Fight Burnout in Social Work

Fight Burnout in Social Work

Question: How many social workers does it take to change a lightbulb?

Answer: I'll do it, but I have 172 other lightbulbs to change first.

Alternate answer: One hundred -- one to change the light bulb and 99 to handle the paperwork.

These are social worker jokes. But if you're a social worker, you know they hold an element of truth, because social workers in all settings often face:

  • Lower pay than they'd like.
  • Long hours that include evenings, weekends and sometimes holidays.
  • Large caseloads.
  • Substantial paperwork demands.
  • Troubled and perhaps even threatening clients of all ages.
  • Less-than-adequate training and supervision.
  • Little or no time or money for professional development.

Perhaps it's no wonder that social workers and similar professionals are at considerable risk of experiencing burnout, which experts Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter, authors of The Truth About Burnout, define as “the index of dislocation between what people are and what they have to do.”

As Maslach and Leiter put it, burnout “represents an erosion in values, dignity, spirit and will -- an erosion of the human soul. It is a malady that spreads gradually and continuously over time, putting people into a downward spiral from which it's hard to recover.”

Do you see yourself in this description? If so, you're vulnerable to burnout. But you can do something about it if you start focusing on and applying psychological, emotional, spiritual and even physical care strategies like these -- all of them recommended and practiced by social workers and other helping professionals:

Set and Pursue Realistic Goals

Educational psychologist Jerry Wilde points out that it can be easy for social workers to expect the world from both themselves and their clients. But that's a setup for perceived failure. “Look for small improvements, because those can and do occur, but we often miss them because our expectations are too high,” writes Wilde in his article, “High-Need Families + Unrealistic Expectations = Burnout.”

Celebrate Small Victories in Your Work

“As helping professionals, we often fall into the trap of feeling that we can't make a difference, because the need we see day to day is so great,” writes social worker Kristin Duare McKinnon in her article, “Coping with Caring -- The Dangers of Chronic Stress and Burnout.” McKinnon points out that the problems you tend to deal with as a social worker have often developed over a period of years, so it's only natural that it may take years to resolve them.

Think Mind, Body and Spirit

We all have psychological, emotional, spiritual and physical needs. But some social workers and similar professionals fall into the trap of focusing almost exclusively on others' needs in these areas at the expense of their own.

Social workers who stay in the field for years or even decades, however, tend to take care of themselves as well as they take care of others. You can do the same. Set -- and obey -- limits on your time and energy.

Learn to Ask for Help, Not Just Offer It

Social workers face a double problem when they're experiencing burnout: They are negatively affected, of course, but as a result, their clients may be as well.

“Since the ability to perceive situations clearly and objectively is pivotal in social work, impairment may compromise performance and thus jeopardize the rights of clients and treatment effectiveness,” according to the National Association of Social Workers, a major professional organization in the social work field.

If you feel you're starting to burn out -- if you're chronically exhausted and increasingly cynical and detached from your work (all signs of burnout, according to Maslach and Leiter) -- seek professional assistance. In the process, you'll help yourself and your clients.

To learn more about burnout among social workers and other helping professionals -- and what you can do to prevent or deal with it -- check out Fried Social Worker, a site with information, self-tests and resources.