What I Wish I Had Known, Part 2: The Impact of Societal Burnout on Our Social Work Profession and Beyond

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As expected, you touched all bases and opened my eyes and mind to a deep, underlying problem: countertransference. I believe there’s an epidemic brewing.

Thom Simmonds more than 2 years ago

Thank you

Dear Thom,
Thank you so very much for writing. I am not sure how you found this article, but your comments means a lot to me. Our family and you and James have shared a great deal. We know what a hard time it has been in your beloved city, and we hope you each and yours are well and safe. As I write, I picture your wonderful apartment and hope you are there, and all is well. Please send all best, and again, thanks so very much for writing. With deep caring, SaraKay

SaraKay Smullens more than 2 years ago

PS to Thom Simmonds

Thom, it was so special to see your name that I did not respond to your comments about countertransference: Yes, we are surely feeling the impact of impossible people in powerful positions and the damage they do. I hope with every fiber of my being that in this country we have finally reached a tipping point. After the horrific viewing of the cold-blooded murder of George Floyd, we saw what Covid-19 had turned into a ghost town turn into a war zone. In Philadelphia, a city that I know you and James love so much also, peaceful protesters were overtaken by violent mobs; and from our window, we saw our neighborhood surroundings looted and burned. Smoke filled our apparent as the mobs moved toward our building, lighting small fires with stolen furniture and orange traffic cones as they moved toward us. The police did not come for two hours, as they guarded the statue of Frank Rizzo near city hall. Fire trucks arrived earlier, but all were far too late. I know you know Rizzo's legacy well. Perhaps you saw this review I was called during the looting by a friend who saw it on his Wikipedia page. The statue has finally been removed. Thinking of you, yours!! Be safe and well!! https://www.broadstreetreview.com/theater/bruce-grahams-rizzo-at-theatre-exile-third-review

SaraKay Smullens more than 2 years ago


Sigh,I was with you until we came to self-care. I'm tired of being told that dealing with societal & work stresses can all be handled through self-care. That this is solely my responsibility. What ,if any,responsibility do we place on the employer to limit case loads,provide better pay,training and support.

Cherie more than 2 years ago

It's Both

Hi, Cherie. Thank you for reading and commenting on this article. We publish frequently on self-care and the fact that both individual self-care AND organizational wellness are important and work hand-in-hand. It is not either/or, it's and. You're absolutely right that organizations need to do better in this area.

SocialWorker.com more than 2 years ago

Response to Cherie

Cherie, your point is essential. Thanks so much for writing! In my book on burnout I divide burnout and self-care into the following interactive codification: Personal, Professional, Social (Relational) and Physical. (I hope to add Societal to this in a new edition). In the concentration on Professional, I make employer responsibility extremely clear. You are completely right!! If my proposal to update is included, do I have your permission to use this important comment? Thanks so much for writing!! You can reach me at www.sarakaysmullens.com. Please consider this important addition!

SaraKay Smullens more than 2 years ago

Further response to Cherie

Cherie, the following heartbreaking response from one formerly in foster care illustrates that social workers are not the only ones suffering from poor employers. The following was part of a discussion concerning my belief that many of the tragedies in our most vulnerable families where press accounts note social workers and caseworkers are to blame point to those without a social work degree or training.
" I was in the foster homes and severely abused. It was amazing how some foster parents could trick the social workers. First they were forewarned of the visit so after week in and week out of spending 5 or 6 hrs in a corner afraid to ask for water, getting the belt for no apparent reason, sitting on the floor (my back to the tv)forced to rub their feet. I could go on and on with much worse.......But 2 days before social workers visit....I was aloud to sit outside. I was given ice cream.....Then the visit...social worker to me: how are you? Me: oh I'm good I got ice cream.....little kids forget fast. Sorry I just don't want to share more now. Wheww

SaraKay Smullens more than 2 years ago

Addition to Burnout Literature

The mounting societal pressures of our time add a background level of stress to symptoms of burnout arising from the workplace. We do not live and work isolated from the issues of the world around us. This article outlines and explains how societal issues affect us in tangible ways. It also outlines in a striking way how self-care strategies, including those related to societal issues, can be effective in relieving both personal and professional burnout. This is a positive addition to the burnout literature.

Stanton N. Smullens, MD more than 2 years ago

Societal burnout and systemic oppression

I found it curious, that this article discussed burn out that is societally-induced without even a nod to the oppressions that are endemic to the many systems of power found at the very root of so many social issues. Self-care is a must but as social workers we should simultaneously engage in efforts to acknowledge, identify, confront and transform societal oppressions that frame (and sometimes fuels) the burn out. If not our efforts to successfully facilitate our well-being, especially those of us who continue to experience oppression based on such factors as race, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, to name a few, will have limited success.

