At once immensely rewarding and enormously challenging, social work is one of the most honorable professions a person can pursue. But the stress and pressures of the job can be draining. In March 2020, U.S. News & World Report ranked both child and family social worker and clinical social worker among the 25 most stressful jobs in the country
Fortunately, the social work profession has begun to recognize how self-care for social workers can alleviate some of the stress that comes with the job. By incorporating self-care into their regular routines, social workers can maintain a healthy perspective and continue to carry out their responsibilities.
In short, to effectively help their clients, social workers must remember to help themselves.
Defining the Concept of Self-Care
Self-care is an evolving concept with multiple definitions. For example:
- In 2020, the World Health Organization defined self-care as “the ability of individuals, families and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a healthcare provider.”
- The International Self-Care Foundation prefers a 1998 World Health Organization definition that describes self-care as “what people do for themselves to establish and maintain health, and to prevent and deal with illness. It is a broad concept encompassing hygiene (general and personal), nutrition (type and quality of food eaten), lifestyle (sporting activities, leisure, etc.), environmental factors (living conditions, social habits, etc.) socio-economic factors (income level, cultural beliefs, etc.) and self-medication.”
The Seven Pillars of Self-Care
Regardless of its definition, the concept of self-care typically involves putting health knowledge to work caring for one’s own mental and physical health.
As listed below, the International Self-Care Foundation identifies seven pillars that form its concept of self-care.
To practice self-care effectively, individuals need to possess the knowledge and health literacy necessary to understand and discern between good and bad self-care strategies.
Individuals who practice self-care need to have an awareness of their own health and well-being and the ability to take action to improve it.
Individuals should be cognizant of the benefits of physical activity and identify how much is necessary for them to stay healthy.
A critical component of self-care, a healthy, nutritious diet is something that individuals should strive for to maintain good health and reduce the risk of disease.
Self-care includes identifying and implementing the things that individuals can do to decrease the risk of avoidable morbidity and mortality.
Hygiene practices that individuals can implement to maintain their good health and prevent diseases from spreading, like regular hand-washing and proper food preparation, are an important component of self-care.
Practicing self-care includes the responsible use of safe medicine and health services to maintain one’s health.
Resources That Explore the Concept of Self-Care
Additional resources for exploring the general concept of self-care include:
- Self-care: Making yourself a priority in your life: The Harvard Department of Psychology offers reader-friendly information on the basics of self-care.
- “Self Care 101: 10 ways to take better care of you”: This Psychology Today article explains what self-care means through the exploration of 10 basic ideas.
- “The importance of self-care during difficult times”: This article published by the Mayo Clinic stresses the importance of self-care during challenging times and offers suggestions for practicing self-care.
- “Why You Struggle with Self-Care”: In this article from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, readers can explore some common misunderstandings about self-care.
Why Social Workers Should Practice Self-Care
Why is self-care for social workers so important? First, consider some of the common challenges of working in the profession:
- High caseloads
- Limited resources
- Complex client needs
- Long hours
- Working in a sensitive political climate
Working under those conditions can take a toll. Social workers are particularly vulnerable to experiencing issues such as:
- Vicarious trauma
- Compassion fatigue
Unfortunately, the stressors on professional social workers can affect their clients. A 2019 study published in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect examined issues such as burnout, secondary trauma stress, and high caseloads over a lengthy career in social work. The study concluded that the compassion fatigue that results from those factors can cause social workers to detach from their clients in child custody cases. That detachment can potentially lead to negative consequences for clients.
The pressures of the social work profession also can lead to high turnover. For example, a 2018 study conducted by the Annie E. Casey Foundation noted that four factors had relatively high effects on turnover among front-line workers in the child welfare workforce:
- Emotional exhaustion
- Job satisfaction
- The perception of organizational commitment to employees
All of the factors discussed above illustrate the pressures on professionals in the field, and why self-care for social workers is so important.
More Information on the Social Work Profession
Additional resources that describe the pressures of being a social worker include:
- “Managing compassion fatigue in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic”: In this essay, a veteran social worker discusses dealing with compassion fatigue during a pandemic.
- “If this social worker had a magic wand”: In this article, a social worker who works with adolescents discusses a typical day and workload.
- “Is Burnout Really a Disease”: This article discusses how social workers experience burnout.
- Careers in social work: This publication from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics provides an overview of careers in social work and includes a discussion of social workers who leave the profession to pursue other occupations.
Strategies for Social Worker Self-Care
Strategies for social workers to practice self-care are numerous. Depending on their specific challenges and issues, social workers can select from myriad self-care strategies to best fit their needs.
For social workers just beginning to practice self-care, the choices can be daunting. The information below explores a few approaches that social workers can consider.
Advice from the National Association of Social Workers
In its straightforward guidance to social workers, the National Association of Social Workers offers concrete strategies for social workers to practice self-care, including:
- Acknowledging difficulty
- Working to create boundaries between home and work
- Being intentional with breathing, positioning the body in a relaxed posture and physically grounding oneself
- Stepping away from one’s desk periodically
- Using positive affirmations that begin with “I am” and “I can”
- Keeping a journal
The Five R’s of Self-Care
Erlene Grise-Owens, EdD, LCSW, MSW, MRE, who has written about and promoted self-care for social workers, offers these five R’s as a way to approach self-care:
- Attempting to reframe one’s perspective on situations and approaches can help ease the way to self-care. For example, reframing self-care as essential and necessary, rather than something else to add to an already busy day, can help to make self-care a part of one’s lifestyle.
