The Art of Self-Care for Social Workers

By Alexandrya Blackmon, LBSW, MSW, and Terricka Hardy, LCSW, ACSW, BCD, CCFP

The world as we know it is changing before our very eyes, and so is social work. Although the way that we serve clients today looks very different from yesterday, one thing remains the same: we still have a responsibility to competently serve clients while upholding the fidelity of the social work profession. To do this effectively, social workers must take care of themselves.

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, social workers everywhere are faced with anxious clients, overwhelming work demands, and challenging decisions that involve the safety of clients, and also their own personal safety. Simply put, the profession of social work as we know it is changing—not just rapidly, but exponentially. To our social work colleagues reading this, know that you are not alone and that together we will work to get through this challenging time day by day, client by client.

Social workers are skilled at serving vulnerable populations in times of crisis. We are experts in helping clients to manage stress and responding to societal issues (Greer, 2016). Generally speaking, social workers can be found doing their best work in critical times. We are in high demand right now and for good reason. From coast to coast, the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting everyone, both clients and social work professionals, without discrimination. With the increasing work demands and stress, it is imperative that social workers across all practice settings are practicing professional and personal self-care.

Professional impairment within the field of social work has been a concern for decades. The NASW Code of Ethics requires social workers to take action when their work (Standard 4.05) or the work of their colleagues (Standard 2.08) may be affected by impairment. Professional impairment can be detrimental for social workers, clients, and the entire social work profession. In fact, Reamer (2015) identified professional impairment as an ethical pitfall for social workers.

When delivering compassionate, competent, and ethical social work practice, engaging in professional self-care is an essential component. Exposure to stories of traumatic experiences, stressful workplace climates, having concerns for safety, and the increase in practice demands makes practicing self-care not just an idea but a professional and ethical obligation for social workers.

Professional self-care is simply acknowledging that it is time to care for oneself to prevent work burnout. “Self-care is a spectrum of knowledge, skills, and attitudes including self-reflection and self-awareness, identification and prevention of burnout, appropriate professional boundaries, and grief and bereavement” (Sanchez-Reilly et al., 2013).

Carrying the honorable title of social worker and being considered an essential worker has many hidden pressures that one endures daily working within the profession. You may sometimes ask yourself, “How can I save myself?” “How can I allow myself to even think about myself?” “I am in a profession of helping others, which means I am professionally obligated to serve. How could I think about myself?” And, “Where is the time to even do that?”

When you formulate these thoughts, you also begin to chase yourself down a rabbit hole, believing that you are selfish. Being committed to helping others while also being selfish is considered a contradiction. You cannot allow yourself to dwell on selfishness. Take a deep breath and say, “It’s okay to care about myself.” Taking time to think about your health, realign your aspirations, and give yourself time to process is not only acceptable and constructive; it also will benefit your clients.

Self-care Strategies

Here are some self-care strategies for social workers to utilize inside and outside of the office:

1. When it gets difficult, acknowledgment is key in surviving self-care. Remember, you have every right to be honest with yourself. You are human and have human limitations, and you know that you have done everything you can despite it being a difficult time right now.

2. Ensuring boundaries is beneficial for self-care. In a qualitative study, Mills, Wand and Fraser note that establishing and maintaining boundaries between home and the workplace is an effective self-care strategy. “Some boundaries involved commuting to the workplace via modes of transport that prevented over-working, while for others the commute time itself constituted a process of unwinding from work so as to separate from it when arriving home” (Mills, Wand, & Fraser, 2018).

3. Be intentional. Intentional breathing is a way to achieve grounding. Do you realize how often you hold your breath during the day? Right now, as you are reading this you are holding your breath. Now is the time to be intentional with your breathing. Take a minute to ground yourself. If you are in a seated or standing position, stop what you are doing and look at your feet. Where are they positioned? How do they feel? As for your legs, are they locked or are they bent? If they are locked, slightly bend them.

Are your hips centered? Your diaphragm, is it contracting and expanding, are you breathing deeply? Is your chest rising and falling? Intentionally observe its pace. Your shoulders, are they stiff? Give your shoulders a roll forward and then a roll backward. Your arms, how are they positioned? Are they relaxed? Take the time to relax them. Realign your body. Your neck: acknowledge how it is positioned. Your head: take the time to make sure it is aligned with your neck and shoulders. Take deep breaths: when inhaling count to 10, and then exhale while also counting to 10. You should see your diaphragm expand and contract. Repeat two more times. Taking the time to intentionally breathe in this manner assists in grounding.

