What I Wish I Had Known: Burnout and Self-Care in Our Social Work Profession

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Stress and the spillover effects

I worked as a Social Worker in a state run acute care psychiatric hospital. I had never been under so much constant stress in my entire life, and being in my late 40's I've worked a few jobs.

The pressure to discharge came from all directions, and anytime something went wrong that could be blamed on a Social Worker it usually was. There was not so much as a lack of respect for the social service dept as it was an open animosity from other disciplines and depts.

The first sign I experienced was when I began to yell at the patients when they would get pushy with me, I usually can maintain self control, but this began to crumble first. Not long after I began to not care if I discharged someone to the street, or where they went as long as they were gone. Then my personal life away from work suffered and I would get angry with people. The final stage was as my health began to decline, I gained a lot of weight, would wake up every few hours during the night, and my blood pressure increased. I even started to see a cardiologist. I researched burnout, and stress, and in the articles I had all the symptoms described.

I resigned my position, but did not bother telling the dept head, or my supervisor, that leaving was the ultimate act of self care, the job was sucking the life out of me. If I stayed I would have probably had a heart attack or stroke.

I'm not going to describe the lack of resources, the understaffing, the lack of support, or concern for the health of employees, by the dept that I experienced in a state run facility. These are common realities in govt agencies. I also was surrounded by co-workers in their 20's who didn't yet know any better, could pound a few cups of coffee and have at it.

I think my takeaway was that if you don't take care of yourself you risk becoming so broken down that your not going to be any good for your family and friends, and I in my case I was already was not functioning effectively for my patients, so it also became an ethical decision.

Richard 100 days ago

Response to Richard

Richard, I just saw your post and all of your frustration is something I hear with regularity. I am so sad that you and so many of my colleagues are going through this horrid stress and disrespect. Yes, you had to leave in order to save your health and stamina. I hope you have found a position where the respect you deserve is given. Please excuse this delay. I wish my book were less expensive, but cost is lower during Social Work Month. Perhaps you will consider buying it. I believe it will respond to your and I hope it will offer direction. My caring wishes, SaraKay

SaraKay Smullens 67 days ago

What about foster carers .what help and training do they recieve apart from "minds" thats the only training i did years ago and recognized i had post trauma distress .and never got support or training

Would like to know what books or training carer recieve

Norah waite 176 days ago

Response to Noah

Noah, my apologies for the delay in responding to you. I did not know of this message until this evening. Yes, training is often so inadequate. It is necessary to speak to your supervisor or the one in charge of your setting when inadequate training is the norm. It is impossible to carry all that one carries in the foster care field without training, support, and excellent supervision. I wish you so well, and hope you have carved out a more fulfilling path. I also hope this article and perhaps my book can be helpful in continuing to care well for yourSelf. With caring wishes, SaraKay

SaraKay Smullens 67 days ago


I am currently a graduate student focusing my research on burnout and how it can be prevented by requiring education on compassion fatigue and burnout in CSWE accredited schools. This article was very helpful (as well as the resources). Thank you for your work!

Makenzie more than 1 year ago


Thanks so much for writing, Makenzie. My evidence based guide/text book, a much fuller examination of burn out and its main causes, is scheduled to be published by NASW Press in the Spring. I hope it will be helpful and meaningful to you in your research.

SarKay Smullens more than 1 year ago



Emma Paxton more than 1 year ago


Emma, I am very glad you have responded and agree with your frustration completely. I am working on a manuscript for a book, to be published by NASWPress in 2015, that addresses your questions. Thanks so much for writing!

SaraKay Smullens more than 1 year ago

Programs to support social workers

Programs do exist. I think social workers should be required to sign up for weekly therapy at minimum. On top of that social workers can join fitness clubs, arts groups, knitting circles etc. These things can and should be supported through our workplaces in the form of group discounts to gyms and so on. Therapeutic self care stuff is everywhere. It just doesn't say "for social workers" at the end of it.

