouble sleeping?
- Are you trying to numb or distract yourself from your feelings?
- Are you irritable with clients or coworkers?
- Are you experiencing physical symptoms such as headaches or digestive problems?
Along with recognizing the red flags above, it also is important to remember that increased burnout is associated with fewer years of social work practice (Weekes, 2011).
Therefore, if you are dedicated to social work, but new to the job, hang in there. As long as you know the warning signs and practice plenty of self-care, you will probably feel better as you accumulate experience and confidence in your role.
Preventing Burnout: The Importance of Self-Care
Have patience with all things. But, first of all, with yourself.
Francis de Sales
Engaging in adequate self-care is essential among social workers, as it helps to protect against the stress that accompanies repeated exposure to traumatized populations.
According to Salloum, Kondrat, Johnco, and Olson (2015, p. 54), trauma-informed self-care (TISC) involves “being aware of one’s own emotional experience in response to exposure to traumatized clients and planning/engaging in positive coping strategies.”
By engaging in TISC, social workers benefit from coping strategies that help to moderate the negative impact of working with highly vulnerable clients (Salloum et al., 2015). Research has indicated that TISC is related to higher levels of compassion satisfaction and reduced burnout among child welfare case managers (Salloum et al., 2015).
Similarly, Weekes (2011) assessed 185 members of the National Association of Social Workers for both burnout and self-care. The results showed that depersonalization and emotional exhaustion were significantly lower among those who engaged in higher levels of self-care.
Engaging in self-care represents an important way for social service workers to experience greater job satisfaction with a diminished likelihood of burnout.
30 Self-Care Activities for Social Workers
As important as it is to have a plan for doing work, it is perhaps more important to have a plan for rest, relaxation, self-care, and sleep.
Researchers investigating the role of self-care in preventing the likelihood of burnout among social workers have reported many effective self-care approaches, with over 30 presented below.
- Engage in physical or behavioral strategies (e.g., dancing, hiking, sports, deep breathing, etc.)
- Engage in relational strategies (e.g., spend time with pets; talk about feelings with colleagues, significant others, supervisors, etc.)
- Engage in cognitive strategies (e.g., distract yourself with music, movies, etc.; avoid exposing yourself to stress or trauma when outside of work, etc.)
Salloum et al. (2015)
- Seek supervision
- Attend trainings on secondary trauma
- Balance your caseloads
- Ensure work–life balance
- Seek continuing education on the effects of trauma
- Take advantage of agency resources
- Set realistic goals
- Attend therapy as needed
- Engage in stress management activities, such as meditation
- Be cognizant of your emotional response to traumatized clients
Here are 17 more self-care suggestions:
- Don’t bring work home. Home should be your respite from the day’s stress. Keep it that way by avoiding discussions or reminders of work once your shift is over.
- Take advantage of vacation days. Always, always use your vacation days. It is a wonderful way to restore your emotional wellbeing, along with your connection with significant others. Besides, you earned that time off.
- Talk to friends and family. Sharing with others is a great way to get a reality check, as well as to generate ideas about how to avoid burnout.
- Find an artistic release. Whether it’s music, drawing, working with clay, or any other artistic endeavor, engaging in art enhances a sense of flow and happiness.
- Get plenty of sleep. Adequate sleep is essential to emotional and physical health. Do not skimp on it.
- Reward yourself. Whether it’s a vacation or simply a cup of tea, take the time to reward yourself for your hard work.
- Read a good book. Reading is a healthy way to escape from a stressful day. By taking the time to read, you will feel more relaxed and might even sleep better.
- Avoid self-medicating. If you find yourself craving a drink or some other drug at the end of the workday, this could escalate into a problem. Try to find healthier coping mechanisms, such as exercise or talking to a friend.
- Get a massage. If you enjoy massages and they are feasible, then go for it. Massage helps with both physical and emotional tension, and it is also a great way to reward yourself.
- Go on outings. Simply getting away for the day or the weekend is often highly restorative.
