A social work career can be rewarding in many ways.
“Whether we are helping individuals or promoting social change, our profession provides opportunities for intellectual stimulation, emotional gratification, and the development of competence,” Deborah Lisansky Beck writes in “Mindfulness: 10 Lessons in Self-Care for Social Worker” in The New Social Worker.
“Although the benefits continue to expand over a lifetime, there are also challenges social workers to face that can create stress, disillusionment, ‘compassion fatigue,’ and even burnout.”
Social workers’ desire to help others, combined with frequently heavy caseloads assisting people dealing with anxiety or difficult life situations, can make them vulnerable to stress. As part of their practice, social workers may counsel their clients on various forms of self-care. But they often ignore their own needs, neglecting to engage in habits that can help them maintain their physical and mental health.
Making self-care a priority early in a career — or even as students in an online master’s in social work program — can help social workers more easily balance the career and personal sides of their lives.
Why Self-Care Matters
The key to a social worker’s long-term sustainability in the profession lies in finding self-care techniques that work for him or her and developing them into a regular practice. Not practicing self-care can have consequences for both social work practitioners and those they serve.
“Inadequate self-care may lead to emotional and energy depletion, which can affect the capability to actively problem-solve,” according to Jacquelyn J. Lee and Shari E. Miller in “A Self-Care Framework for Social Workers: Building a Strong Foundation for Practice in The Journal of Contemporary Social Sciences.
“These outcomes not only disrupt the potential for a healthy workforce but also may significantly impact the quality of service provision. If practitioners are limited in their capacity to fully be present and engage in their work with clients, the consequences could be devastating for those receiving services.”
Self-care, they continue, “may not only be crucial in preventing secondary traumatic stress, burnout, and high staff turnover, but it can serve as a means of empowerment that enables practitioners to proactively and intentionally negotiate their overall health, well-being, and resilience.”
Social workers can be quick to find obstructions to practicing self-care, Kate Jackson explains in “Social Worker Self-Care — The Overlooked Core Competency,” in Social Work Today.
“Among the obstacles experts identify as standing in the way of self-care are a lack of energy, too many responsibilities, and the fear of appearing weak or vulnerable,” she writes.
Social workers also have difficulty putting themselves first and seeing their needs as a priority, she continues.
Self-Care Options and Techniques
A variety of activities can help reduce stress, maintain and enhance their short and long-term health, and focus on their well-being. Social Work Community and Social Work Licensure suggest a number of ways to practice self-care, including:
- Practicing gratitude: A change in perspective is a simple way to have a positive impact on one’s outlook and the world. Techniques include journaling, talking with others, or just making mental notes.
- Exercising: Physical exercise is as much about the mind as the body. Sunlight is a known mood-booster, which helps people feel calmer and more focused. Fresh air can clear the mind, while yoga or tai chi can help with mental focus as well as flexibility and balance. Having an exercise buddy can help people stick to a routine.
- Eating well: The saying may be obvious, but we are what we eat. Nutritious foods contribute to both physical and mental health. Drinking an adequate amount of water helps too.
- Getting enough sleep. Most people need between seven and eight hours of sleep a night to be able to function effectively. Sleep problems can affect job performance, mood, social functioning, and physical and mental health.
Mindfulness, or the practice of paying attention to what we are experiencing, can be particularly helpful for social workers, according to SocialWorker.com.
Mindfulness “is a conscious effort to be with whatever is going on right now, without judging or criticizing what we find,” the online social work career magazine notes. “In each moment, mindfulness invites us to be awake, aware and accepting of ourselves. It also allows us to slow down the hectic pace we often keep and to attend to our lives more fully.”
Techniques include awareness of breathing, body awareness, single-focus tasking, and attention to what the article calls “the small wonders of life,” such as the way the sun hits the trees or the sound of nearby laughter.
“Take a moment to find them in your world,” the article suggests. “When you do, pause to honor what you have observed, and let yourself become aware of whatever feelings surface within. If you take the time to let the small wonders of life into your daily routine, you may find yourself better able to deal with the stressors you face along the way.”
Self-care is a vital component of a career in a helping profession. Social workers who find ways to look after their own health and well-being may be less susceptible to stress and burnout and better able to provide care to clients.
About Ohio University’s Online Master of Social Work Program
Ohio University’s online Master of Social Work degree program can prepare graduates for a range of positions in social work. In their efforts to help vulnerable populations handle life’s challenges, social workers may be involved in marriage and family therapy, foster care counseling, crisis counseling, or human resources. No matter what their field is, they may advise their clients on self-care strategies and techniques.
The program is 100% online, making it accessible for working professionals who want to pursue their degree while maintaining their work and family responsibilities.
The New Social Worker, Mindfulness, “10 Lessons in Self-Care for Social Workers”
ResearchGate, “A Self-Care Framework for Social Workers: Building a Strong Foundation for Practice”
Social Work Today, “Social Worker Self-Care — The Overlooked Core Competency”
MSWGuide.org, “How to Prevent Social Work Burnout for a Long and Healthy Career”
Social Work Community, “Top 10 – Self-Care Ideas”,
Social Work Licensure, “Self Care Tips”