by Dr. Danna Bodenheimer, LCSW, author of Real World Clinical Social Work: Find Your Voice and Find Your Way
Let me be clear - not all social workers should quit their jobs. In fact, some of you are at perfectly stimulating and meaningful jobs. And some of you aren’t. Most of us have a somewhat conflicted relationship with our jobs. This is mostly because the ways in which we work in America are inherently burdensome and overwhelming. Despite the normalcy of this reality, some of you are working in jobs that are not sustainable, and it might be time to wonder about what is next for you.
The question, for many of us, is: how do we know when it is time to quit a job? Although I don’t know the idiosyncracies of your personal situations, I wanted to share some thoughts on what might make a job unmanageable for you to continue.
Sundays don’t help
Almost every social work job will leave you somewhat breathless and depleted by Friday afternoon. This is just the nature of our work and, for the most part, it is a good thing. Our days are dynamic, we are always faced with something new, and we simply run out of steam. But the weekends should replenish us and leave us feeling ready for Monday. If your anxiety and discomfort in your job leave you squandering away all that Sunday has to offer because you are dreading the week so powerfully, this is of significant concern. It makes sense to need a refill of breathing room, but it does not make sense if the breathing room that you have is filled with fear.
You are triangulated with a bureaucracy that leaves you powerless
For almost any social worker to have direct access to clients, there is some sort of governing body involved. This may be the administration of your agency, or it might be insurance companies. It could be a board of directors or a principal of a school. Of course, the intention of all of these governing bodies ought to be that clinical work is occurring in a safe, ethical, and evidence-based manner. But we all know that things don’t always play out this way. Often, our work with clients becomes diluted by our need to manage whatever the governing party is at our agency. While this is commonplace, the concern grows when we are really unable to serve our clients properly. We seize our capacity to properly serve clients when paperwork demands more of our time than we can handle, when treatment becomes overly prescriptive and rote because of its manualization, or when we find that we are simply not treating our clients in a way that feels ethical. This can happen in a school setting when we are asked to act as operators of discipline or in a hospital when we know that we are discharging someone with insufficient resources. When you are in the position of feeling as if your clients’ needs are not able to be your priority, it is time to question how to proceed.
You wish you never went to school
When all of us started social work school, it was with the intention of somehow changing the world for the better. As social change agents, we fantasized that the relationships we formed with others would serve as the basis of their transformation and ideally the transformation of their communities, too. And while there is a lot of loftiness in these ideals, you spent a lot of money on how to refine your skills in an effort to honor them. If you feel that these intentions have become mere afterthoughts, you need to consider your professional environment. It is unequivocally true that great clinical work can offer transformation and relief, if not to communities, certainly to individuals and families. If this has come to feel impossibly true to you, it might be worth examining the role your agency is playing in your shifting beliefs. Social workers ought to be perfect hybrids of realism and optimism. But operating in only one of these spheres will make you inarguably disappointed and perhaps resentful of the very important investment that you made in your own future.
You just can’t pay the bills
We all know that social worker salaries leave something to be desired. This is perhaps the most stressful aspect of our work. We pour our hearts into it, but our bank accounts rarely reflect this reality. Doing this work, however, when our level of financial strain preoccupies us constantly, diminishes our efforts tremendously. If at the end of every month you wonder how you just survived or fear that one of your services is going to be cut off, I would say this is an unmanageable level of stress. If you find that you are always ignoring phone calls from debt collectors, this also falls under the heading of unmanageable stress. Your boss needs to know how you are struggling, because it is almost impossible to keep producing under these circumstances. It is also impossible to attend to self-care under these circumstances.
Starting on December 1, 2016, it is going to become illegal for most employees earning less than $47,476 per year to not earn overtime pay. This is law, and it is coming in the next few months. If you are not earning overtime, you should be seeing a raise up to this 47k+ threshold. If this has not come up for discussion in your workplace, it is time to advocate for yourself and discuss it openly. If your agency is somehow exempt from this, you should also know why.
Your empathy is gone
The single greatest clinical tool that we have is the provision of empathy. While we don’t have to love or even like many of our clients, we do need to be able to access their subjective experiences and feel something for them. This offering, this intervention, is ultimately the breeding ground for most psychological growth and change. There are a lot of reasons why we find ourselves running low on empathy. The reasons might be personal or professional. It might be that we have just seen the same thing over and over again. It might be that we aren’t getting adequate supervision and we have no place to discharge everything that we are feeling. If you feel that you are running out of empathy, it is essential to determine why. If it is because there is something inherently numbing about how you are working or what is expected of you, this is worthy of serious reconsideration.
But when and how?
We have certainly all heard the “rule” that you need to be at a job for at least a year before looking for another, because job hopping looks “bad.” The year rule is a myth if you are applying for a job while still working at another. Simply being employed makes you a more attractive candidate. Perhaps the length of time you have been at a job is a factor in hiring, but it definitely isn’t the only one. Experience, level of licensure, and good references all outweigh it. Furthermore, agencies understand that the field has shortcomings that can lead to burnout. This is something you can be honest about. Moving to a new job in the hopes of having renewed energy is not something to be ashamed of. It means that you are committed to the sustainability of your career and the quality of your clients’ lives.
Dr. Danna R. Bodenheimer, LCSW, is in private practice at Walnut Psychotherapy Center in Philadelphia, PA, and teaches at Bryn Mawr College Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research. Read more of her clinical perspective and tips on the most burning questions of developing clinicians in her book, Real World Clinical Social Work: Find Your Voice and Find Your Way.