Last updated July 8, 2015
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Burnout and Self-Care in Social Work

A Guidebook for Students and Those in Mental Health and Related Professions

I love social work. Social work is my passion. It feels good to help people. I absolutely adore my job.

Social work is the bane of my existence. I wonder if I should have gone into a different field. I’m worn out. I don’t know if I’m making a difference.

Most social workers I know love the profession. It is hard work, for sure, but they feel fulfilled to be in a field in which they can make a difference in people’s lives and in our society at large. In recent years, with the advent of social media and the ability to express oneself in what seems to some to be a nonthreatening and anonymous way, I have seen a growing number of less-than-positive comments about the profession from within the profession. These comments come from social workers who have fallen out of love with social work, and they are not shy about expressing their disenchantment with what they had hoped would be their dream career. Is burnout on the rise, or are we just hearing more about it in today’s digital age? Either way, it seems that something is not quite right with this picture.

Exhausted. Too much to do. Not enough time. Love the profession.

I see posts similar to this regularly on The New Social Worker’s page on Facebook. This expresses what I hear from many social workers—that they are feeling overworked, frustrated, and burned out. They are feeling that they are constantly giving and not getting back. They feel unsupported when the work gets too hard and they need someone to listen. At the same time, they love the profession and want to continue to do the work. They don’t know what to do with this love-hate tug-of-war with social work. Some will simply leave the profession, thinking this is the only way out. Others will continue to struggle. What has been missing is guidance and support for social workers who are feeling this way.

Good social workers are not immune to the risk of burnout. Maybe you have been feeling this way yourself. Maybe you are wondering what other options you have: find another job, see a therapist, go on a long vacation?

We can start by talking about it. Burnout, compassion fatigue, and vicarious trauma don’t have to be endpoints at which time we say, “I’m fed up. I’ve had enough. I quit social work.” We need to talk about this in schools of social work, not to scare students or to say that it is inevitable that they will become burned out but to point out that there are risks and that there are things they can do to prevent burnout and to counteract it if and when it happens. We need to be proactive in providing and seeking out the support we as social workers need to be able to work effectively within a profession that presents these risks.

This is where SaraKay Smullens and this book come into the picture. I met SaraKay in 2012, when she proposed to write an article for The New Social Worker magazine, where I am the publisher and editor. That article, “What I Wish I Had Known—Burnout and Self-Care in Our Social Work Profession,” was published in the Fall 2012 issue. It received the 2013 NASW Media Award for Best Magazine Article. The article received 83,250 page views on The New Social Worker’s Web site in the one-year period from October 1, 2013, to September 30, 2014, making it the most read article on the site during that time period. I post the article link on The New Social Worker’s page on Facebook periodically, and as one example, when it was posted on September 20, 2014, it received 1,317 likes, 162 comments, and 457 shares and reached a total of 95,520 people. As of March 4, 2015, the article itself had received 31,286 “likes.” What all of this says to me is that a lot of social workers are looking for help with burnout and self-care, and SaraKay’s article resonates with them. That article also became the basis for this book.

Burnout and self-care are “hot” topics because they affect so many social workers. Too often, I hear social workers saying that they were not taught enough about burnout, compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, and countertransference. They feel unprepared for some of the realities of a social work career and perhaps even misled into idealistically believing they will feel fulfilled 100 percent of the time. It is time that we address these issues in our schools of social work and in our agencies. This book gives voice to predictable frustrations in a social worker’s experience. It fills a gap, bringing these issues out in the open, where they need to be.

The wonderful thing about this book is that SaraKay joins perspectives of experience and research. She is a social worker who has been there, and she readily shares her insights with her readers. In her 30+ years of experience, she has seen too many good social workers leave the profession, and she really cares about helping them to stay. She also has done thorough research on the topics of burnout and self-care through an extensive review of the existing literature. In addition, she surveyed real social workers for this book and has included their real-life stories. The result is a book that provides clear guidance for social workers, social work students, and those in related fields by not only defining what burnout and self-care are, but also providing real-life examples, suggestions, and questions. Each chapter follows a very clear outline and ends with questions for reflection.

I hope that social workers who are feeling burned out will read this book and discover that there is hope for them to find the love for our profession once again. I hope students and people new to the profession will read this book and learn how to prevent burnout, compassion fatigue, and vicarious trauma in their budding careers and to achieve compassion satisfaction. I encourage you to read and consider the questions at the end of each chapter, and apply them to your own life as a social worker.

With preparation and support, social workers can go beyond the difficult days and thrive in a fulfilling and meaningful profession. They can proactively use self-care to counter the stress of their everyday work. They can once again say, “I love social work,” and go home at the end of the day to a more balanced and happy life.

Linda May Grobman, MSW, ACSW, LSW
Publisher/Editor, The New Social Worker magazine