Learning from Each Other: Reflecting on What Self Care Means in a Helping Profession
By Allie Long
Summer is a time that many of us look forward to: daylight stretches out almost endlessly, school vacation is here, and work typically slows down for many. But when you’re in a helping profession, sometimes what’s supposed to be a lazy season can feel more like you’re burning the candle from both ends— juggling life, work, and everything in between. Many of us have come to recognize this feeling firsthand as burnout.
Historically, “burnout” was first applied as a term by Freudenberger in 1975. Since then, this term has been widely felt and expressed as a phenomenon among people in various professions— most notably for those who dedicate themselves professionally to helping others. Burnout refers to a state of being “inoperative,” which can take the professional toll of feeling increased resignation, irritability, distance from work, or closed off from input. Sometimes, we don’t even realize the emotional toll of our work until after we enter a state of compassion fatigue from the many demands inherently present in therapeutic work.
But how can we avoid getting to this place before it feels like too much? And what sorts of self-care can we utilize in order to better take care of ourselves and our clients?
We know that self-care is an official part of social work education, but we wanted to learn more about how this concept manifests for social workers beyond graduation. This month, we were lucky enough to sit down with several of our employees to learn more about their personal and professional experiences with burnout, compassion fatigue, and self-care.
When was the first time that you experienced burnout while practicing social work?
SAM: For me burnout was cumulative, over years of working in the field I could sense that I was experiencing burnout. Luckily, I worked in an agency with a lot of social workers and it was easy to find someone to debrief with, this helped me process and name what I was experiencing.
ANNA: When I was working with clients on a walk-in basis from 8-5, five days a week. Our clients were seeking supportive legal services for situations of interpersonal violence and were often in crisis, or recently experienced trauma. I loved my job and felt passionate about serving this population, but after a few months I quickly saw myself detaching from the work. There was so much pressure to see as many clients as you could in the day and we were interviewing clients to determine eligibility for service, so eventually you were just filtering in the eligibility criteria rather than seeing the whole person. That’s when I knew something had to change.
KATE: This was before I went and got a Masters in Social Work. I had no idea what “burnout” or “self-care” was back then, but I saw myself disengaging with my clients, and I saw myself becoming another cog in the wheel that I knew was a part of a system that wasn’t doing what’s best for its clients. It was a difficult time. If I had someone to talk to (if I knew that burnout was even a thing) I think that would have helped a lot.
Do you feel like there are any misconceptions around what self-care “should” or “shouldn’t” be, given your experiences in the field?
SAM: I think most people have ideas about what “typical” self-care looks like, but we need to be open to the idea of what self-care can be instead for each individual person. Self-care shouldn’t be a one size fits all approach, which is important for leaders in the field to understand. I also think that a lot of responsibility is put on clinicians to identify and manage their own self-care. In a field of helping professionals where clinicians often push themselves to give more, agencies should see it as their duty to provide an environment that accepts and encourages self-care for its employees at all levels.
ANNA: An important thing to consider is whether the organization is receptive and responsive to your needs. Often, leadership hasn’t been in your role and may not fully understand how your work is impacting your health and wellbeing. While being 100% happy all the time in a job may not be possible – it is a job after all – staff retention and morale does have an impact on the services clients receive. Good leadership will listen to your concerns and try to make improvements to invest in the long-term. It’s important to recognize that you can’t “self-care” your way out of a toxic or harmful work environment.
KAITLYN: You learn about self-care in social work education and I think it’s really helpful in creating an awareness and understanding that self-care is important, especially in this work. I think it takes time to figure out what self-care means for you. It’s a skill you continually develop and it’s not a fixed thing. Like so many things in social work, it’s very individualized. I also think people forget that self-care is not just a reactive thing you can do when things get difficult. It’s more than just preventative, too; self-care is a wellness tool.
KATE: In school, I remember writing that I would exercise at least 5 times a week on my learning contract for my first field placement. I remember my field instructor looking at me and saying “Is that sustainable?” At the time, I was like “that’s the bare minimum that I do in a week with or without it being on a piece of paper.” I learned that self-care takes on so many different forms and it’s important to know what works for you. I learned later that no matter how much I exercised, it was really about my approach and sense of self that helped me maintain good self-care. What works one day might not work the next. Self-care is continually evolving work, and it is hard work, but it’s probably the most important work.
