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Burnout and Self-Care in Social Work, 2nd Edition
A Guidebook for Students and Those in Mental Health and Related Professions
SaraKay Smullens
ISBN: 978-0-87101-570-9. 2021. Item #5709. 160 pages.
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Exhausted. Stressed. Overwhelmed. Distraught.

These words describe the state of mind of many social workers. There is no shortage of causes: overwhelming caseloads, limited budgets, complex and divergent responsibilities, and secondary trauma, all against a background of political unrest, systemic racism, dysfunctional leadership, and a global pandemic. It is no wonder that many question whether they can survive in the profession.

The first edition of Burnout and Self-Care in Social Work was a breakout hit, providing a guiding light for those who were struggling. In the second edition, author SaraKay Smullens has updated the text to reflect our evolving understanding of burnout. Once again, Smullens defines creative strategies for self-care and personal growth. In this edition, impacted by difficult, challenging times, Smullens introduces a fifth dimension, societal burnout, to her examination of personal, professional, relational, and physical burnout. She has also expanded on the attendant syndromes, or “wake-up calls,” that tell us burnout is imminent and shows us how moral distress and injury negatively affect all those who are devoted to a just and ethical society.

For those who are struggling, these pages offer opportunities for reflection, redirection, and hope. Whether you are a student preparing to enter the field or a professional at your wits’ end, let Burnout and Self-Care in Social Work be your guide to find direction and balance, better serve your clients, and increase your personal and professional fulfillment.
About the Author

Chapter 1: Burnout: Backdrop, Definition, and the Four Attendant Syndromes
Chapter 2: Arenas of Burnout
Chapter 3: From Compassion Fatigue to Compassion Satisfaction
Chapter 4: Introducing Self-Care: An Overview
Chapter 5: Professional Self-Care
Chapter 6: Self-Care in the Personal, Relational, Societal, and Physical Arenas

SaraKay Smullens, LCSW, ACSW, BCD, DCSW, CGP, CFLE, whose private and pro bono clinical social work practice is in Philadelphia, is a certified group psychotherapist and family life educator. In addition to her clinical emphasis, a long-standing professional priority has been to bring social work awareness and committed mental health insights to the public at large, and through this process join those devoted to addressing and alleviating divisiveness and rage in families, work settings, and society through education, advocacy, and activism.

SaraKay’s activist roots began in her childhood in Baltimore, watching the enforced evils of segregation through the Jim Crow laws. During her two years at Skidmore College, she engaged actively in an array of civil rights activities. Due to the ill health of her mother, SaraKay transferred to Baltimore’s Goucher College, where as a commuting student she successfully led a two-year campus coalition to end segregation in Towson, Maryland, the Baltimore suburb where Goucher College is located. A graduation award for this initiative led to an introduction to John F. Kennedy at the Democratic Convention in 1960, and subsequent employment at the Democratic National Committee, where she became a regional coordinator for young Democrats. It was President Kennedy who recommended social work to her as a profession. In graduate school at Catholic University’s National Catholic School of Social Service in Washington, DC, when President Kennedy was assassinated, she transferred to the University of Pennsylvania to complete her degree, where her scholarship and stipend were continued.

As director of Family Life Education at Philadelphia’s Jewish Family Service, a highly regarded sectarian agency committed to use of a sliding scale to determine fees, SaraKay found it morally impossible to turn away those of different religions seeking help. As an alternative, on her intake days, she asked if those seeking appointments were descended from Abraham. Her boss, executive director, Ben Sprafkin, a committed social worker, was at first furious, but when he calmed, he told her to “carry on.” Soon after, SaraKay learned that her close friend and assistant, Roz Blanton (who served tea to the multicultural rainbow coalition in their small waiting area) was fighting a virulent form of cancer with no health insurance. SaraKay led the agency’s first negotiating team walk-out to put health insurance for support staff on the negotiation table. As a result, insurance was extended to these essential staff members.

When Lynne Abraham became Philadelphia’s first woman District Attorney, she offered SaraKay an extraordinary pro bono opportunity: With the input of psychiatric consultation, she would work with staff to carefully select first offenders in domestic violence cases in which there were no fatalities for intensive therapy in lieu of incarceration. SaraKay’s approach involved intensive group psychotherapy, augmented by individual, couple, and family therapy and family life education.

SaraKay’s articles and commentaries have appeared in peer-reviewed journals, newspapers, magazines, and blogs. Her stories about domestic abuse contributed to the reform of brutal, archaic Pennsylvania divorce laws. Her investigation of invisible patterns of emotional abuse, always part of physical and sexual violence, led to their independent codification. It also led to an initiative focused on the involvement of Philadelphia clergy, identified as “a missing link” in addressing the epidemic of domestic abuse and violence and the founding of the Sabbath of Domestic Peace Coalition. More than five years of research into an evidence-based understanding of burnout and the self-care strategies to address and prevent it led to the first edition of this book.

