Looking after your mental health as a social worker

Social work is an extremely rewarding profession. Those employed in this field enjoy a sense of vocation and purpose that many others in less fulfilling job roles look on with envy. But there’s no denying that being a social worker is also physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding.

As a social worker, your day-to-day work will involve taking on the burdens of others, listening to their problems, and offering practical and emotional support. Providing this support will often bring you into conflict with other parties as you challenge injustice and attempt to untangle bureaucratic failures. Courage, resolve, and emotional resilience are essential if you’re going to help the most vulnerable members of our society. 

Your clients may have mental health difficulties themselves, and some may display problematic or even aggressive behavior toward you and others. At all times, however, you need to practice empathy which can be exhausting and debilitating if you’re not careful. Maintaining safe boundaries between yourself and your clients while also empathizing with their situation and gaining their trust is a difficult balancing act but one which every professional social worker must master.

As a social worker, self-care to maintain your own physical and mental well-being is necessary if you’re going to do your job effectively. Managing your health is arguably as important as the essential theory and academic training you’ll learn as part of your social work degree. Spring Arbor University offers a fully online Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) course that combines first-class academic instruction with practical experience. The program emphasizes social justice, ethics, and cultural awareness, alongside the specific skills you’ll need to find work and make a difference as a social worker. 


Avoiding burnout

A profession such as social work, where your efforts can have a profound and lasting effect on people’s lives, isn’t one that can be practiced half-heartedly. Constant self-care can help to reduce stress, freeing up energy and attentiveness for your work. It can also prevent burnout and serious conditions such as depression.

Burnout can be described as a state of complete exhaustion which means that you’re unable to continue doing your job. While most professionals recover and eventually go back to work following experience, doing so can take weeks, months, or even years. The impact on your overall long-term health should also not be underestimated.

Burnout is caused by pushing yourself too hard. Always putting your job first, giving it 110% even when you know you’re struggling, and keeping going through stress, tiredness, and anxiety will inevitably cause you to hit breaking point eventually.

We all have times when we need to go to work even though we don’t quite feel up to it or have to force ourselves to push on through a long shift despite tiredness or minor illness. But doing this for too long or too often or when we just can’t manage it can ultimately be counterproductive. Refusing to take a break because there’s work to be done can lead to an enforced break when you’re physically and emotionally incapable of working due to illness and/or exhaustion.

Everyone has a different burnout point. The only way to know when it’s time to ease off is to listen to what your body and your mind are telling you. In the meantime, a regularly maintained self-care routine can contribute to keeping you healthy.


Tips for self-care

Self-care is considered a professional and ethical obligation for social workers. In 2021, the National Association for Social Workers (NAS) added an amendment to its code of ethics to this effect, stating that “proactive self-care reduces the likelihood of impairment and enhances job satisfaction and professional longevity.”

Basic principles of self-care include making sure you get enough sleep, maintaining a healthy diet, and getting plenty of exercise. But even if you’re doing your best to stick to a sensible lifestyle regime, burnout and attrition can sneak up on you unawares. Sometimes you don’t realize that you’re in trouble until it’s too late.


Setting goals

Keeping your motivation and morale high through continual learning and seeking out opportunities for growth and development are just as important as looking after your physical health. Having definite goals and knowing that you’re moving toward them is a positive contribution to your mental well-being. 

When we feel stuck in a rut, we become despondent and lethargic. Not only is our mood low and our mind sluggish, but we’re also more susceptible to infection and illness. Having a sense that you’re working towards something helps to keep you alert and optimistic.


Looking after your needs

Flexible schedules with time off for education and self-improvement can help you to work toward your goals. Effective self-care means building new habits and feeling okay with putting your own needs first. Take regular breaks during the day or longer breaks every few weeks or months, if you feel that you need it. 

Time spent completely away from work is essential to clear your head and recharge your batteries. Indulge your hobbies, go see a film, or just take a walk outside in the sunshine. Being with your family or friends is also an important part of maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

Letting yourself say no when you have to is an important lesson in achieving self-care. Social workers don’t like to turn anyone away and are used to having heavy workloads. Sometimes it’s necessary to turn down new commitments in order to focus on existing work so that you can do it to your best ability and with your health and sanity intact. It’s important that you learn to manage your time in a way that takes your stress levels and personal energy reserves into account.


A strong support system

Friends, family, and colleagues are your support system, and you keep this network strong by staying in touch and regularly sharing your feelings with those you care about. Find people that you can rely on, either to ask for help when you need it or just to talk to. Sometimes, the best support is just having someone you can relax with and not talk about work at all. At other times, you need someone that you can discuss your job with and tell them about the difficulties you’re having.

