Social Work

How Are Social Workers Trained to Avoid Burnout?

How Are Social Workers Trained to Avoid Burnout?
Burnout often prevents social workers from meeting their ethical obligations to their clients. Image from Pexels
Ginny Bartolone profile
Ginny Bartolone March 10, 2022

Social worker burnout results from enormous caseloads, poor supervision, compassion fatigue, and more—all impacting one’s mental health. Fortunately, there are numerous anti-burnout self-care strategies to employ.

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The COVID-19 pandemic was especially hard on social workers. Like their frontline colleagues in the healthcare profession, social workers were under enormous duress while striving to meet the needs of their clients in extraordinarily difficult—and potentially life-threatening—circumstances.

Indeed, a study of 20,947 healthcare workers performed several months into the pandemic in 2020 and published in the British medical journal The Lancet found that stress scores were highest among social workers, nursing assistants, and medical assistants. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the prevalence of burnout among social workers in this group was among the highest (59.8 percent) and social workers were among the groups that most often indicated they were overloaded with caseloads and work (over 50 percent).

Sadly, the added stress of attempting to perform their jobs well during the pandemic led many social workers to leave the field. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the healthcare and social services professions had ‘quit rates’ as high as many of the industries most impacted by the pandemic in 2020 and 2021 (such as manufacturing and construction).

Social worker burnout during the worst months of the pandemic was so ubiquitous that in its COVID-19 resources, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) included a whole page on Self-Care for Social Workers on its website.

Yet, burnout among social workers dogged professionals in this field long before COVID-19—and its pernicious effects impact both social workers and clients. Burnout “is characterized by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment”. These stressors often prevent social workers from meeting their ethical obligations to their clients.

Researchers have spent decades investigating social work burnout-related topics like compassion fatigue and secondary trauma to help the social work field better address these issues. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the work, the chronic underfunding of social services (and overwork and lack of managerial support), and the enormous need for their help, social workers must often bear the onus of trying to prevent burnout themselves.

In this guide, we’ll answer the question how are social workers trained to avoid burnout as well as explore the following topics:

  • How common is it for social workers to burnout?
  • How are social workers trained to avoid burnout?
  • How do social work programs teach social workers to avoid job burnout?

How common is it for social workers to burnout?

Social work burnout is very common. One well-known study from 2005 indicated that social workers experienced a “current burnout rate of 39 percent and a lifetime rate of 75 percent.”. Another pre-pandemic 2016 study noted that over 80 percent of social workers thought that it was easy to burnout in their profession—and 70 percent of them reported “always having too much work to do.” A UK study revealed a 6.4 percent increasein self-reported burnout scores among social workers, an especially significant number given the relatively high pre-pandemic burnout scores.


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How are social workers trained to avoid burnout?

While self-care strategies such as maintaining an active social life, getting enough sleep, eating well, and exercising are at the heart of any self-care plan, many professional social work organizations have provided resources beyond these basic wellness recommendations.

For example, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) spotlights social worker Kelley Bonner, who teaches resiliency tactics to social work professionals. One of her strategies involves identifying one’s personal and professional mission and being aware of how they’re interconnected (i.e., how one’s mission in life is connected to their practice of social work and the clients they assist). Bonner also encourages social workers to recognize their daily progress, maintain emotional boundaries when interacting with clients, and acknowledge the limits to what they can accomplish each workday.

Social workers are advised to focus on elements immediately within their control to combat burnout. For example, during the pandemic, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) urgedsocial workers to reach out to their professional network and organization for support when trying to maintain personal self-care tactics.

The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) issued COVID-19 self-care recommendations that included being flexible in one’s approach and adapting to less-than-optimal situations, being okay with saying no to taking on more work beyond one’s scope of responsibilities, taking sick days and time off when needed, avoiding a ‘just getting on with it’ attitude and seeking support when needed, limiting exposure to news and social media, asking questions and seeing out supervision, and using humor in a supportive context.

How do social work programs teach social workers to avoid job burnout?

In addition to the self-care awareness efforts of professional social work organizations, many Master of Social Work (MSW) programs provide resources and guidance to their social work students.

Dr. Charles Figley, a professor of social work at Tulane University School of Social Work endeavors to educate his students about identifying the signs of compassion fatigue and how to combat them. Dr. Figley explains that compassion fatigue (often referred to as secondary trauma or vicarious trauma) is “caused by the trauma of helping the traumatized” and is a build-up of this trauma in the social worker (and helps contribute to burnout).

Signs of compassion fatigue are:

  • Cognitive: Experiencing apathy, difficulty concentrating, obsessing over things.
  • Emotional: Feeling guilt, anger, sadness, helplessness, and numbness.
  • Behavioral: Becoming withdrawn, seeing changes in sleeping and appetite, and acting hypervigilant.
  • Physical: Increased heart rate, difficulty breathing, muscle/joint pain, impaired immune system.

According to Dr. Figley, compassion fatigue is prevented through maintaining a good work-life balance, taking assertiveness training (to set up boundaries), developing coping skills, having outlets for creative expression, and good nutrition. Compassion fatigue can be treated with counseling and in support groups, as well as through journaling and whatever self-care methods each person finds “an effective means of decompressing” and supporting their mental health.

While there are numerous self-care resources for both student and professional social workers to help them identify the signs of burnout, the burden of addressing and resolving the issue is placed on each social worker. Yet many of the conditions (low pay, overwork, lack of organizational support, etc.) that contribute to social work burnout are beyond their control. Until these systemic issues are addressed, social work burnout will continue to affect a large number of professionals in this field.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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