by Alexandra Dolan, MSS, LSW
We often think of self-care as something we have to do, something that takes time or is one more thing to cross off our to-do list. Certainly there are concrete things we have to do to take care of ourselves. However, the further I get into my social work career, the more I realize that small mental shifts are equally vital to our professional preservation and to the practice of self-care.
I am part of a training team from the Support Center for Child Advocates in Philadelphia. We train social workers, clinicians, attorneys, teachers, and many other helping professionals on the topics of vicarious trauma, burnout, and compassion fatigue and on strategies to protect ourselves and our organizations. Experts in this field of research have identified the practice of reframing as essential to professional resilience (Norcross & Barnett, 2008). Reframing—something we often teach our clients but may not practice ourselves—is essentially recognizing our unhelpful thoughts and replacing them with something healthier. When we experience stress, we are more likely to think negatively about our jobs, our ability to help people, and the worthiness of what we do.
During our training, we often ask people to share a way in which they have reframed a negative thought about work to a positive one. Examples include shifting from “I did nothing today” to “I helped keep someone alive today,” from “I don’t have time for self-care” to “I have to make time for self-care,” from “I have to finish this to-do list before I can leave” to “This to-do list will still be here tomorrow,” and—finally—from “I’m not making enough progress with this client” to “I can’t want this progress more than my client does.” Each of these small shifts can open the door to setting better boundaries, respecting our own time, allowing time for the practice of self-care, and feeling more confident about our capacity to help others.
On a larger scale, our profession needs to reframe the idea of self-care to value and teach it as an essential component of social work practice. We often think of self-care as something we do only when everything else is done. In reality, we need to practice simple self-care strategies before, during, and after our work day to protect us from the many hazards of our occupation—particularly the high rate of trauma exposure social workers face, but also the stress caused by unrealistic demands on our time.
By framing self-care as professional and personal preservation in a challenging work environment, we give and receive permission to do the things we need to take care of ourselves. It is essential that we begin to teach self-care as an integral part of ethical social work practice to our students in our MSW programs and to new staff at orientation, and that organizations embrace this shift, with leaders modeling self-care and encouraging its practice in supervision and through organizational policies and culture.
Norcross, J. C., & Barnett, J. E. (2008). Self-care as ethical imperative. The Register Report, Spring 2008. Retrieved from: https://www.nationalregister.org/pub/the-national-register-report-pub/the-register-report-spring-2008/self-care-as-ethical-imperative/
Alexandra Dolan, MSS, LSW, is Training Coordinator at the Support Center for Child Advocates in Philadelphia, PA. Ms. Dolan has extensive training experience at a wide variety of mental health, child welfare, educational, and healthcare settings on the topics of behavioral health advocacy, the impact of trauma on children in the dependency system, secondary trauma, and compassion fatigue.
Editor's Note: This article is part of The New Social Worker's Self-Care Summer 2016 Project. For more ideas on self-care, see The A-to-Z Self-Care Handbook for Social Workers and Other Helping Professionals.