How Social Workers Can Prioritize Self-Care in High-Stress Working Environments

  • Practice

Mitigate your risk for experiencing secondary trauma and burnout by implementing these tips for promoting mental wellbeing while working in a demanding social services role.

Improving the wellbeing of others and ensuring every person’s basic human needs are met are among the principal goals of social services and mental health care work.

Of course, many social work roles include a particular focus on addressing the needs of underserved populations. Since many professionals in these roles must help their clients grapple with trauma on a daily basis, they are often at high risk for experiencing stress and burnout. And yet, due to the service-minded nature of social work and mental health care, practitioners’ own mental health needs tend to go overlooked.

Not only are organizational support systems often ill-equipped to meet social workers’ needs, but many social workers feel pressure to “always be on”—and as a result, may inadvertently neglect their own mental wellness.

Steve Hydon, clinical professor in field education, explained the most common types and causes of stress social services professionals experience as a result of their work, and offered actionable tips for mitigating stress and promoting mental wellbeing.

Understanding secondary trauma

“Among the most common negative mental health effects of dealing with others’ trauma every day is secondary trauma,” said Hydon, whose expertise in secondary traumatic stress has informed research and intervention strategies for K-12 teachers across Los Angeles County.

Secondary trauma, also referred to as vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue, is the indirect exposure to trauma through the reception of a firsthand account of another’s traumatic experience. According to the American Counseling Association, care providers may experience secondary trauma as a result of becoming “witnesses to the pain, fear, and terror that trauma survivors have endured.”

This phenomenon can lead to a symptomology comparable to that of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including reexperiencing, hyperarousal and avoidance. Clinicians who have experienced secondary trauma may find themselves unable to stop thinking about a certain client’s traumatic past, or alternatively, may find themselves purposefully avoiding the subject or even feeling numb toward it.

While there is a lack of consensus in the psychological community as to whether secondary traumatic stress can be fully pathologized or should be understood solely as a reaction, a small percentage of clinicians do develop fully diagnosable PTSD as a result of their work.

Understanding burnout

Conversely, Hydon said, “burnout occurs over time, rather than in response to a singular narrative or experience.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, work-related burnout is “a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.” Changes in somatic and behavioral functioning may also occur as a result of burnout, says Christina Maslach, a pioneering researcher of the phenomenon and creator of the Maslach Burnout Inventory (a scale for measuring burnout levels).

As research published in the Journal of Mental Health points out, even within service-focused roles, social workers may experience higher levels of stress and burnout than those in comparable occupational jobs.

There are also a bevy of other factors that may affect an individual’s risk for experiencing secondary traumatic stress or burnout. For instance, research on child welfare workers indicates that factors such as gender identity, age and religious affiliation may play a significant role in determining risk: younger male workers in these positions were found to be at higher risk for both secondary traumatic stress and burnout.

Guidelines for practicing effective self-care

“Experiencing secondary traumatic stress or burnout can impact social workers’ ability to do their jobs effectively. “[As such, it’s] critical that social workers attend to their own mental wellbeing so they can succeed in meeting the needs of others,” Hydon said.

He went on to point out that there is not enough evidence to identify a correlative distinction between the stress risk levels of social workers practicing at the micro, mezzo and macro levels. With that said, there is emerging research that reveals the effects of what is known as “community stress,” which can have a direct impact at the individual level.

“I think it’s safe to say that social workers of all kinds—whether working with clients one-one-one or practicing community organizing and advocacy—can experience secondary trauma and burnout as a result of the stressors they experience at work,” Hydon said.

He presented the following four-step self-care plan as a way for social workers to mitigate their stress levels and prevent burnout:

1. Practice self-awareness

According to Hydon, the first step in self-care is recognizing the stressors at play and assessing how they may be manifesting somatically, cognitively and behaviorally.

“Clinical practitioners may begin to pick up on a client’s trauma without consciously realizing it,” he said. “This can manifest in ways ranging from irregular sleep patterns and increased irritability to avoidance tactics and issues with navigating interpersonal relationships.”

It’s up to care professionals themselves to become aware of the unique ways in which their occupational stress may be affecting them both inside and outside of professional settings.

2. Divide the mission of self-care into categories

“While it’s important to understand self-care holistically—it includes physical health, intellectual stimulation, and environmental and spiritual wellbeing—addressing one’s own needs can feel overwhelming when broached as a whole project,” Hydon said. “In my work with educators in the L.A. school system, I’ve found it more effective to break self-care into individual domains.”

He went on to say, “Self-care becomes more manageable when you don’t think about all of the many things you could be doing to better care for yourself, but instead focus on a set of goals related to one part of your overall wellbeing.” Hydon suggested that the best way to begin developing a self-care plan is to make a commitment to address a single domain—for instance, physical health.

3. Create a detailed self-care plan

Once a person has selected a single area of focus, they can create a self-care plan by setting specific benchmarks within their chosen domain.

“The most effective way to operationalize a goal is to set measurable, reachable and time-specific objectives,” Hydon said. “The goal, ‘I want to exercise more,’ is not specific enough—define what kind of exercise, how often you’ll exercise, how long you’ll exercise, and where you’ll exercise.”

Eventually, Hydon said, one will be able to tackle additional domains of self-care and create—and follow—unique plans for physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual wellbeing.

4. Stay accountable

In research conducted in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Education, Hydon found that strong systemic supports that encourage and facilitate self-care can effectively mitigate secondary traumatic stress and boost resilience among professionals occupying service-based roles. Additional research underscores this conclusion as it applies to social workers, suggesting that supervision and team support act as safeguards against burnout.

“In my research in K-12 Los Angeles schools, we discovered widespread compassion satisfaction, which is essentially the opposite of compassion fatigue,” Hydon said. “Educators felt fulfilled by the compassionate connections experienced in their daily work and did not suffer stress as a result of this work—in large part thanks to the structural supports of districts’ outreach and comprehensive services, as well as the social support they received from colleagues.”

Hydon emphasized that support systems that are either formalized or casual—such as a self-formed group of colleagues who agree to meet once per week to go on walks together—offer not only emotional support, but an increased level of accountability for delivering on one’s personal self-care plan. If they don’t want to attend therapy or engage with formalized services, social workers can ask a friend or loved one to follow up with them to ensure they’re fulfilling their self-care commitments.

Creating increased awareness about the stress of social work

“Whether you're just starting your career or you’ve been practicing for 20 years, every social worker is susceptible to the stressors that are part and parcel of the profession,” Hydon said. “It’s important that none of us neglect our own needs and that others outside of the profession have an awareness of the unique risks of social work so they can act as better supporters and advocates to create systems that mitigate some of these risks.”

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