Social workers are so busy helping other people that they often fail to take care of themselves. Without proper care, social workers can suffer from burnout, which can include fatigue, depression, anxiety, and anger.
Social worker burnout is a real issue that can manifest itself at work and home. Social workers experiencing burnout can experience negative and cynical feelings about the people in their care. Burnout often happens when social workers are working hard but not taking time to relax and unwind.
Why Burnout Happens
In a 2006 study about social worker burnout, researchers found that 75 percent experienced burnout during their careers. This experience is all too common, and while social workers learn techniques to care for others, they often do not know how to care for their personal well-being. Many social workers have turned to life coaching and other forms of mentorship to help deal with stress.
Social workers are often overworked and have heavy caseloads without much outside support. Because they are so busy, social workers often choose to work through their lunches. Many avoid taking vacations because travel and relaxation take them away from their clients and their families.
Add to the issue that social workers spend a significant amount of time in court, at client homes, and out in public, they need to finish paperwork on their own time – outside of the 40-hour workweek. Eventually, all of this work becomes too much, and social worker burnout happens.
What is Secondary Trauma?
Social worker burnout happens because social workers have emotional demands that workers in other industries do not. Social workers help clients who have been traumatized, and social workers often internalize the trauma themselves. Secondary trauma occurs when social workers suffer from the trauma their clients feel.
Because social workers are compassionate and empathetic, they have a vulnerability to secondary trauma. Therefore, they need to be aware of their feelings and how burnout shows itself. Secondary trauma is also known as compassion fatigue. It is a natural effect of working with traumatized people.
Social workers can experience secondary trauma stress, which is similar in nature to post-traumatic stress disorder. The symptoms are similar and include:
- Social withdrawal
- Lack of self-care
- Reflexive startle
These symptoms often appear after working with clients with too much trauma in their lives. When social workers do not take care of their own emotional and professional needs, they suffer. Eventually, their work suffers, too.
Noticing the Signs of Social Worker Burnout
Social workers and their supervisors should look for signs of social worker burnout. Once the signs appear, social workers need to begin practicing self-care.
Social worker burnout first shows itself with frustration and lack of patience toward clients and colleagues. Burned-out social workers often become frustrated at home, too. This lack of patience can show up as irritability and disappointment. Social workers – who once could regroup when faced with a challenge – find that stress is aggravating and unconquerable.
Social workers overreact to minor problems and snap at clients and colleagues. Supervisors notice that burned-out social workers often have a drop in their performance, as they cannot handle a heavy caseload like they once did.
Increased Fatigue and Loneliness
Social workers who are struggling with burnout often find that they are lonely and tired. The two go hand-in-hand, as their exhaustion only increases their isolation. They do not want to spend time with other people, and they often use their fatigue as an excuse.
Social workers, by nature, tend to be gregarious – as they choose to work with people. Supervisors should notice the increased isolation. Family and friends should notice their loved one’s absence too.
Jumpy and Anxious
When social workers show their first signs of burnout, they become jumpy and anxious. They startle quickly and show a sense of unease. This happens when they have taken in their clients’ trauma and are experiencing it vicariously. They become hypersensitive and often respond with a reflexive startle response.
When startled, those who are experiencing PTSD-like symptoms cover their necks, faces, and other vulnerable body parts. Stress manifests in unexpected ways, and as their clients experience trauma, they do, too. Social workers who are anxious might find it challenging to listen to their clients talk about their trauma.
Dealing with Social Worker Burnout
Fortunately, social workers can learn to manage their burnout by using self-care techniques. The key to success is first noticing the burnout, then finding common ways to fix it. Social workers can fight burnout by:
- Establishing balance with various activities and relationships
- Learning to relax through meditation or guided imagery
- Spending time in nature
- Finding a creative hobby and planning time to indulge in it
- Learning to say no with assertiveness training and time-management training
- Developing coping skills and recognizing when to use them
- Spending time with loved ones
All social workers can suffer from burnout. They need to learn how to take care of themselves to have a balance at work and home. Social worker burnout is a real problem, and it can reduce the effectiveness of the profession in the community. To manage burnout, social workers need to learn to recognize when they experience it quickly.
Lead by Example
Social workers often tell their clients that they should take care of themselves, physically and mentally. But, exhausted social workers often go home and do exactly the opposite. Social workers should lead by example and make healthy choices when they aren’t being watched.
To avoid burnout, social workers need to exercise, eat well, and find a way to relax that does not involve the TV, drugs, or alcohol.
Take Time For Yourself
Social workers often feel guilty when they consider taking a vacation or enjoying an hour off at lunch. They want to help their clients and reduce the pile of paperwork at their desks. But, social workers need time away from work. They need to go on vacation, and they need to leave work at work.
To ensure that social workers are taking time for themselves, they should schedule “me time” into their days. Social workers can work together to check on each other and ask about personal time.
Social workers can also take small personal steps to work through burnout. They include:
- Journaling about negative experiences to make sense of them
- Working with a therapist who understands trauma
- Joining a support group to learn about coping strategies
- Building a personal self-care routine with exercise, relaxation, or other stress-management techniques
- Asking for help from colleagues and other supportive people
- Trying to find meaning from burnout, anxiety, and secondary trauma
- Eating a healthy diet, exercising daily, and sleeping regularly
- Finding a mentor or a supervisor to help with client interactions
Learn About Stressors
Secondary trauma stress and burnout have been around for years but have only recently become a topic of study. Social workers might be familiar with the feelings, but not the labels. Social workers can help themselves and their organizations by suggesting secondary trauma training.
Learning about everyday stressors can help social workers work through them. When they understand what is happening to them, they can take better care of themselves. Social workers should attend conferences and join social media organizations to learn more about the industry stressors.
Working with other social workers and learning from their experiences help the entire industry, one social worker at a time.
If your colleague, friend, or family member is making an impact in their career, industry, or community, we want to hear about it.