Cynthia Tyson, PhD, MSW, LSW more than 2 years ago

Response to Cynthia Tyson

Thank you so much for writing, Cynthia. Your points are essential, and of course will be included when I can go beyond mere framing of an issue. They are highlighted in my proposal for a second edition of Burnout and Self-Care in Social Work, where I hope to add Societal Burnout to the codification (and interaction) of Personal, Profession, Social (Relational), and Physical manifestations of burnout. Do I have your permission to quote you in a second edition, if my proposal is accepted? If so, please let me know: www.sarakaysmullens.com. And again, thanks so much for writing! I appreciate Cherie and your essential comments very much.

SaraKay Smullens more than 2 years ago

Continued response to Cynthia Tyson

Cynthia, I'd like to share the following post to friends and colleagues, which highlight what you clearly note -- the responsibilities of a social work degree...

Dear friends,
I want you to know the primary reason I describe my work on this page, rather than only on a professional page. The profession of social work, my chosen profession -- one with a proud and accomplished history -- is so very deeply misunderstood. On this page I try to show what millions of us do all over the world. When horrible things happen to children, our profession is largely blamed; however, those referred to as case workers and social workers in these tragic situations, rarely have a social work degree. Our profession is the mother of family therapy, marriage therapy, family life education, sex education, political activism (shared with other professions), as well as short term interactive therapy (Otto Rank and functional casework, parented at the U of P School of Social Work, now SP2). In fact all of the phenomenal degrees now offered at SP2, in addition to an MSW, are Macro Social Work. As a profession, we rarely are mentioned or footnoted for all we have contributed and parented. Also, I am frequently asked what makes social work family therapy and psychotherapy different from the work of other professionals who practice it. There are, of course, highly skilled and devoted therapists in every degree specialty: What makes social work different is that regardless of our direction and
success, our degree marks a promise to work tirelessly for opportunities for those without privilege and power, and to support the laws that offer protection and opportunity. I am so deeply proud of my profession, and to be among the millions who practice it world-wide. And I use this page to do my best to explain who we are and what motivates us, and ever will. Thanks so very much for taking the time to read this, and understand.

SaraKay Smullens more than 2 years ago

Social work is different

The way in which you articulate what makes social work different from highly skilled and devoted therapists is not only profound, but it also depicts my sentiments towards my decision to become an MSW. I was a stay at home mother for 26 years and raised 4 beautiful biracial children practically on my own. As they began to thrive I went back to college. At 49 I finalized my undergrad and majored in Psychology with an emphasis in children and family and minored in Spanish. I was accepted into a competitive clinical counseling program, but was not content to be just an LCPC. Social work is different. At 50, I am pursuing my MSW and will dedicate the second half of my life "working tirelessly for opportunities for those without privilege and power, and to support the laws that offer protection and opportunity." I truly understand, appreciate and thank you for your professional contributions, literary work and ability to generously share your knowledge with others.

Christine Woodward more than 2 years ago

Response to Christine

Dear Christine,
I have just seen your comments, which mean so much to me. Thank you for taking the time to write. I am not in my office now, and will respond more completely in few hours. To be continued. SaraKay

SaraKay Smullens more than 2 years ago

Response to Christine

Dear Christine,
I want to respond to your kind and generous words. I am so glad we both share
passion for social work and am deeply respectful of your chosen academic and professional paths. Social work is a very hard and often painful profession. But I am deeply, constantly moved by the determination in my clients to live meaningfully and provide hope and guidance for their children. I feel through your words that your children are blessed, and I know your clients are also, Perhaps you have seen this research: those who come to social work with life experience have less burnout and deep fulfillment,

Because you graciously shared some of your past with me, I want to share an event in my young adult life: I was a grad student in social work at the same time my first husband was a law student at the same university. The year was 1964; I was the only social work student at a party with law students, and the conversation turned to the best route to laws that could address the perverse injustices of prejudice and racism. I listened intently, and after about an hour one of the students present asked me for my thoughts, I said that all the legal commitments toward equal opportunity and justice being discussed touched me deeply. I also said that for many complex reasons the hatred that underlies racism would not be easy to eliminate. I added what I believed then and continue to believe: When individuals are free to love and commit to whom they choose (even if the relationships do not last), America's children will be many exquisite colors, each loved for who they are, And this love will eventually work with necessary laws and protections to kick the hell out of pervasive racism. We are not there yet, but we will be.

Above all, thanks so much for writing and introducing yourself, Christine, I so appreciate your time and words, and wish you and yours so very well!

SaraKay Smullens more than 2 years ago

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