Social worker 267 days ago

Time Management and Boundaries

I agree with you that there are options in the community for social workers that support their self care. In my own life, as I enter the world of clinical social work, I feel like a lot of my struggles with self-care come down to setting aside the time and setting boundaries, because so often work comes home with me. I feel like agencies can do more to support self care though, like you mentioned with providing discounts to gym membership, and ensuring that their employees aren't overworked. I don't know if employers view self-care as a top priority, though it greatly benefits the work social workers do, so I think it's on social workers do more to start demanding what they need.

KK 163 days ago

Beth - Clear and free since leaving

Oh yes, because there is so much free time for weekly therapy at minimum.

Beth 162 days ago

Wounded Healers?

A couple of extrapolations create a picture of social workers as pretty unhealthy, e.g. co-dependents drawn to the profession 'because' of their problems and using the profession as a 'healing experience.' The research that's cited in the article doesn't address whether any of these dysfunctional folks who become social workers might have sought treatment and/or become thriving mentally healthy individuals before going into the profession. I hope no one leaves a copy of this in their waiting room.

Kelly Wright more than 1 year ago

Reply to Kelly

A very important point, Kelly. Thanks so much for writing. One is limited in words for an article, but I am addressing your essential point in the book to be published by NASWPress in 2015. What the data shows is that a high percentage of social workers go into therapy, benefit from their therapy, and, as a result, find their work and life exceedingly fulfilling. Plus, many who enter any field do not know that they have had pain in their formative years, and because of this, the research may not be truly accurate. I try to cover all of this in the book. For social workers are among the best adjusted, kindest, bravest people I know, and I want to shout it out the best way I can. Plus, I really do believe in the concept of the "examined life," and our profession makes that necessary in order to work to the best of our ability.
SaraKay Smullens

SocialWorker.com more than 1 year ago

Cultivating a culture around self-care in workplaces/practices.

As a social work undergraduate student and part-time member of Whole Foods Market, I feel social work could benefit from cultivating and shaping practices and organizations where their care workers are looked after just as much as the clients and patients they serve. It should push inter-care worker engagement and a general feeling of camaraderie and compassion. So often those of us in this field direct it outwardly, but we should also shine that compassion and concern to ourselves and our partners in this field. Perhaps this is already being done, but I truly feel it can always be emphasized and innovated more and more. I think to the culture pushed by Trader Joe, Whole Foods, Starbucks and other "conscious capitalism" paradigms where they emphasize equal focus on the employees as they do on the customers. You can't build a house on a weak foundation, and clients and patients cannot receive the best care possible if they are seen by burned out and neglected social workers & healthcare providers/counselors that need help themselves.

Jonathan more than 2 years ago


Well said, Jonathan! You make an excellent point! Have you spoken to your local NASW chapter about this?

SaraKay Smullens more than 1 year ago

Personal self care and honesty

This article raises many good points and it is important for agencies to think about how workers can practice self care. However, I have found that the nature of many underfunded and understaffed agencies works against a balanced life style for workers. There tends to be a lot of rewards and recognition for self sacrifice and going above and beyond. Social work is still viewed as a job people should do out of an endless pool of passion and self sacrifice. This mentality is very damaging and not sustainable. When I feel safe and healthy, I am better able to serve my clients.

Sarah more than 2 years ago


Your feedback is very wise, Sarah; and I will try to address all of this in the NASWPress guide book I am working on. Thanks so much for writing.

