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Self-Care for Social Workers: Seven Steps to Avoid Burnout

A key component to being a social worker is serving others during times of crisis. While social workers are often focused on taking care of other people’s needs, it’s critical that self-care is also a priority for social workers! Children, families and communities have access to life-changing opportunities and improved positive outcomes because of the tremendous impact social workers and caring professionals provide.

Though this work is rewarding, helping struggling children and teens lead healthier lives while overcoming significant obstacles is challenging and can sometimes lead to overwhelm. Social workers’ physical, mental and emotional load can feel a little lighter by practicing self-care. If done regularly and intentionally, self-care can help prevent burnout and allow each social worker to provide the best care possible. 

During National Social Work Month in March, we celebrate those who do this significant work in our communities, and we’re exploring strategies for social workers to care for themselves, too. Here are seven self-care tips to help social workers move through their careers while avoiding burnout. 

Self-Care Strategies

When we hear “self-care,” many of us picture pampering activities. But make no mistake: self-care is so much more than an occasional bubble bath! Self-care is a decision we make to practice prioritizing our health and well-being. We do this by intentionally engaging in activities that encourage the balance of our minds, bodies and spirits. 

Especially when stress is ongoing, like the stressful scenarios social workers often encounter, it’s necessary to make self-care a habit. Social workers are exposed to traumatic stories and experiences, safety concerns and stressful challenges — day in and day out. They often carry the heavy weight for those they serve. By utilizing these self-care tips, social workers will see a calming improvement inside and outside work. 

1. Acknowledge Your Limitations

Especially for those in the helping professions, going above and beyond is natural. But when the work gets heavy, understanding and acknowledging where your limits stand creates an awareness that is vital to self-care. Allow an honest approach with yourself, and avoid comparison. Be aware that each of us has different limitations in different seasons, and flexibility is needed in our acceptance. 

Recognizing our limitations and embracing them cultivates self-compassion. This compassion grounds us during distress and allows us to move through our limitations without judgment. If you find it challenging to work with your limitations, view it as a chance to learn and grow.

2. Maintain Boundaries

Setting (and repeatedly enforcing!) boundaries can go a long way on your self-care journey. Boundaries let the mind and body know when to stop and switch gears. Constantly blurring and mixing boundary lines confuses your internal thoughts and feelings. When boundary lines are crossed, our brain doesn’t know to differentiate where work ends, and where home begins. 

Practically, setting boundaries looks different for everyone and emergencies do arise from time to time. But you can begin establishing boundaries by signing off email outside work hours, or intentionally unplugging and closing your laptop when the work day is done. Make sure to allow yourself some transition time, and give yourself grace as you work on creating boundaries.

3. Practice Intentional Body Awareness

Have you ever noticed your shoulders shrugging toward your neck while sitting at a computer? Ever catch yourself holding your breath during different moments throughout the day? Or felt your leg muscles tighten after sitting in a chair for too long? Stress impacts us not only mentally, but physically, too. 

Stress can cause tension within the body. Throughout the day, tension builds and causes potential health issues to the body. Noticing when our bodies begin tensing or reacting in uncomfortable ways is the first step to bringing balance into our routines. Deep breathing exercises and pausing to stretch throughout the day will count toward improved self-care. 

4. Take a Recess

Try carving out a few times throughout the day to take a moment to refresh. Research shows that our bodies and minds work better with one to five-minute brain and movement breaks. So take a small break to get some fresh air outside. Even a quick walk around the parking lot can work wonders in the way of self-care. On a similar note, don’t overlook your lunch break! Try to eat lunch intentionally away from your desk for a nice change of scenery.

5. Have a Support Group

Finding people close to you who can lend an ear and foster a supportive attitude is essential to the wellbeing of a social worker. These individuals make up your team: people you can count on to be there for you when you need them most. Personal support groups often include family members, close friends and colleagues. But support can also be found in other types of groups too, like through a place of worship, a volunteerism organization, a neighborhood group or an exercise class. 

6. Regulate Through Calming Activities

self care for foster parents and social workersCalming activities help relax your body and mind — although the activities themselves do not necessarily have to be calm. A few favorites include journaling, yoga, meditation, a workout or doing arts and crafts. Other choices include dancing, listening to favorite music, playing a game or learning something new. 

To find the right calming activity for you, ask this question: Which activities take your mind off of the world around you? You can start with familiar favorites, or try something totally different from your normal routine. 

7. Laugh — Or Cry!

As the saying goes, laughter is the best medicine. The positive effects of laughing are proven and provide stress-relieving benefits for the short-term and long-term. Short-term effects include soothing tension with relaxed muscles, relieving your body’s stress response and increasing endorphins released by the brain. And the long-term effects of laughing include improving your immune system, reducing pain, more easily coping with difficult situations and improving your mood. 

Alternatively, letting the tears loose has its own benefits. Studies have found that emotional tears contain a different composition than normal tears. When we cry, our body releases mood-regulating manganese, which restores some balance to the body. Enjoy time laughing with friends and co-workers or watching a funny comedy, but also find a moment to release any tears you’re holding back. Laugh or cry, just don’t hold back.

One thing is for certain. Social workers need to remember that while they are busy taking care of everyone else, they cannot do their best if they do not take care of themselves, too. As a social worker at KVC, you’ll belong to a close-knit team and feel the deep sense of meaning that comes from providing life-changing help to children and families. Join a values-driven team that is passionate about transforming people’s experience of child welfare and mental health services. 

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