- Make your health a priority. If you are putting your health last, both your work and your health will deteriorate. Always make time for sleep, exercise, doctor visits, and healthy meals.
- Don’t be too hard on yourself. Social workers deal with terrible trauma. And while they make a huge impact, they can’t save everyone. Know that you aren’t a miracle worker, but are doing the best you can.
- Spend time in nature. Many people feel invigorated by a hike in the woods, canoeing, bird watching, going to the beach, or being around animals. If you enjoy nature, get outside and reap the rewards.
- Pamper yourself. Remember: You are performing a highly demanding job that takes a lot out of you. Be kind to yourself.
- Go for walks. Along with the benefits of exercise, walking may take your mind off of your workday while providing fresh air.
- Take on a new hobby. Regardless of your skill level or interests, doing something hands-on (e.g., woodworking, knitting, gardening, etc.) is always good for the soul.
- Ensure that the job is the best fit for you. If you are feeling burned out despite experiencing an adequate work–life balance and engaging in plenty of self-care, it may be time to examine whether you are in the right field. Your job should be rewarding and not leave you emotionally depleted. Remember, there is no shame in exploring other opportunities if you are consistently stressed and dissatisfied.
PositivePsychology.com’s Helpful Resources
We have many terrific resources here at PositivePsychology.com that help to identify, prevent, and cope with burnout among social workers. First, here are three useful articles:
- Warning Signs of Burnout: 13 Reliable Tests & Questionnaires. If you are worried that you might be experiencing burnout, this article will help you identify key warning signs. It contains multiple questionnaires, tests, inventories, and checklists to help you recognize the signs and symptoms.
- Recovering from Job Burnout: 31 Ways to Foster Work–Life Balance. Once you’ve established that you are indeed suffering from job burnout, this article will help you get back on track by providing strategies aimed at promoting work–life balance and dealing with compassion fatigue (particularly among social workers). It also includes multiple tips and strategies for both preventing and coping with burnout.
- Self-Care for Therapists: 12 Strategies for Preventing Practitioner Burnout. This article is specifically aimed at promoting self-care among mental health professionals. It contains a background regarding the importance of self-care among this group, along with real-life examples of self-care plans, self-care strategies, helpful books, worksheets, and tips.
Along with these articles, the PositivePsychology.com Toolkit also contains a treasure trove of excellent self-care activities designed to prevent and deal with burnout. Here are four examples:
This resource is aimed at providing therapists and coaches with self-care strategies intended to prevent or manage burnout. It includes a list of 20 ideas, such as cultivating sacred moments, engaging in ‘me’ time, and practicing gratitude. Of course, the type of self-care strategies from which a person will benefit is individualized, but this tool will help to generate many ideas.
Self-Care Vision Board
This tool provides a creative and fun way to identify self-care activities and to design an inspirational vision board. It contains the following four steps:
- Brainstorm self-care activities — List as many self-care activities as possible while ensuring that they are enjoyable and in line with your values and lifestyle.
- Collect images for your vision board — Collect inspiring images (e.g., photos, magazine clippings, etc.) that will be used for a vision board.
- Collect encouraging words that will make your vision board even more inspiring.
- Put it all together and create your self-care vision board.
This excellent tool also includes a comprehensive list of activities across the domains of emotional, social, spiritual, and physical self-care.
Countering Compassion Fatigue
Compassion fatigue is a significant problem among social workers. This tool comprises a meditation approach designed for therapists at risk for compassion fatigue. It is intended to help individuals cultivate meaningful connections with others and enhance self-compassion. It contains the following four steps:
- Find a comfortable position and place one hand over your heart while you stay in the moment.
- Savor your breath by breathing slowly and deeply while noticing how breath nourishes and soothes your body.
- Alternate focusing on your in breath as you visualize something good for yourself, and on your out breath, visualize something good for someone else.
- Bring your full attention to yourself while breathing gently and intentionally, and direct your compassion inward.