SaraKay Smullens more than 1 year ago

Burnout and self care

I read this article and feel it offers a plethora of knowledge, experience and skills to the reader. I have worked as a private Psychotherapist and although I did not combine it with Social Work practice at the time, the risks of burnout (e.g.) self-neglect as a professional are always there.
The author describes, in great detail, the importance of consciously making decisions and taking appropriat actions to take care of ourselves as Social Work Practitioners.
These days I am working as a Safeguardig Social Worker and I enjoy this specialist area in Social Work because it gives me a sense of gratification and achievement in the knowledge that we are protecting and educating our client(s), the service providers and ourselves in the process.
I am still guilty of forgetting how fragile we are as Practitioners and often forget to take care of myself in the ways that the author has described.
I am glad that I read this article and will refer to some of the authors in her bibliography, however most importantly, this has reminded me to take seriously the need to value ourselves as social work practitioners and to take care of ourselves.
I suppose it is really about aiming for and trying to achieve that internal balance, allowing for 'slippages' here and there and knowing that it is our very humanness and vulnerability (internally) that allows us to empathise and show compassion and use these in our practice with our clients and service providers.
Sometimes it is not such a bad thing to acknowledge our 'soft spots' and understand how these are touched when we are working with our clients,; in fact this can be a very useful way of facilitating deeper understanding not just for the client but also for ourselves (e.g.) through self understanding comes greater understanding of others and through self healing comes the potential to facilitate self-empowerment not only in ourselves but with our clients and service providers.
This article has given me a lot of food for thought, and an opportunity to revisit certain internal areas for reflectionm, connection and balance.

Suzanne German more than 2 years ago

reply to Suzanne

I agree with this wise feedback, Suzanne.  Thanks so much for your thoughtful response.
SaraKay Smullens

SocialWorker.com more than 1 year ago

A different approach to self-care

While I definitely agree that social workers need to learn and PRACTICE self-care, I also believe that our human service organizations (and our culture, really) need to have some responsibility in making sure we are well taken care of. Does weekly (or whenever) supervision include a self-care check-in? What about staff/team meetings? Are there organizational policies that promote healthy living and self-care practices? What can we do as social workers to advocate for better practices at the organizational level that can help us better help others? These are just some questions I think about as a current MSW student & former practicing BSW getting ready to re-enter the market.

Brad more than 2 years ago

Self care

I don't work in this field. However being in a field that requires me to work with a large number of people, and approve their qualifications. Then assume responsibility for their work. Work that could have serious affects on the environment and other people, I know something about stress.

I've read the article and the comments, at first glance I agree with Brads comments the most.

Bobby Lowder more than 1 year ago


Brad, I completely agree with your comments, and I am hoping that my book addresses your concerns. Too little is being done, and too many superb social workers leave a field they are trained for. Thanks for writing.

SaraKay Smullens more than 1 year ago

To Bobby

Yes, there is enormous responsibility when one is responsible for leading and caring for a large group of professionals, and of course the stress that goes with it, and also agree with Brad. I am glad you read about our field also and find it applicable. Thanks for writing, Bobby.
SaraKay Smullens

SocialWorker.com more than 1 year ago


I want to recommend an excellent book to you that addresses your well stated points, Brad: "Self-Care in Social Work," by Kathleen Fox and Sue Steiner, I also will do my best to address them in my book. Thanks for writing.

SaraKay Smullens more than 1 year ago

I completely agree with this research and tips that all social workers need to learn to take care of themselves. However, what was not mentioned is te fact that SW are burn out because not only we deal with stressful situations, but we barely get a fair, living wage. We are as poor as some of the population we advocate for and the NASW keeps ignoring that passion is the main drive for us SWs, but we need fair pay and great representation by NASW. Please sign my petition on change.org on fair pay and universal licensure by Kerry B.


Kerry more than 2 years ago

Follow the model of the teacher revolution

I agree, Kerry. Working at a school as a social worker, I am amazed at the self-advocacy journey that the teaching profession has gone through. They too, were once extremely under-appreciated, underpaid (although, they will not get rich, at least their salary is decent, speaking for Texas specifically) but they organized themselves and demanded more. Social workers have not done that. We are too busy advocating for our clients. I am not even one year into the profession and I get it. I get the burnout, especially in working with non-profits. The amount of documentation is cumbersome to say the least and I find myself worrying about my paperwork more than I do providing quality services to the children. I feel sick when I feel accomplished for having finished my monthly paperwork, yet my clients are the ones to suffer.

Kristen more than 2 years ago

Great gift book for social work graduates!

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