SaraKay’s professional papers and memorabilia are divided between the Archives of the University of Pennsylvania, Goucher College, and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. A recipient of numerous awards and a bestselling author, in 2019 SaraKay was one of five graduates of the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice inducted into its Inaugural Hall of Fame.
The second edition is essential reading for all social workers, whose profession is committed to specific values such as service, dignity and worth of the person, integrity, and competence. SaraKay Smullens offers vital counsel to social workers and other service providers to counter exhaustion. I am honored to recommend this indispensable book, written by one of our graduates, an exceptional social worker who personifies the very best of the profession.

Sara S. Bachman, PhD
Dean, School of Social Policy & Practice
University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia


The first edition of Burnout and Self-Care in Social Work was an essential read for students in mental health and related fields. The text addressed an unmet need, offering research-backed explanations of the interaction of personal, professional, relational, and physical burnout, as well as effective self-care strategies leading to fulfillment. In her second edition, SaraKay Smullens expands this thesis. She underscores the cost of societal burnout in all arenas of life and the societal care necessary to restore hope and direction and protect citizenry and our fragile democracy.

Aaron T. Beck, MD
Father of cognitive therapy
Emeritus professor of psychiatry
University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia


As an attorney whose career has been leading nonprofit organizations advocating for equal justice and opportunity for all, I met SaraKay Smullens through my support of the Sabbath of Domestic Peace initiative described in this edition. Her voice and clarity of direction were key then and remain so today. This highly readable, thoughtful, and timely book is a must-read not only for mental health professionals but also anyone who cares about making the world a better place. Of special interest is an emphasis on the importance of standing up for what is important to you as a self-care strategy, and an explanation of the often-overlooked “interactive flow” among our personal, professional, and political worlds. I found the author’s integration of experience, insights, and analysis to be compelling and uplifting, and, in this time of grave challenge, inspirational. Smullens doesn’t merely lay out problems. Her research offers strategies to acknowledge, understand, and address numbing overload—as individuals, as institutions, as society at large.

Lynn A. Marks, Esq.
Faculty, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute
Temple University, Philadelphia


SaraKay Smullens, a friend of long standing, is the wisest woman I know. Her second edition of Burnout is a brave, clarifying, and brilliant resource for anyone who has ever experienced life as an overwhelming encyclopedia with no index, and struggles with direction for how to balance enormous responsibilities successfully, with care and grace. As in the first edition, SaraKay offers an evidence-based text addressing how to protect yourself and heal when exhausted from giving too much, and leaving too little in reserve. In this new work she conceptualizes far more. Her case histories and journal entries that begin most chapters are what I see as “life poetry” underscoring finely turned, clearly written examinations and explanations. As a journalist and documentary filmmaker, I can attest that the truths offered in this work parallel what I have seen again and again through work and life. When loved safely and securely, the vulnerable among us can blossom. If unloved, the privileged can destroy us.

Bonnie Strauss
Award-winning journalist and filmmaker


Most people do not have the time or patience to enter intensive therapy to build on capacities for empathy, compassion, and what Smullens aptly calls an “emotional sense of direction.” Self-care is required and, to that end, this work offers a panoply of focused, evidence-based self-care strategies and hard-won guideposts (such as the six-point InnerSelf Dialogue) we each can use when confused about direction or choice, or when life seems to defeat us.

Arthur Spector, BS, JD
Emeritus chair, Rosenbach Museum and Library


SaraKay Smullens’s clear delineation of four attendant syndromes and five arenas of burnout lay the foundation for the importance of self-care in social work practice. The groundbreaking concepts of societal burnout and societal care, new to this second edition, are especially relevant to today’s social climate. Another crucial element is inclusion of the need for organizational and supervisory support for social workers’ self-care. SaraKay’s deep caring for the profession and her colleagues is evident in her precisely written words and engaging real-life case examples.

Linda May Grobman, MSW, ACSW, LSW
Publisher and editor, The New Social Worker magazine


Burnout and Self-Care in Social Work is an outgrowth of professional experiences along with genuine tools for self-reflection that can be applied to any profession. I found myself wishing I had read this during my early years as a nurse manager. Then, I realized that I most needed this book, and a path forward, when I first became a nurse 35 years ago! The questions for reflection struck me as worksheets, perhaps accompanied with pages for journaling. I envisioned using some as a wife, health care professional, caregiver, and so on, as well as a corporate director of a department employing over 200 health care professionals, where I often coach new managers in their work with teams. There are many excellent books on management techniques. However, the contributions in this edition, notably those at the conclusion of the chapter on professional self-care, touched me with new lessons that could be used far more effectively for many issues teams face today. Burnout and Self-Care is a valuable personal and professional resource, one now a part of my life.