SHANNON: What I have come to realize is that it’s not just about the boundaries that you set for yourself. Self-care is about the boundaries and norms that the organization sets for the team as well. It all starts with the leadership for each team. If you are working with a team or a leader like I started my career with – that never stopped, answered emails 24/7 and expected you to do the same – you will not have great self-care structure for your work. If you work somewhere that your team takes the time to get to know you, balance you, your leadership knows what your workload looks like, and the expectations are clear – you will be able to try to set better boundaries for yourself in terms of work life balance and self-care.
In an article by Smullens (2012), she references a study that showed professionals in the social sciences to be more likely to perceive themselves in the role of a care-taker through their job versus people in other professions. If this feels true to you, how have you learned to balance the emotional needs of your job with the emotional needs of your family life?
SAM: This was true for me when I was in direct practice and became a supervisor. For me it was necessary to find a balance. This became more difficult when I became a mom, it was and still is a constant evolving process of reflection, checking in with myself and being intentional.
MONICA: I allow myself to do both jobs as mediocre as needed and not feel bad about it. I have this philosophy of unapologetic parenting. Sometimes work bleeds over into home life and vice versa. I won’t apologize for it.
How do you avoid burnout in your profession?
SAM: For me, it’s both an individual process of being aware and practicing honest reflection and about exploring my work environment and how that fits or doesn’t fit with my needs as a helping professional. Really basic things like getting enough sleep, planning for down time and making sure I have nutritious food help me on a daily basis but when I feel I need more it’s about finding what works for me and adding those things in.
KAITLYN: Big picture (for me), I need to make sure I’m in a positive and supportive environment where we encourage each other to grow and also to rest. It’s also making sure what I’m doing aligns with my values and makes me feel like I am contributing to something greater. Day to day, it’s about checking in with myself – how is my energy level? Am I enjoying the work I’m doing? Does it feel meaningful/aligned with my values? Am I comparing myself to others? Am I able to dedicate time and energy to the people and activities I love outside of work?
ANNA: It was really important for me to find a role that fit with my interests, skills, and values. I had to try on a lot of “hats” before finding one that felt right and I believe that is part of the process. Don’t be afraid to change things up or take on a new project early in your career. For example, I loved direct service, but I found myself really energized by organizing our grant reports and running our data in different ways to understand where we were making an impact. Finding an opportunity that allowed me to focus more on analytical thinking and problem solving was really helpful for feeling aligned in my daily work, as well as feeling a sense of purpose.
KATE: I know this approach wouldn’t work for many, but I take on more of what is burning me out, only I do it on my terms. When I was in direct service, I would volunteer at a place that didn’t give me a paycheck or in in-direct service, I’ve taken on personal projects. When I do the exact work that I’m dreading but learn how it “could be” or even “should be” it helps me adjust my attitude and advocate for what I need in my paid work.
What did self-care mean to you in school, and what does it mean to you now?
SHANNON: In school, self-care was all about doing yoga and meditating, or taking the time to be with family and friends. Now, self-care is all about boundaries. This means being able to take time not just for my family, but for myself. I make sure that I block time off to exercise, pack a lunch and cook sometimes. On busy weeks, sometimes I literally have to take the time to block off space in my schedule to take a shower and play with my kiddo. So for me, self-care means being more aware of my time and where it’s going.
MONICA: In the beginning of my career, I heard things like ‘take a walk’ and ‘eat healthy.’ Now, self-care means is less about things I do and more about my attitude.
Do you believe in work/life balance? Why or why not?
SAM: I do believe in work/life balance and I’m thankful to have a job that values and ensures having a work/life balance. It is encouraging that this topic is increasingly being discussed. My hope is that work/life balance becomes the reality for more work cultures and professionals.
ANNA: I remember hearing that some people prefer to have work/life balance and some people like having work/life integration. The idea being that some people prefer to have focused time for work and focused time for personal things – especially family. Others integrate the two domains so that they may be answering an email while at their kids’ soccer game or engaging in their favorite hobby while on a conference trip, etc. I think I am somewhere in between these things – I like bringing my full self into whatever I’m doing. For example, my passion for social justice is just a part of who I am as the work that I do, and I won’t let that fall out of either domain. But there are certainly times where I want to give all of my attention to my personal life or professional life depending on what’s going on – you won’t catch me snoozing on deadlines but I also won’t be answering emails when I’m taking my nieces and nephew to the zoo!
To learn more about Kaitlyn, Anna, Kate, Shannon, Monica, and Sam, you can visit their professional profiles.
Smullens, S. (2013). What I Wish I Had Known: Burnout and Self-Care in Our Social Work Profession. Retrieved from https://www.socialworker.com/feature-articles/field-placement/What_I_Wish_I_Had_Known_Burnout_and_Self-Care_in_Our_Social_Work_Profession/