Social Work

Social Work Stress Management

Social Work Stress Management
It takes considerable empathy and compassion to practice social work. Facing high stress day in and day out may lead to compassion fatigue, also known as emotional exhaustion, secondary trauma, and vicarious trauma. Image from Unsplash
Eddie Huffman profile
Eddie Huffman February 21, 2023

Social work is among the most stressful professions, experts agree. How can you reduce stress and increase job satisfaction in this challenging role? We have some tips.

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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:

  • Child and family social worker (4th)
  • Rehabilitation counselor (5th)
  • Clinical social worker (6th)
  • Marriage and family therapist (7th)
  • Mental health counselor (17th)

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:

  • What makes social work stressful?
  • Does social work have a high burnout rate?
  • Am I burnt out as a social worker?
  • What can I do to deal with stress as a social worker?
  • What are the benefits of social work?

What makes social work stressful?

Social workers help people deal with some of life’s most-stressful situations, including:

  • Child abuse and neglect
  • Mental illness
  • Poverty
  • Substance abuse
  • Violence
  • Disasters
  • Hospitalization
  • Death

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.


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Does social work have a high burnout rate?

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.”

Am I burnt out as a social worker?

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:

  • Lack of enthusiasm for work
  • Increased irritability with clients and peers
  • Losing focus easily
  • Lack of energy or drop in productivity
  • Sleep disruption
  • Mysterious medical issues
  • Engaging in such stress responses as overeating or getting intoxicated

The Mayo Clinic offers the following questions as self-assessment for burnout:

  • Have you grown pessimistic or derisive at work?
  • Do you have to force yourself to go to work and to get started on work responsibilities?
  • Do you lose patience with clients and peers? Do they regularly make you angry?
  • Are you listless and unproductive at work?
  • Do you lose concentration easily?
  • Are you constantly unsatisfied by your work results?
  • Do you feel disillusioned about your job?
  • Are you engaging in stress responses such as overeating or getting intoxicated?
  • Have your sleep habits changed?
  • Do you suffer unexplained headaches, stomach problems, or other physical ailments?

Answering yes to any of the above questions could be a sign of burnout.

What can I do to deal with stress as a social worker?

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:

  • Set limits on job and client demands
  • Eat, drink, and sleep healthfully
  • Establish and protect boundaries
  • Make time for you
  • Don’t take on your clients’ problems; maintain distance
  • Exercise
  • Take time off
  • Offload your stress to a counselor, friend, or partner

USC offers these tips to help social workers deal with stress:

  • Maintain self-awareness
  • Undertake a self-care regimen that includes exercise, intellectual stimulation, and good environmental and spiritual hygiene
  • Develop and execute a detailed self-care plan
  • Seek support from your supervisor, professional peers, or a close personal or family acquaintance

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.”

What are the benefits of social work?

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:

  • Social workers make a positive impact
  • Every day is different
  • Many opportunities for specialization
  • Flexible hours
  • Social work is a growing field

Indeed offers its own list of social work benefits:

  • Job market growth
  • Diversity of job opportunities
  • Opportunities for advancement
  • Ability to make a positive impact
  • Reasonable compensation
  • Variety of professional responsibilities

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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About the Author

Eddie Huffman is the author of John Prine: In Spite of Himself and a forthcoming biography of Doc Watson. He has written for Rolling Stone, the New York Times, Utne Reader, All Music Guide, Goldmine, the Virgin Islands Source, and many other publications.

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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