Like their colleagues in other healthcare and behavioral health fields, social workers have been feeling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic as they care for their clients.
“In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, social workers everywhere are faced with anxious clients, overwhelming work demands, and challenging decisions that involve the safety of clients, and also their own personal safety,” Alexandrya Blackmon and Terricka Hardy write on SocialWorkblog.org.
Meeting the needs of clients is part of being an empathizing and caring social worker, especially during crises. But the increased responsibilities of caring for others can easily lead social workers to neglect themselves. In such circumstances, self-care for social workers becomes especially important.
“Generally speaking, social workers can be found doing their best work in critical times,” Blackmon and Hardy continue. “We are in high demand right now and for good reason. From coast to coast, the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting everyone, both clients and social work professionals, without discrimination. … With the increasing work demands and stress, it is imperative that social workers across all practice settings are practicing professional and personal self-care.”
Earning a master’s in social work degree, including in an online program such as the one offered at Ohio University, can help social workers understand the importance of self-care in maintaining mental and physical health throughout their careers.
What to Expect During a Crisis
Self-care for healthcare professionals, including social workers, is important both for maintaining a healthy balance between the work and non-work parts of life and preventing burnout.
The New York Office of Mental Health (OMH) details the impact that a pandemic can have on healthcare responders. It also includes ways they can monitor their stress and protect themselves from the physical and emotional toll caused by the crisis.
“You are unique in that, in the normal course of your work, you are repeatedly exposed to extraordinarily stressful events. This places you at a higher-than-normal risk for developing stress reactions,” states the OMH web page, “Self-Care Tips for Healthcare Responders During the Pandemic Influenza.”
Manageable levels of stress can sharpen people’s attention, help them work more efficiently, and support their coping skills, even in threatening situations. The problem comes when stress is overwhelming or goes on for a long time.
“When stress arousal reaches maximum effect, however, the gain in performance is lost and your performance and health begin to deteriorate,” the website notes. “Should your stress response be active for a long period of time, it can damage the cardiovascular, immune, and nervous systems. … The stress response becomes a problem when you cannot turn it off, it lasts too long, or it interferes with your daily life.”
The web page goes on to explain that social workers and their colleagues may experience certain predictable reactions during a prolonged disaster, including:
- Not wanting to leave when work is finished, regardless of whether their replacement has arrived
- Trying to override stress and fatigue with dedication and commitment
- Denying the need for rest and recovery time
- Experiencing sadness, grief, or anger triggered by the enormity of the situation
Reactions that healthcare workers, including social workers, should be aware of – and seek help for, if they become a problem – can include:
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Headaches and other aches and pains
- Weight loss or gain
- Sweating or chills
- Tremors or muscle twitching
- Chronic fatigue or sleep disturbances
- Feeling heroic, euphoric, or vulnerable
- Anxiety or fear
- Slow thought processes and lack of concentration
- Difficulty setting priorities or making decisions
- Loss of objectivity
- Difficulty giving or accepting support or help
- Inability to experience pleasure or have fun
In times of crisis, forgoing basic needs for self-care may seem tempting and almost obligatory.
“However, remember that your physical safety (as well as psychological) is paramount. Bluntly, you cannot continue to serve clients if your health is compromised,” Erlene Grise-Owens and Linda May Grobman write in a recent article on SocialWorker.com.
“You are not being unrealistic to expect that your safety is prioritized. As with all self-care, this mindset is not being selfish or unprofessional. Actually, your self-care/safety impacts your ability to provide ethical, competent services. For instance, if you aren’t protected, you’re putting those with whom you have contact (your family, clients, colleagues, and so forth) at risk.”
Self-Care Strategies for Dealing with Pandemic Stress
As members of a helping profession, social workers have to be careful to practice self-care throughout their careers. Basic advice includes getting regular exercise, practicing yoga or meditation, eating healthy foods, sleeping seven or eight hours a night, and practicing mindfulness.
During a pandemic, additional strategies may help social workers cope. Blackmon and Hardy offer these techniques:
- Acknowledge that you are human and remember that you are doing everything you can during an especially difficult time right now.
- Establish and maintain boundaries between home and work.
- Be aware of your breathing as a way to ground yourself. For example, breathe in deeply for a count of 10, then exhale for an account of 10. Repeat a few more times. As you breathe, observe how your diaphragm expands and contracts. Roll your shoulders to release stress and relax them, and make sure your head is centered on your neck and shoulders.
- Use positive words of affirmation, such as “I am ____ and I can ____.”
- Keep a journal, whether with pen and paper or the latest apps.
- Give and receive support, whether from colleagues, friends, or family.
- Cry if you need to – it’s perfectly normal and OK.
- Laughter relieves stress, so watch some comedies or take time to joke around with colleagues.
About Ohio University’s Online Master of Social Work (MSW) Program
Ohio University’s online Master of Social Work program offers three start dates per year and the chance to complete the degree program in as few as 24 months. In addition to the prestigious CSWE accreditation, Ohio University is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, one of the leading accreditation agencies in the United States.
SocialWorkBlog.org, “The Art of Self-Care for Social Workers”
N.Y. State Office of Mental Health, “Self–Care Tips for Healthcare Responders During the Pandemic Influenza”
SocialWorker.com, “Safety and COVID-19 in Our Professional Social Work Roles: Rights, Responsibilities, and Resources”