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

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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 350 days 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 345 days 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 83 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 1 year 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 1 year 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 1 year 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 1 year 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 1 year 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 1 year ago

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Great gift book for social work graduates!