With all that students learn during an MSW program, their training devotes very little to the many personal challenges that can come with the profession, burnout specifically. Call it chronic work stress or compassion fatigue, burnout typically happens when social workers devote so much time and energy to taking care of their clients that it results in the expense of their health.
The condition is incredibly common in social work—and there’s ample research to prove it. In one 2006 survey of 1,000 practicing social workers, 34 percent reported a current state burnout. Overall, 75 percent dealt with burnout at some point in their careers.
How does it happen? For one, social workers are known for dealing with such a routine of crushing, back-to-back caseloads that “lunch break" is often left out of their workday vocabulary. And as for that workday, it’s anything but typical. Many professionals spend most of their time among the communities they work with rather than in an office. They tend to be responsible for making an impact in immediate ways, whether attending court hearings, meeting with clients in their homes, supervising family visits, and advocating for their clients’ needs on the local, county, state, or national level.
Given the emotional demands that typically pave the road to clients’ success, secondary trauma, a specific type of burnout, is becoming increasingly common in the field. The condition is primarily as the emotional strain that occurs after extensive work with clients in particularly extreme situations. Often social workers experiencing secondary trauma report symptoms mirroring those experienced by trauma victims themselves.
Many who pursue degrees in social work are naturally compassionate with a high degree of empathy, and an even higher work ethic. These are attributes that lend themselves well to working with clients and colleagues, but makes the need for awareness surrounding burnout in the field critical. From poverty and homelessness to mental illness and substance abuse, social workers serve our world’s most vulnerable populations—but too often forget they’re vulnerable too. By recognizing the signs of burnout, they’ll be able to take action and minimize its effects on their work and life.
When handling crises daily, it's easy to become frustrated with clients and colleagues and even with friends and family. But with patience, you’re able to step back and regroup instead of aggressively reacting or hastily giving up on someone who’s causing you immediate stress.
In cases of burnout, a lack of patience can often result in irritability, manifesting in the feelings of ineffectiveness or uselessness, disappointment over a dip in productivity, worsening performance, or the sense that you're not able to do things like you used to. It’s a mindset that may cause you to snap at people and overreact to minor things, whether it’s traffic on the way to or from client appointments or a faulty Internet connection during a remote counseling session.
In a 2007 study, researchers found that while 7.8 percent of the general population experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) over a lifetime, 15 percent of the social workers surveyed met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD within the week before being surveyed. The statistics aren’t surprising when you think of social workers throughout the field. Whether they work with disaster victims, abused children, or people who have experienced combat firsthand, they tend to hear the same traumatic stories over and over that ultimately can lead them to produce traumatic thoughts and images of an event or experience.
Along with flashbacks, PTSD can also cause social workers to become hypersensitive to sudden events in their environment through an unusually strong reflexive reaction, known as the “startle response." This biologically programmed sequence of movements can keep us safe in the face of sudden danger. It can involve involuntarily covering vulnerable parts of the body like the back of the neck or throat. When dealing with PTSD as a result of their care, social workers may find that they’re more easily startled or become increasingly distressed by the experience of being startled.
More and more social workers are feeling tired and lonely at work. What’s more, the more they are exhausted, the more isolated they feel. Like many who feel burnout, it’s a cycle that can lead those in the field to feel ashamed about their work and begin to isolate themselves from others. In its early stages, social workers may brush off isolation as a temporary resistance to socializing, whether opting out of weekend plans or closing their office door.
Over time, they may form a tendency to avoid existing support systems that are either formalized or casual—like a mentor, professional organization, or group of colleagues who meet up once a week. By doing so, they not only shy away from a source of encouragement but also decrease their chances of self-preservation.
It’s incredibly easy for social workers to feel overwhelmed by a rotating schedule of traumatic events, lacking resources, and sometimes, a sense of guilt at their inability to fully meet the demands of their workloads. Work-related stress and anxiety are insidious in the face of burnout—and overtime can become dispiriting and disconcerting. What’s worse, this newfound uneasiness typically concerns things they can’t change—or at the very least, change overnight.
Take, for example, the experience of having a conversation with a client. Newfound anxiety may prompt some social workers to notice flaws in the flow of the conversation or worry if they talked too much, or too little. For others, burnout and exhaustion may create an increased sense of disconnect from their jobs, prompting fears that their inability to stay focused or productive will be noticeable enough to provoke criticism from their colleagues or harm the people they serve.
Whether you’re just starting in the field or have been practicing in it for decades, every social worker is susceptible to burnout. To combat it, you’ll need to recognize the significant stressors of your work and how these issues manifest mental, physical, and emotionally. From here, you might consider developing a self-care plan that focuses on energizing, engaging experiences that maximize your time outside of work, such as going for a hike or meeting an old friend for a meal.
When struggling, it’s also incredibly beneficial to talk with friends or family about what you’re going through to help improve your situation. Depending on your relationship with your boss or manager, you may also turn to them for help evaluating your options and coming up with solutions to help you feel more aligned with your work. In any situation, know that it’s best to deal with burnout in its early stages. Neglecting your health for too long could have severe consequences for your health and career.
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