- Self-care can be more effective if it is preceded by reflection. Reflection can enhance self-knowledge and help to identify the best strategies through which to practice self-care. Social workers can choose to reflect on their own or through discussions with therapists or supervisors.
- To be most effective, self-care should become integrated into all aspects of a person’s life. Making the practice of self-care routine can be accomplished in many ways, starting with something small, such as regularly making the bed, or through more direct practices, such as regularly keeping a gratitude journal.
- That rest is an essential element of self-care is not surprising. But rest is more than just sleep. Rest also can include things such as taking breaks, engaging in play, meditating, or stopping to take a breath.
- Establishing healthy relationships, connections, and boundaries for oneself and with others is critical to the effective practice of self-care.
Guidance on Self-Care During Daily Transitions
A 2020 study published in the Journal of Human Services: Training, Research, and Practice focused on human services professionals and how they can approach self-care through the various transitions they experience during their day. The study offered easy-to-use infographics to guide individuals through the practice of self-care. For example:
- Waking up with intention. The study suggested specific mindfulness activities that individuals can do in the first five minutes of the day to set their intentions and get off to a good start. Examples include assessing one’s mental state, scanning the body, acknowledging emotions, and deciding on a mindset for the day.
- Activities for a spare 30 seconds. Even the busiest people can find time to practice self-care in 30-second increments throughout their day. Hydrating, assessing one’s mental state, taking a conscious breath, or stretching are good ways to step back and use a spare 30 seconds.
- Workday transitions. While at work and transitioning from one client to the next, individuals can use five minutes to assess their thoughts, recognize physical sensations, and intentionally choose a mindset for the next segment of the day.
- Transitioning from work to home. Literally brushing off the workday by brushing off the arms and shaking out the limbs, hands, and feet can help individuals leave work behind and transition to home.
- Transitioning to sleep. Restricting the use of technology, acknowledging successes during the day either mentally or through journaling, taking deep breaths, and stretching are self-care techniques that can ease the transition to sleep.
Employers and Supervisors Can Encourage Social Workers to Practice Self-Care
Employers and supervisors also can play an important role in encouraging the use of self-care strategies among social workers.
A 2019 study published in the Clinical Social Work Journal noted that organizations that employ clinical social workers can:
- Offer professional development opportunities that teach social workers how to practice self-care and enhance self-compassion
- Implement wellness initiatives that encompass self-care
- Identify ways to provide new social workers with mentorship and peer support opportunities
- Encourage supervisors to consider incorporating self-care and self-compassion into employee evaluations and plans for professional development
In 2019, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services and the Quality Improvement Center for Workforce Development collaborated to implement the Coach Ohio program to address job satisfaction and staff retention in the child welfare workforce. The program has two primary components:
- A “resilience alliance” to mitigate the effects of secondary traumatic stress on staff. Through this component of the program, front-line caseworkers can participate in groups and practice skills and behaviors designed to improve their well-being, increase their job satisfaction, and reduce turnover. Supervisors also participate in groups to learn coping skills and receive social support from their peers.
- A “coaching model” for supervisors to improve how they support staff. Supervisors learn about specific skills such as being present, listening, reflecting and clarifying, questioning, giving feedback, and holding staff accountable.
While the success of the Coach Ohio program is still being studied, the first survey of participants indicated the quality of support staff had received from their supervisors and managers had improved.
Additional Resources on Self-Care for Social Workers
More information is available on self-care strategies for social workers and on academic studies of self-care among social workers.
Additional Resources on Self-Care Strategies for Social Workers
Further resources on self-care strategies for social workers include:
- Bath Spa University, British Association of Social Workers, and Social Workers Union, “Social Worker Wellbeing and Working Conditions: Good Practice Toolkit”
- Mayo Clinic, Job Burnout: How to Spot It and Take Action
- National Child Welfare Workforce Institute, Self-Care Resources
- National Association of Social Workers, North Carolina Chapter, Professional Wellness
- National Association of Social Workers, Podcast Episode 17: Self-Care and Avoiding Burnout
- National Association of Social Workers, Self-Care During the Coronavirus Pandemic
- The City of New York Thrive Learning Center, Tools to Help You Help Others
Academic Studies on Self-Care for Social Workers
Scholars are beginning to conduct research on self-care in the social work profession. Academic studies that individuals can access to learn more about the topic include:
- Advances in Social Work, “Examining Self-Care Among Individuals Employed in Social Work Capacities: Implications for the Profession”
- Contemporary Rural Social Work, “Self-Care Among Social Workers Employed in Rural Settings: A Cross-Sectional Investigation”
- Field Educator, “Exploring the Self-Care Practice of Practicum Supervisors: Implications for Field Education”
- International Journal of Higher Education, “Assessing Secondary Trauma, Compassion Satisfaction, and Burnout — Implications for Professional Education for Asian-American Social Workers”
Self-Care Can Benefit the Social Work Profession
While social work can be demanding, it is vital to the lives of individuals who require a social worker’s assistance. Given the important role social workers play in society, their well-being is important to everyone. The more social workers can enhance their own well-being by practicing self-care, the better prepared they’ll be to help others.