How stressful is social work? When U.S. News and World Report ranked the 20 most stressful jobs in February 2023, social work claimed five slots:
Why does social work rank alongside other highly stressful jobs such as structural iron and steelworker (which grabbed the top spot, in case you’re wondering), security guard, paramedic, and surgeon? In this article we’ll take a closer look at what makes social work stressful and how social workers cope with stress. The article addresses the following questions:
Social workers help people deal with some of life’s most-stressful situations, including:
It takes considerable empathy and compassion to address those problems. Facing high stress day in and day out may lead to compassion fatigue, also known as emotional exhaustion, secondary trauma, and vicarious trauma.
“Clinical practitioners may begin to pick up on a client’s trauma without consciously realizing it,” says Steve Hydon, a clinical professor in field education at the University of Southern California (USC) Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. “This can manifest in ways ranging from irregular sleep patterns and increased irritability to avoidance tactics and issues with navigating interpersonal relationships.”
Additional stressors for social workers may include high caseloads, personnel issues, limited resources, and high-pressure work environments such as courthouses, prisons, and hospitals. The complications of working during the COVID-19 pandemic added another layer of stress for many.
There are a couple of significant practical considerations:
- A Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in social work
- A license to practice or required social work certification
Credentials vary among careers, states, and territories. Licenses include:
- Certified Social Worker (CSW)
- Clinical Social Work Associate (CSWA)
- Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker (LAPSW)
- Licensed Advanced Social Worker (LASW)
- Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW)
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
- Licensed Graduate Social Worker (LGSW)
- Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
- Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP)
- Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)
Most of these licenses require a Master’s or Doctorate, along with additional coursework or clinical internships. ( )
A survey of 2017 social work graduates by the National Social Work Workforce Study found that social workers with Master’s degrees and Doctorates made substantially more than those with no advanced degree. ( )
- People with MSW degrees made $13,000-plus more than those with only BSW degrees
- MSWs make more in large cities or urban clusters
- People with doctorates earned $20,000 to $25,000 more than people with only MSW degrees
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Job stress can lead to social work burnout, a complicated mix of factors that can negatively impact someone’s personal life as well as their ability to work. The stress of the social work profession seems especially likely to lead to burnout.
A 2006 study asked 100 members of the North Carolina chapter of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) about their levels of burnout, covering personal trauma history, personal characteristics, workload, work experience, and occupational environment. Respondents showed a current burnout rate of 39 percent and a lifetime burnout rate of 75 percent.
“Social workers are often overworked and have heavy caseloads without much outside support,” according to Core Wellness. “Because they are so busy, social workers often choose to work through their lunches. Many avoid taking vacations because travel and relaxation take them away from their clients and their families. Add to the issue that social workers spend a significant amount of time in court, at client homes, and out in public, they need to finish paperwork on their own time–outside of the 40-hour workweek. Eventually, all of this work becomes too much, and social worker burnout happens.”
SaraKay Smullens wrote about social worker burnout in a 2013 article that was honored with an NASW Media Award. The article led to a book, Burnout and Self-Care in Social Work.
“Through the agencies of compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma, burnout systematically decreases our ability to relate to our clients, which strikes at the heart of our self-identification as a healer or positive force in society,” Smullens writes. “This in turn results in increased disaffection for our work, disconnection, and isolation.”
Several online sources provide the means to check. A blog from the College of Social Work at Florida State University lists social worker burnout symptoms:
The Mayo Clinic offers the following questions as self-assessment for burnout:
Answering yes to any of the above questions could be a sign of burnout.
Knowing the signs and symptoms of burnout may allow you to avoid it. Florida State offers eight tips to help you deal with stress, practice self-care, and head off burnout:
USC offers these tips to help social workers deal with stress:
That last recommendation proved its worth in a study of K-12 schools in Los Angeles, Hydon reported. Rather than compassion fatigue, he found “widespread compassion satisfaction” among educators with a strong support network.
Self-care needs to be routine but it doesn’t have to be time-consuming or expensive, burnout expert Kelley Bonner says. She told the NASW Social Work Talks podcast that less than 15 minutes a day can be effective.
“You have to take care of your body, you have to have physical self-care, you have to have mental self-care to care for your mind,” Bonner says. “You have to have emotional or self-care around your heart, self-care connecting yourself to the spiritual, and that doesn’t mean religion, it just means connecting to something bigger than yourself, whether it’s participation in the arts or meditation.”
The good news: Social work isn’t all doom and gloom. The Virginia Commonwealth University School of Social Work offers the following benefits of being a social worker:
Indeed offers its own list of social work benefits:
Erin Woelmer is a school social worker in Michigan. She acknowledged some of the challenges of social work in a Quora post while emphasizing the benefits.
“You are never bored,” Woelmer writes. “You go to bed every night knowing that you helped someone or planted a seed. You are exhausted by everyone’s needs when there are never enough resources. You get to see eyes brighten when people feel listened to and cared for. You get to use your big mouth to make big changes.”
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