Burnout and Self-Care in Social Work: A Guidebook for Students and Those in Mental Health and Related Professions, by SaraKay Smullens, Washington, DC, NASW Press, ISBN 978-0-87101-462-7, 2015, 115 pages, paperback $37.99, ePub $30.99.
SaraKay Smullens has written an accessible book on a complicated topic. Burnout and self-care are frequently on the minds of social work students and professionals. We worry about becoming burned out and redouble our efforts to do the best job we can, which in turn possibly leads to the very thing we are worrying about. In this guidebook, SaraKay Smullens offers understanding, explanation, and concrete ideas to enable students and professionals to take positive action to prevent and/or effectively cope with burnout.
Smullens describes burnout as “a complex phenomenon that draws its strength from multiple sources.” She touches on how compassion fatigue, countertransference, and vicarious trauma all play a role in burnout. Discussing the four distinct dimensions of burnout—professional, personal, social, and physical—Smullens breaks down what can be an overwhelming process and enables readers to begin to personally assess the specific effects of burnout in their own lives.
Smullens builds on the current research into burnout and shares responses from a qualitative case study. She also cites experiences of individuals she has known during her many years of practice to explore why burnout happens, how it affects us, and what we can do about it. We can readily identify with the stories of others who have experienced burnout and thus begin to acknowledge our own challenges. This echoes Smullens’ comment that “the strongest lesson in avoiding burnout through self-care is to accept that we are human, and in that, we are each limited, and yes, flawed.”
Continuing with this lesson, Smullens discusses what may be one of the biggest barriers to active engagement in self-care—having the time, having the permission, and having the place to implement self-care strategies. Self-care strategies cannot be successful unless we “take ourselves and our own needs seriously.” The very nature of our work, caring for others, can make it difficult to give us permission to care for ourselves.
Another possible barrier to self-care addressed in the book is professional self-care and the potential role of the organizations in which we work to help us address burnout. Discussions on self-care are often limited to suggestions for what the individual can do for him- or herself. Working with the organization to promote a culture that openly addresses burnout, implementing policies, and identifying ways to support employees’ health and well being are beneficial to the employee, the organization, and the clients.
At a slim 115 pages and easy to read, Burnout and Self-Care in Social Work is equally suited for use in classrooms, in supervisory meetings, or on an individual basis. The book provides an excellent starting place for opening discussions and generating ideas. At the end of each chapter, Smullens provides questions that guide readers to reflect more deeply and thus take the first step in the self-care process. The book is an excellent resource for anyone wanting to learn more about burnout and self-care.
Reviewed by Karen Zellmann, MSW, LCSW, BSW Program Coordinator and Associate Professor, Western Illinois University.