The New Social Worker published an article last year by SaraKay Smullens What I Wish I had Known: Burnout and Self-Care in Our Social Work Profession. In the article, she describes visiting the wife of a colleague who had just died who told her "... sometimes he would return home too exhausted to even speak, and that a frequent statement she heard from a man who obviously treasured his clinical work, teaching, and writing was: They feel better, but I surely do not.” The article takes the issue of burnout head on and addresses what she describes as "the necessity of addressing this complicated exhaustion before the feeling of depletion leads to dysfunction and beyond."
What is Burnout?
Burnout is not exclusive to social workers. But when you work in a profession where you are dealing with helping people manage and process problems every day and probably are working where there are too few resources and the consequences of not doing your job well can have serious consequences, the chances of getting burned out are higher.
According to HelpGuide.org burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest or motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place.
Burnout reduces your productivity and zaps your energy, leaving you feeling increasingly helpless, hopeless, cynical, and resentful. Eventually, you may feel like you have nothing more to give.
What Sara Kay Smullens tried to address in her article was the need for selfcare for social workers so that you take the requisite steps before you reach this point.
In most of the literature, there are common themes in preventing burnout.
Take Care of Yourself. As a social worker, there is always something you should be or could be doing. There are calls to be made, people to visit and paperwork to complete. That is never going to change. So what can change is that you start to listen to your body. You are not a machine and no matter how much coffee you drink, your body and mind cannot sustain the frantic pace of trying to do it all each and every day.
You need to be disciplined to take time to rest and recover. Take a walk. In between appointments, take a break and leave the voicemail and emails alone for a bit. Make sure you're getting enough sleep and of course always remember the basics: you need to nourish your body with good food and exercise.
Don't let your passions go idle. Do you like to paint, sing in your church choir, cook? Whatever it is, find the time to recharge your mind and spirit with activities that are for you and you alone.
Have a Support System. No one quite understands what your world looks like than other colleagues. There are unique insights that only those who have walked in your shoes can provide, so find the support you need. It is not a sign of weakness if you reach out. If you feel you can't talk to others you work with, try to find a former professor or retired professional who may be able to just listen and provide some help along the way.
Do You Need to Rethink Where You Work. While we understand the constraints of a soft economy, some work environments, particularly for social workers can be toxic. If the organization you work for simply refuses to give you the resources you need to get your job done; or your case load is unsustainable; or the leadership is focused more on putting through a grinder rather than helping you do the meaningful work you trained to do, it may be time to rethink where you work. That doesn't mean quitting on the spot if your financial situation prevents that. But you can begin a plan that can help you begin to find more meaningful employment. Just starting that process may help you relieve some of the stress you are feeling on a daily basis.
As a social worker, you provide an invaluable resource to those you serve. Take the time to take care of yourself so you can take care of your patients.