Social workers make the world a better place through their work helping those who struggle with illness, poverty, substance abuse disorders, and more. But in the course of such pursuits, social workers are exposed to pain, trauma, and human suffering; this can lead to an emotional state often described as secondary — or vicarious — trauma.
It should no surprise that social workers are susceptible to chronic exhaustion, potentially blunting creativity and diminishing optimism, and causing many to eventually burn out and leave the field because of the heavy emotional toll. In fact, as Dice.com recently reported, "burnout now has its own distinction with the World Health Organization (WHO) as a legitimate medical syndrome."
With this in mind, current and future social workers face an existential challenge: how to maintain their role as helpers without internalizing the hardship they see and succumbing to it.
The answer is self-care.
As it relates to social work, self-care means managing exposure to human suffering and resisting the urge to become over-involved. While beating burnout before it begins is easier said than done, social workers can start with the below list of books (and a podcast), which offer practical tools and inspiration on how to draw a healthy line between practitioner and sufferer.
By Erlene-Grise Owens, Justin Miller, Mindy Eaves
Rather than just discussing self-care, the authors of this easy-to-read guide apply an active, A-to-Z approach (A stands for awareness… and so on), offering concrete tools, resources, and strategies. The book discusses the often-overlooked role of employers in providing a healthy work environment for social workers and aiding stress reduction. Bonus: this book also provides additional resource lists for anyone wishing to go further in exploring self-care strategies.
By SaraKay Smullens
SaraKay Smullens covers all the important groundwork about burnout and self-care in A Guidebook for Students and Those in Mental Health and Related Professions, utilizing research, case studies, and questionnaires, A seasoned mental health practitioner herself, Smullens offers keen personal insights on countertransference and managing one's feelings for clients in the therapeutic relationship. Another standout feature: her book also serves as a how-to for students — not just professionals — on developing personal strategies for self-care.
By Loretta Pyles
Loretta Pyles' self-care book distinguishes itself by focusing on social workers serving as social practitioners, activists, and community organizers. Pyles explores the unique demands and strains placed on social workers by the causes, the communities, and individuals they serve. Healing Justice focuses on mindfulness and spirituality, leading readers on a spiritual journey that pulls from East-West frameworks, yoga, and Ayurvedic practices.
By Thomas M. Skovholt and Michele Trotter-Mathison
As we now know, the sense of purpose and joy that comes from serving others can eventually transform into a tension between caring for others and caring for oneself. Burnout Prevention draws from extensive research, offering a practical guide to managing burnout and compassion fatigue, for students, newbie graduates, and seasoned experts. Sharing real-life examples and posing self-reflection questions, authors Thomas M. Skovholt and Michele Trotter-Mathison challenge readers to assess their stress points and build resilience. Each chapter features a self-reflection exercise, making Burnout Prevention a great read for those who enjoy taking an active, experiential approach.
By Kathleen Cox and Sue Steiner
Like other books on this list, Self-Care in Social Work is a solid and practical tool for developing and maintaining self-awareness and managing burnout. Chapter exercises and discussion topics involve and engage readers, encouraging preemptive self-care (i.e. start before burnout starts to set in). Authors Kathleen Cox and Sue Steiner ask readers to consider organizational contexts for their stressors (Are they are employed in the right job? Are they a fit with the culture where they are employed? Is it supportive?), important and useful contexts for exploring how external forces cause burnout.
By Laura Van Dermoot Lipsky
Trauma Stewardship breaks with some of the other books on this list in that author Laura Van Dermoot Lipsky not only offers practical tools but also takes readers on a deeply spiritual journey. What does it mean to serve others? Lipsky asks readers to be mindful of how they respond to suffering. Among her suggestions: be present with trauma, find your inner compass (which she terms The Five Directions), and nurture your compassion. Lipsky guides readers in recognizing the crucial role of self-awareness in experiencing secondary trauma. First-person narratives and New Yorker cartoons add wisdom and humor to her message.
The mission of the NASW Social Work Talks Podcast is to "inform, educate, and inspire" through interviews with social work experts and "pioneers." One such pioneer is Dr. Kristen Lee, Ed. D., LICSW, a professor of behavioral science at Northeastern University, author of Mantelligence: A New Psychology of Thinking: Learn What it Takes to be More Agile, Mindful and Connected in Today's World and Reset: Make the Most of Your Stress: Your 24-7 Guide for Well-Being," and featured guest of episode 17, On Self-Care and Avoiding Burnout. Bringing more than 20 years of experience as a behavioral therapist, educator, and researcher, Lee offers a fresh take on building mental resilience. As she says explains her website: "I live and breathe and eat and study human resilience, authenticity and identity."
The aforementioned books can be purchased used, rented on an e-reader, or found in the library. Consider the purchase an investment in yourself, and the first step on your path to self-care.
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