Social work is a challenging profession. In this industry, we handle high caseloads and battle decreasing resources to do our best to serve clients. But if social workers lack the right supports, it can sometimes feel like it’s too much. Unfortunately, the stressed out, burned out social worker is a stereotype that holds some truth.
Social workers are at the highest risk of occupational burnout in the early years of their careers. In these initial years, social workers often work with the neediest clients, often at agencies that lack the resources to provide as much support as clients need. Compassion fatigue, exhaustion from balancing long hours with licensure exam prep, and lack of support can lead to new social workers seeking new career paths.
To minimize risk of burn out and continue to serve clients as a social worker for many years to come, social workers need to develop two critical skills: resilience and perseverance. Resilience is the ability to recover quickly from difficult challenges. Resilient social workers, for example, can easily bounce back from a case with a challenging ending to help new clients. They’re also able to come back from other roadblocks, like not passing the licensure exam on the first try, and attempt it again.
Perseverance is the skill of continuing persistence through challenges. Social workers who persevere will go the extra mile to help clients despite challenges accessing resources. They’ll find the extra time to study for the exam even though they had a difficult day at work.
The good news is that all of us can develop resilience and perseverance. If you’re feeling burned out by work or exam prep, these resources and techniques will help you grow those skills:
1. Self-Love and compassion.
We can work through our own feelings of inadequacy as social workers by developing self-compassion and loving ourselves through difficult days and times. Self-love goes beyond basic self-care, like eating foods that nourish us and getting enough sleep. Radical personal compassion is being able to accept ourselves when we make mistakes at work. It’s being able to love ourselves if we’re having a difficult time mastering a concept on the exam or if a client or colleague said something that day that made us feel bad.
The next time you notice yourself starting to think negatively about your work as a social worker, change the statement to one of radical acceptance and self-compassion. Self-love makes us infinitely more resilient and able to persevere through the tough cases.
2. A supportive peer group.
Social workers can grow self-love and compassion to greater depths by growing their network. A supportive, caring peer group of social workers will help social workers develop radical compassion, both for themselves and fellow colleagues. If your workplace doesn’t offer such a group for the company’s social workers, see if you can get one started. Other places to form groups include on university campuses for students or groups run by licensed social workers supervising and supporting early career professionals. Depending on the focus of the group, these support networks are a great opportunity to commiserate, get help on cases, and study for the exam.
Formal and informal support groups help social workers persevere and improve resilience through strong sense of community. Now is the time to connect with other social workers.
3. Reframing our story.
Social workers learn to help clients reframe their thoughts and feelings, and it’s possible to use the same techniques on ourselves. When you have a negative thought or feeling about a day at work, it’s almost always possible to reframe it into a more positive learning experience. Instead of focusing on what didn’t go well, focus on the areas where you succeeded. Staying positive is an important part of developing resilience, and by continuing to see the good side of our work and exam prep, it’s easier to persevere.