How Can Social Workers Combat Work Burnout?

Social workers make all the difference to the people they help. But sometimes the stress of their daily jobs is too much, making helping their clients more difficult. How can social workers combat work burnout? Start by learning about the common signs and then take steps to address them.

Symptoms of Work Burnout

The following are common signs that you are burning out on the job.

Exhaustion: You always feel tired. Ironically, this can be made worse if you also develop insomnia, perhaps caused by fretting about work.

Lack of focus: If you are chronically fatigued, you will start becoming forgetful and unable to pay attention to job details.

Physical symptoms: Your immune system may weaken, opening you to more frequent illness. You may also experience stress-related symptoms such as heart palpitations, chest pain, headaches or digestive disruptions.

Mental symptoms: You may feel anxiety or even depression or anger. You may also feel detached from your job, as if whatever you do is not going to help anyone anyway.

Causes of Burnout

Burnout is caused by what some researchers call "compassion fatigue." The role of the social worker is to help the client explore their tissues and find ways to deal with them. This is a one-way relationship; the counselor must keep his or her personal emotional distance from the client and does not receive care back from the client. Also, the social worker may become frustrated, saddened or anxious about a client who does not make progress despite the counselor's best interests. Being exposed to the client's trauma can be traumatic for the social worker as well, according to Sara Kay Smullens, who wrote about social worker burnout for The New Social Worker online.

How to Solve it

Address your specific symptoms: Analyze whatever you've identified. Exhausted? Begin a regular sleep routine and stick to it. Feeling overly stressed? Take some vacation time. Spend several days getting enough sleep, eating right and enjoying stress-free activities. When your vacation is done, see if your symptoms are relieved. If they are, go back to work reinvigorated. If not, you have larger issues to address.

Make time for self-care: Make taking care of yourself as important as taking care of your clients. Follow healthy lifestyle choices. Add nonprofessional activities to your weekly schedule. Take a break when you need one.

Get support: Reach out to your colleagues and supervisors. Look for support from friends and family. A good working environment and peer support is crucial, according to Dr. Paula McFadden, who wrote about social worker burnout for The Guardian.

Make a change: If all else fails, consider changing jobs. Studies show that an individual social worker's stress levels can vary depending on the type of client he serves and the type of setting in which he works. For some, working with clients with more serious and persistent mental illness leads to greater burnout. Changing to a population of clients with less serious illness may alleviate your burnout. Also, those who work in a private practice report less burnout than those in public settings. If your condition persists, consult with a mental health professional.

Being a social worker can be rewarding. Social workers are skilled in assessing their clients' needs and helping them find solutions. However, make sure to take care of your own needs as well, which will benefit both you and your clients.

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