Overall, this mindfulness approach is a great way to practice self-focused lovingkindness and compassion.
Creating Flow Experiences
This technique helps individuals increase the amount of flow in their daily lives. Flow is the psychological experience of being fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment during an activity. The tool contains the following six steps:
- Brainstorm flow activities — Write down as many flow activities as possible.
- Top three flow activities — Drawing from the above list, identify the top three activities.
- Assess feasibility — Of the top activities, identify one that you can engage in once a week.
- Meet flow conditions — Ensure that three flow conditions are met. These include the following:
- What is it I want to achieve or gain from this activity?
- How will I know how well I am doing while doing this activity?
- Given my current skill level, how challenging does this activity need to be to keep me interested and engaged?
- Start flowing — Now determine when you can schedule flow activities in the next week. In doing so, the following must be taken into account:
- Time needed
- Day of week and time of day
- Materials needed
- Involvement of others
- Evaluation — Finally, after completing the flow activity, write about your flow experience.
Ultimately, this exercise can enhance emotional wellbeing by guiding individuals in experiencing the effortless enjoyment of being ‘in the zone.’
A Take-Home Message
As social workers well know, “anyone who confronts the system day in and day out will tell you that residual trauma is real” (Barnett, n.d.).
The tireless and honorable work of those who give a voice to the vulnerable takes its toll in terms of compassion fatigue and burnout.
Fortunately, by knowing the red flags and engaging in adequate self-care, these outcomes may be avoided or diminished. In doing so, social workers will be better able to experience a rewarding career that is of invaluable benefit to individuals, families, and society as a whole.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Mindfulness Exercises for free.
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- Barnett, B. (n.d.). Retrieved on June 30, 2021, from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/self-care?page=2
- Brost, A. (n.d.). Retrieved on June 30, 2021, from https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/18384561.Akiroq_Brost
- de Sales, F. (n.d.). Retrieved on June 30, 2021, from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/842634-have-patience-with-all-things-but-first-with-yourself-never
- Diaconescu, M. (2015). Burnout, secondary trauma and compassion fatigue in social work. Social Work Review, 14, 57–63.
- Figley, C. (1995). Compassion fatigue: Coping with secondary traumatic stress disorder. Brunner/Mazel.
- Freudenberger, H. (1975). The staff burnout syndrome in alternative institutions. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 12(1), 72–83.
- Kim, H., Ji, J., & Kao, D. (2011). Burnout and physical health among social workers: A three-year longitudinal study. Social Work, 56(3), 258–268.
- Lloyd, C., King, R., & Chenoweth, L. (2002). Social work, stress and burnout: A review. Journal of Mental Health, 11(3), 255–265.
- Mayo Clinic, (2021, June 5). Job burnout: How to spot it and take action. Retrieved on June 30, 2021, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/burnout/art-20046642
- Salloum, A., Kondrat, D., Johnco, C., & Olson, K. R. (2015). The role of self-care on compassion satisfaction, burnout and secondary trauma among child welfare workers. Children & Youth Services Review, 49, 54–61.
- Schaufeli, W., Leiter, M., & Maslach, C. (2009). Burnout: 35 years of research and practice. Career Development International, 14(3), 204–220.
- Siebert, D. (2005). Personal and occupational factors in burnout among practicing social workers: Implications for researchers, practitioners, and managers. Journal of Social Service Research, 32(2), 25–55.
- Smullens, S. K. (2012). What I wish I had known: Burnout and self-care in our social work profession. The New Social Worker. Retrieved on June 30, 2021, from https:///www.socialworker.com/feature-articles/field-placement/What_I_Wish_I_Had_Known_Burnout_and_Self-Care_in_Our_Social_Work_Profession/
- Weekes, J. (2011). The relationship of self-care to burnout among social workers in health care settings (Doctoral dissertation, Walden University).
- Wilson, F. (2016). Identifying, preventing, and addressing job burnout and vicarious burnout for social work professionals. Journal of Evidence-Informed Social Work, 13(5), 479–483.