When I decided to do my Masters of Social Work, I had nightmarish recollections of the burnout I’d experienced during my undergrad. I spent semester after semester toiling over assignments, years sacrificing weekends, and repeatedly asked the universe if my degree would ever end. I was determined to enjoy being a grad student and still make time for a fulfilling life outside the realm of my academic pursuits. I became interested in researching self care: what it is and how to do it well. I discovered early on in my masters that social work is a profession that (ideally) prioritizes self care, if not at least touts it as important in abating social worker burnout.
Social workers experience higher rates of burnout than other comparable professions as a result of developing intense relationships with their clients and being involved in complicated social situations often with high levels of conflict.1 When chronic stress leads to burnout, social workers’ effectiveness diminishes over time, as more of their energy becomes devoted to personal coping rather than helping clients.2
So how do we keep burnout at bay?
I asked experienced social workers how they practice self care and found that most of them believe that creating a cognitive barrier between your professional and non-professional self is the way to avoid burnout. For them, this involves tangible markers that symbolically partition ‘work time’ from ‘normal life’. The intention is to not allow the burdens of work to impede on your private life. This idea sounds like the opposite to leaving your personal problems at home and not allow them to affect your work: Leave your professional problems at work, don’t allow them to affect your private life.
For example, one of my tutors stated that when she was a practicing social worker, she would allow herself to think about work on her drive home only until she reached a specific tunnel on her route. After the tunnel, she would mentally move on. The tunnel symbolized a barrier between her work experience and home life. I also asked a seasoned counsellor how she practices self care. She said that she would wear a watch during work hours, then leave it in her desk drawer before going home. Wearing the watch symbolized that she was in professional mode.
Beyond these anecdotes, I feel an affinity with the idea that self care should take into account spiritual, mental, emotional, social, and physical well-being.3 Aside from creating a barrier between our work and social life, what we actually do in our private time matters to our overall wellbeing. As a student, I haven’t experienced burnout resulting from the cumulative effects of professional social work. Yet, I still feel that student burnout impacts our enjoyment of life and overall productivity. For me, self care is about making sure that I still have an identity outside of my studies. During my undergrad, I was so consumed by school that I abandoned fitness, friends, and hobbies. I was admittedly miserable and couldn’t wait for my degree to end. Now I am making a more concerted effort to stay healthy while studying.
For social work students, the importance of developing self-awareness is integral to our development as professionals, and can impact our wellbeing.4 Throughout my masters this has been encouraged through the promotion of reflective journaling. Knowing yourself means being able to recognize when you’re becoming burnt out, or knowing what is likely to cause you to burnout. This knowledge can help abate burnout before it occurs.
In my life, self care looks like this:
- playing ukulele
- going to the movies
- going for walks and bike rides
- making time for friends and family
- having a glass of wine when I want to unwind
- getting a minimum of 7-8 hours of sleep per night
- remembering that my identity is more than being a student
What are your approaches to keeping burnout at bay?
1 Lloyd, C., King, R., & Chenoweth, L. (2002). Social work, stress, and burnout: A review. Journal of Mental Health, 11(3), 255-265
2 Collings, J. & Murray, P. (1996). Predictors of stress amongst social workers: An empirical study. British Journal of Social Work, 26, 375-387.
3Moore, S. E., Bledsoe, L. K., Perry, R. A., & Robinson, M. A. (2011). Social work students and self-care: A model assignment for teaching. Journal of Social Work Education, 47(3), 545-553.
4Zellmer, D. D. (2004). Teaching to prevent burnout in the helping professions. Analytic Teaching, 24(1), 20-25.