How Do Social Workers Cope with Sadness?

This month, NASW Executive Director, Betsy Clark, focused her NASW News column on “The Challenge of Sadness in Social Work.” Dr. Clark discusses the turmoil, tragedy, and unrest in the world including wars, earthquakes, and tsunamis. She notes that every significant world event is accompanied by indelible images, some of which are horrific and forever etched in our memories such as the collapse of the World Trade Center, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, or the tsunami hitting Japanese villages. Dr. Clark says these images became a permanent part of her mental photo album.

Likewise, social workers regularly witness the daily crises and turmoil of communities and of clients. They can be saddened by their situations and their losses, some of which become personal losses and have a lasting impact. However, Dr. Clark highlights the importance of finding  a way to capture the memory and put it in a proper place, so social workers can move on in their  professional lives.

Dr. Clark credits the ability of social worker’s to utilize their strengths perspective, of finding the positive among the negative. She refers to this as professional resilience. Each social worker develops ways to handle human trauma and most find it helpful to focus on the importance of the triumphs, not on the tragedies.

How do you handle professional sadness and loss?


  1. I recently testified in a toddler murder case that I investigated (CPS) 5 years ago. I had taken pictures during the investigation of the near dead baby which were used in the trial. I had to testify to taking these pictures which meant seeing them all over again. The parents were found guilty as they were charged of murder, abuse of child and sexual assault. The pictures captured the above charges without fail, no question. I remember not being able to grieve this case/child and was able to move forward without overwhelming difficulty. Now that this case is truly over, sentencing following this coming month I am overcome with great sadness, and the release of stress that I had before the hearing has manifested into nausea, headaches and a head cold. So, what is my self care you may ask: I am working through it, feeling what I feel, I have a super awesome therapist and a pretty good support system of family, friends and co workers.

  2. Old adage but true..balance is the key to a life devoted to professional career as social worker. Know and work to the limits of your scope of practice, and know and play the way that makes you happy.
    It is true that world tragedies increase sadness and sometimes even hopelessness, but if I`m not mistaken social workers can be cheerleaders for optimism when called for.

  3. I am not sure if this is the right forum to discuss a registration related issue. one of my close friends who is a qualified social worker from India ( accredited university) and is a General social care council ( regulating authority for SW in the UK) registered SW. She is currently working within the children and families service is keen to relocate to California to join her family based there.

    She wants to know if she will be allowed to practise as a SW there having a current UK registration. If not what is the process for practising/licensing in California and also the chances of getting the licence to practise considering the qualification and registration she currently has.

    Any help with this issue will be most appreciated.

  4. In response to the article, How do Social Workers Cope with Sadness, I agree that a focus on strengths and resilience is important.
    The amount of tragedy and turmoil in our world today makes it difficult for both clients and professionals to cope. As social workers we are faced with our clients’ life struggles, as well as our own. When I find myself struggling with sadness I try to focus on the resilience of my clients, most of which have survived multiple life challenges.
    It also helps to have at least one colleague who can provide support when needed.

  5. Elizabeth Ann Surratt

    In response to Hoffler’s article, “How do Social Workers Cope with Sadness,” I agree the social worker must use the strengths perspective. I manage that perspective in 2 steps.
    First, I recognize the emotions I am feeling. I want to be able to feel enough sadness that I can empathize with the client’s loss. However, I don’t want to be so overcme with sadness that I am unable to help my client cope.
    Second, I work to manage my emotions enough to be effective with the client. It is emportant that I retain enough objectivity to help my client work through his own thoughts and feelings, to come out with a hopeful view of his life, and discover his own resilience.
    With 38 years in the mental health field, I have had to be able to manage my own emotions to be effective with clients. Otherwise, I would have burned out professionally long ago.

  6. I deal with my sadness the same way I help clients do so…I go through it. I acknowledge it, emotionally and cognitively, feel it, think about it and then move on. When it comes back, I process some more and then move on.
    Surrounding myself with as much joy as I can find or create, with positive people, staying active, curious and healthy all help but only after I have processed it. I don’t hink there is a way around it, only through it. I remind myself that it is like a panic attack; it can’t kill it even though it feels like it can. It will end.