For social workers, talking about their work can be difficult as much of their job involves handling confidential information. It may be that you can only fully explain what’s on your mind to certain trusted colleagues or your supervisor. Nevertheless, it’s important not to keep your worries bottled up, and having friends that you can talk to is a lifeline you shouldn’t let slip away.


Techniques for maintaining good mental health

Mindfulness, meditation, and yoga are all useful disciplines that can help you to still your mind while putting you in touch with your thoughts and emotions. Simple breathing exercises can also be beneficial when you’re feeling anxious or stressed. Find a local class or teacher, or search online for tips on how to get started on your own. 

There are many apps that can help you to meditate effectively, although turning off your phone and computer for a while can be the first step to finding space for some healthy me-time. If you’re really struggling, many social workers benefit from therapy or counseling. This service may be offered by your employer as a way to stop problems and difficulties from getting out of hand.


Working through your emotions

In a social work career, it’s inevitable that you’ll encounter stress-causing situations on a regular basis. Sometimes, the pressure can seem continuous, and it can feel as though the only way to escape it is to take time off sick or even to quit. But even when stress can’t be avoided, there are ways to manage it so that it isn’t so debilitating. This is sometimes referred to as completing the stress cycle or working through your emotions.

Emotional exhaustion happens when you can’t work through your feelings. But there are many ways to avoid getting stuck in your emotions and to come out the other side. Physical exercise and breathing techniques can help, as can spending quality time with friends and loved ones. Hugging, laughing, and crying can all help us to release stressful emotions.


Creative expression

Another way to deal with stress is through activities such as making art, writing a journal, or playing music. Any form of creative self-expression can be helpful as it provides a vehicle for emotional release. Creative acts that also involve physical movement and exertion, such as dancing or theater, can be doubly beneficial.

Interacting with animals has been shown to reduce stress levels as well. Having a pet to stroke and care for, or just visiting an animal. Takes us out of ourselves and can be a source of unconditional affection. Even watching a fish swimming slowly around can help to calm the mind and reduce tension.


Consequences of neglect

Social workers spend their working lives teaching and assisting others to look after themselves but often neglect their own needs. Many claim that they don’t have time for self-care. And will always put it off for as long as they can. Prioritizing self-care over other responsibilities can be wrongly interpreted. As a sign of weakness by those most in need of taking some time out. In fact, knowing when to attend to your own mental health needs is a strength that should be cultivated.

If chronic stress is ignored it can lead to dire physical conditions like hypertension, diabetes, or obesity. Stressed social workers may develop problems with drink or drugs as they attempt to self-medicate. Mental manifestations can include secondary traumatization and compassion fatigue. Symptoms are similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And can seriously affect a social worker’s health and their ability to do their job.


The importance of boundaries

It’s important that social workers are able to set clear boundaries. In order to protect themselves and their clients. There are several reasons for this, including personal safety, legal liability, and professional ethics. But protecting the social worker’s mental and emotional state. So that they can do their job effectively is also a prime consideration.

While trust and transparency are essential components of the relationship between a social worker and their client. Setting boundaries is necessary and can facilitate trust rather than work against it. If both parties know where the line is drawn. And are confident that neither of them will overstep it, then everyone knows where they stand.

Social workers need to be particularly wary of cases where they identify too strongly with a client or with the issues a client is facing. They should avoid getting too emotionally involved or developing any kind of relationship with the client outside of work. Social workers also need to look out for signs. That the client is becoming too attached to them or is attempting to manipulate them using emotional means.

To maintain boundaries, a social worker needs to check in on themselves on a regular basis. Are they using a case to satisfy their own emotional needs? Are they letting their feelings cloud their judgment? Or are they keeping too much distance and so not meeting a client’s needs fully?

Answering these questions will let you assess whether your boundaries are being properly maintained.

Just as important as the boundaries between the social worker. And the client are the boundaries between a social worker’s professional life and their home life. Being able to switch off and leave work behind is vital for mental well-being. It also helps to sustain a happy and stable home life and reduces the risk of family. Or partners feeling ignored or taken for granted. Everyone should have an inner life that is separate from their work self. And which they can stay in constant touch with.

Maintaining boundaries, working through stressful emotions. And making time for activities and connections that reduce anxiety. Are all ways to maintain a good work-life balance and look after your mental well-being. This in turn will make you better able to do your job and avoid burnout. Practicing self-care as a social worker is the best way to ensure longevity and maximum effectiveness at work.



Alexandra Arcand
Alexandra Arcand
Alexandra Arcand writes and researches for the auto insurance comparison site, AutoInsurance.org. She loves classic cars and enjoys educating others about information such as events and insurance rates.

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