Despite the emotional exhaustion it may bring, social workers do what they do because they care. The hard part about caring in an emotional career is the way it can affect you after hours.
When I played club soccer, our team motto was “leave it all on the field.” The idea was to accept losses and not dwell on them. Perhaps a lost championship would make the dinner table a bit more solemn. But by the time we were playing again, we played to win.
In the workforce, perhaps dealing with the tough days is similar to dealing with losses in sports. Social work is an easy job to take home given the sensitivity of some situations. Certain “losses” can affect you emotionally. How do you mourn a difficult day and ready yourself for the next battle?
Are you familiar with the children’s book and song “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt”? Authors Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury tell the tale of a family who decide go looking for a bear and, along the way, encounter frightening obstacles that they have no choice but to deal with.
Social workers similarly hunt bears every day by willingly entering tense circumstances and unpredictable situations. And, like the children’s story, “We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh no! We’ve got to go through it!”. Avoiding the emotional fatigue of this compassionate line of work can lead to apathy which can quickly lead to burnout. Instead of dwelling on a difficult circumstance or trying to put it out of your mind completely, you must go through it.
Here are four steps to help you go through it: First, recap the situation or circumstance. What happened? Give yourself a moment to revisit the occurrence as it was. Secondly, evaluate it. What was your response and what actions did you take? What worked and what didn’t? Third, process how it affects you. What does the situation remind you of? What are your doubts and fears associated with what happened? Finally, once you address your emotional takeaway, move towards acceptance. Accept that you are doing what you can and be empowered to keep doing what you can.
Oftentimes social work isn’t confined to office space, which can create blurred lines between your job and your personal life. Even if you do have an office that you work out of daily, try confining your belongings to avoid physically bringing work home with you.
Take, for example, your cell phone. Avoid checking work email accounts on your personal cell phone altogether. If that’s not possible, turn off email notifications and avoid checking your work account when you’re off the clock. You can also confine notebooks, tote bags, and certain outfits to separate work and home life. Creating a physical boundary between the two worlds will help you leave the emotional stress of social work on the field, whether that be your workplace, home office, or somewhere in town you frequent with a client.
And when you do clock off, give yourself time to transition into your personal life. The Harvard Business Review, in an article called Don’t Take Work Stress Home With You, suggests that “Sometimes your brain needs a signal to prepare you for time at home. It’s even better if this signal can help you decompress.” Maybe this means going to the gym after the work day or taking the scenic route home. This will give you time to evaluate your day, relieve the stress of it, and leave it where it belongs.