by Emily Redick, MSW, LCSW Registered Clinical Intern
If you were to walk into a BSW classroom on the first day of freshman year, or an MSW classroom on the first day of year one, you would see a classroom full of ambitious, hungry, compassionate, and vulnerable humans reflected through the eyes of the professor. No matter individual reason or personal background, social work students share one commonality in that we all choose this professional path with the intent to help.
Early in our social work education, we are taught the words “empowerment” and “helping profession.” Learning the NASW Code of Ethics and reciting it backwards and forwards reminds us that we have a world full of people who need us, and we feel excited, full of hope and optimism. But somewhere along the road of our educational careers, we seem to lose sight of the fact that to reach those people who need us, we need to help ourselves first. It feels almost like a badge of honor at first when we enter the social work field and begin to “take on” the burden and pain of our clients - to empathize, not sympathize, to “meet them where they are.” But when we go home at the end of a shift, a day, a session, what then? When we are met at the door by families, responsibilities, other people who “need” us, do we have anything left for them? For ourselves?
I recall many times hearing the words “self-care” thrown out in my BSW and MSW classes. Taking a bath, meditating, writing in a journal - all of these and more are frequently suggested and often effective coping mechanisms for preventing premature social work burnout. So why, then, do recent research articles indicate that the numbers of social workers leaving our profession or the “frontline,” well before retirement, are trending upward? The importance of self-care is not as simple as taking long, relaxing baths and getting massages.
A social work student needs to learn appropriate strategies for handling the daily stressors associated with our profession, preemptively. We need to learn more in-depth, resilience-promoting strategies from our professors and from our clinical internship supervisors and coordinators, and feel comfortable in implementing these strategies in the workplace. Promoting preventive strategies, exploring ways to manage our feelings (both immediate and delayed), real-life examples of helpful suggestions, and providing resources for when we do inevitably feel overburdened should be implemented in every core social work class, in my opinion. In addition, guidance in how to communicate effectively with our future employers regarding secondary stress and compassion fatigue would be especially helpful in combating the stigma of needing “mental health days” or in utilizing employee assistance programs in the workplace.
In closing, I recognize that preparation for working in the demanding field of social work varies from program to program.However, from my personal experience and from conversations with colleagues, a common theme emerges - there was room for improvement in our BSW and MSW coursework with regard to preparation for combating secondary stress and compassion fatigue.
Emily Redick, MSW, LCSW Registered Clinical Intern, graduated from the University of Central Florida in 2012 with her MSW and a focus on social work in the healthcare field. She is passionate about the importance of self-care in practice, specifically in the fields of trauma and crisis work. Emily has worked in an acute hospital setting on a variety of units since graduation. She currently works as a social work case manager in the emergency room.
Editor's Note: This 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.