Ann Marie Marks, BSN, RN, MBA, CCM
Health care consultant and former state director
Commission for Children with Special Health Care Needs
Bowling Green, Kentucky


With the extraordinary events in recent years the need for Burnout and Self-Care in Social Work has grown even more urgent. Through an examination of turbulent events of the last 22 months, SaraKay has updated her seminal book with deeper insights, providing suggestions for ways to remain effective as a front-line worker. This edition is a very important publication.

Franklyn Rodgers, BSEC
Chair emeritus, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia


The second edition is a go-to touchstone for people in the social work and mental health fields. The entity of burnout was under-recognized for many years, but more recently—partly through the research of SaraKay Smullens—the dangerous syndrome has become part of the lexicon. Most studies illuminate professional burnout, but Smullens’s synthesis is more expansive. This second edition introduces societal burnout to the four interactive arenas previously noted; alerts readers to the signals of overload in each arena and, if unrecognized, the subsequent sequelae; distinguishes burnout from depression; and most important, provides a road map for self-care for each. A must-read for those in mental health and related fields.

Alice Goodman, MA
Medical and health writer


This second edition of Smullens’s study provides long-called-for balance, integration, and common sense. She offers an undiluted discussion of societal burnout, racism, and the toll of leadership dysfunction in families, work, and sociopolitical settings, leading to hate, discord, and violence. Her mastery of complex psychodynamics, often overlooked, adds important developmental understanding. I welcome her emphasis that many painful events and losses suffered are life realities, not psychiatric illnesses.

Roger Gould, MD
Board-certified psychiatrist, psychoanalyst,
Former head of Community Psychiatry and Outpatient Psychiatry
University of California–Los Angeles


An insightful, unafraid, and engaging read. In such challenging times, we feel inspired by Smullens’s research and insights. We are proud of our Bubbie for writing this book.

Josh, Stella, Lucy, Amelia, and Charlotte Rose


As a young social worker, I would have appreciated this book for many reasons. As is true for most students and social workers new to our field, I was thrown into work settings where I was treating the most traumatized populations. Often I would find myself not getting off at my subway stop, having nightmares, or sobbing while watching the news. While I was able to maintain professional distance while at work, I had nowhere to digest and metabolize the profound trauma I was seeing all day every day. The information in SaraKay’s book was not available 25 years ago; I just kind of got by and fortunately had good supervisors along the way, who helped me to process my feelings. The information in Burnout and Self-Care would have been invaluable to me. The writing is clear, direct, and accessible. It is informative and very helpful in supporting social workers as we face the confusing and overwhelming feelings and behaviors our clients bring to us, as well as our own. I highly recommend this book to all of those in the mental health and related fields hoping to have a long-term sustainable career.

Rebecca Nidorf, MSW, LCSW-R
Director, BRAVE Program
Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY


SaraKay Smullens shows us the way from the darkness of burnout to the light of positivity and wellness. A gifted practitioner and astute student of her field, Smullens becomes a friend whose caring presence shines throughout this uplifting, hopeful, and eminently practical book.

Laurie Graham
Editor, Whoever Said Life Is Fair?


Burnout and Self Care is a thoughtful and compassionate study of the challenges facing those working to solve family problems and offers a wise and practical guide to handle professional burnout.

Flora L. Becker, Esq.
Former permanent hearing officer
Master in support and custody cases
Philadelphia Family Court


I write truthfully about my experience, for I want readers to avoid what I regard as my greatest mistake of judgment. Years ago I left a child therapy practice, one extremely important to me, because I grew isolated and overwhelmed, feeling as if I were on a racing train heading for disaster. At that time there was no name for what I experienced. However, Burnout and Self-Care crystalizes that I was suffering from the unaddressed, advanced progression of burnout. Had the awareness and direction offered in this succinct, well-researched, and practical book been available to me, I would have continued to make a positive difference in the lives of children and adolescents, as well as achieve deep gratification for myself in a long-term practice. I recommend this book to teachers, physical therapists, nurses, physicians, lawyers, police officers, firemen, parents—all who wish to be kinder to themselves, feel less drained, temper expectations, and achieve less-fraught professional practice and life balance.

Florence R. Hart, MSW
Credentialed child psychotherapist


When I was writing Cherishment, SaraKay and I had frequent conversations. We were aware that so many clinicians as well as enormous numbers in caregiving roles suffered from an imbalance—they were quite adept at giving, giving, giving, but faced intense difficulty receiving—for many and complex reasons. SaraKay clarifies the necessity for balance starkly—the perils of not taking care of oneself lead to catastrophic results. Unaddressed burnout literally puts out the light in one’s heart, one’s family life, and one’s professional endeavors; more widely, society becomes darker and darker. The antidote is more cherishing of self, others, society, Mother Earth.

Faith Bethelard, PsyD
Coauthor of Cherishment: A Psychology of the Heart (with Elisabeth Young-Bruehl)

Click here to hear an interview with the book’s author, SaraKay Smullens, on the NASW Social Work Talks podcast!
Earn 5.0 CEUs for reading this title! For more information, visit the Social Work Online CE Institute.