  7. I actually did a research project on vicarious trauma when I did my MSW (I had worked in trauma and knew a lot of folks who had also really struggled with the effects of what we hear every day). Some really interesting things came out of the research, but one of the key things was how often as social workers we’re told to practice self-care, but then aren’t supported at the agency level (or in workplace culture) to set boundaries that might protect us from taking too much on. What folks in the research identified as actually helpful was time off and lighter caseloads: I think so often this issue is framed as an individual one when in fact it should be looked at on more of a global level. I’m not saying self-care can’t be helpful, but sometimes it really takes the focus away from larger issues.

  8. Im a social worker in training, but when i work with my first child in community service he told me things that crushed my heart, even though i had a rough childhood of my own. What i did to cope was be thankful to god that i am blessed, and focus all of my energy on helping him. Not worrying about what hurt him, but what i can do to help. My personal depression is what i have trouble coping with, however ive found that i have one good friend i can always talk to, other methods people use such as doing things to doing something to take their mind off of it dont work for me, because when im alone in my bed, i still feel the pain and depression, i look forward to any responses on how anyone can help

  9. i have found that commuting by bike is a good way to let go of all stressors before i arrive home. if needed i can pedal fast and hard or i can take a more casual an reflective pace.

    in the past when i would commute by train/bus i would still have the burdens of my clients when i got home. i definitely have enjoyed commuting to work by bike for the past 5 years, and hope i don’t have to ever return to a car.

  10. All too often I find myself walking the tightrope of feeling the highs and lows of working in a field were we see the best and worst people have to offer, and just feeling numb.

    I try to embrace it all…the good and the bad.

  11. I consider myself to be a very spiritual person. . . I believe in the power of prayer and surrounding myself with people that have the same beleifs that I do. . . Additionally, I enjoy reading encouraging books, listening to music and finding opportunities to help others. . . As someone said earlier, I try to make the most of the time that I have available. . . (this is an ongoing problem) I also enjoy going to the gym and participating in an exercising class — exercise is good for the mind and body. . .

  12. I personally need to honor my sadness and acknowledge it. I thinks is a must. In the process identify strengths and work on moving forward w/o deleting grief. Grief is a necessary process to move on. Talk about it is important and learn from other people.

  13. I find it comforting to focus more on positive things & surround myself around positive people. By doing this, one is not focused on the things that she cannot change but is striving to make the most of today. Do not sit around thinking of the depressing report that you heard on the news but rather do something enjoyable with your family to take your mind off of anything negative . For example, you could visit your favorite restaurant, go out for icecream, watch your favorite movie, put on your favorite song and take your mind to a more relaxing or stress free place. Yes it’s easier said than done but I have had so much negative stuff to happen in my life that I strive daily to be positive and it all started with my mind. When one thinks positive, one will do whatever will render more positive results. If watching the news is depressing, watch the weather forecast at least, then turn the channel & watch your favorite sitcom or do something to lift your spirits. Just do not give your mind time to process any negative thoughts, otherwise you will always be susceptible to thinking negative, thus creating a negative atmosphere around yourself and your business or familial associates.

    • Thanks for that, my husband is suggesting the same. A client recently lost a child (this week) and I’m struggling with the grief. I’m allowed to call it grief, and I do think it’s important to use the right labels, instead of saddness, as well as doing the things you’ve suggested.

  14. Crying is also the outlet for me. However the last time I cried about a client was about 5 years ago after that I’ve learn t to keep my distance.

  15. I just graduated with my BSW in April and our house was hit by the tornado in Alabama. I find myself suffering from PTSD and depression. A friend, a male, gay social worker died by suicide two days after the tornado. It just seems overwhelming at times. I know I am resilient and I will come out stronger for this experience, but sometimes it’s very difficult.

  16. Lavonne M. Lundquist

    Great article. I think its good advice for helping everybody help each other (especially our children) cope and understand how to navigate today’s world without turning away.

  17. Coping with sadness is an ongoing struggle for me. Crying is the best release. Unfortunately, I still resort to eating comfort foods which is a problem for me. I am a caregiver and have had my own health problems that make it difficult to “shake off” sadness. It tends to stick with me and returns full force when I am vulnerable. I believe I have been affected by compassion fatigue/secondary trauma and I am not currently practicing because of this condition. I would be very interested to hear from anyone who has recovered from compassion fatigue/secondary trauma.

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