4. Take five minutes to walk around your facility, get some fresh air, or just walk up and down the hallway a few times.

5. Use positive words of affirmation, lead with “I am ____ and I can ____”.

6. Keep a daily journal. Utilize technology apps or a good old-fashioned pen and paper.

7. Practice yoga.

8. Practice meditation.

9. Have a support group, whether it be close friends, colleagues, or family members.

10. Take a chance with your artistic side and embrace painting, adult coloring books, listening to music, crafting, singing, dancing, or even learning a new instrument or language.

11. Utilize your spirituality.

12. Cry if need be.  It is OK to cry!

13. Laugh. When was the last time you had a good laugh? Watching comedy movies or stand-up shows and taking the time to joke around with others can help relieve stress.

Self-Care Resources for Social Workers

Books

Continuing Education:

Journaling:

Meditation apps:

About the Authors

Alexandrya Blackmon, MSW, LBSW, earned her MSW at the University of Texas at Arlington with a concentration in direct practice specialty in children and families and a social work administrative certificate. Alexandrya currently serves on the National Ethics Committee and is a past BSW student member for the Board of Directors for the National Association of Social Workers. Her passion for social work seeded during her undergraduate years at Texas Christian University, where she received her bachelor’s in social work with a minor in child development. Alexandrya lived abroad in Sevilla, Spain, providing services to older adults while fully immersing herself in the local culture. Her other professional passions include counseling with children with autism, adolescents, and other individuals, couples, and families. She believes that the broad spectrum of social work is still expanding and is fully embracing the journey.

Terricka Hardy, LCSW, ACSW, BCD, CCFP, is a national presenter, appointed member of the NASW National Ethics Committee, editorial board member for the Journal of Social Work Ethics and Values, and Memphis VA Social Work Professional Standards Board member. Terricka served as a member of the NASW Professional Impairment Policy Committee and assisted with writing and revising the NASW Professional Impairment Policy Statement. She is a featured contributor of The Routledge Handbook of Social Work Ethics and Values published in 2019. She has trained various professional and community groups about ethics, mental health recovery, professional impairment, burnout, and self-care. Terricka is the author of The Self-Care A-Z Adult Coloring Book and Work Perks: A Gratitude Journal for Helping Professionals, both available on Amazon. For more information, visit terrickahardy.com.

9 comments

  1. Thanks for explaining that it can be helpful for social workers to write in an old-fashioned, pen and paper journal on a daily basis. I’m interested in pushing a license in social work because I think it would be a really fulfilling career and would help me feel better about my influence in the world. I’ll be sure to use your tips to help me be as good a social worker as I possibly can!

  2. Although I am not a social worker, I am married to one, who is also a pastor. I can relate to the concept of self-care being a critical needs priority and necessity for the social worker. You have shared very practical information and tips for the social, physical, and mental dimensions of those who professionally care for others. The idea of making adjustments to professional practices in light of the new world realities can make the difference in burning out or thriving. This article is well written and covers important aspects that can be applied to other professionals as well as myself.
    Peggie Etheredge Johnson, Ed.D., M.Ed, M.A., B.A., R.C.

  3. Great read Terricka and Alexandrya!! Thanks for being awesome social workers!

  4. As I read the wonderfulness of this article my mind went back to yesteryear and our purpose for being who we are. God has given each of us gifts and talents to use for his glory and honor. With compassion we serve the best we can and we give our all. That’s what we were created to do. So as we are in this season of unrest we have to be out brother’s and sister’s keepers. And yes all the things mentioned we must do. God is first in all we (I) say and do, he said he won’t leave nor forsake us. So as we prepare for the reopening of this world we must get our mindset ready to go forth. As I spoke with friends from my church we have to prepare in advance because people will be coming to us broken, hurt, confused, sad, angry etc. Only God will be able to give us the inner peace and where withal to have a compassionate heart and spirit to lead his people as well as ourselves to a place of rest. So whether we are religious or spiritual we must always keep him first and allow him to lead and we will follow. Kudos to the writer of this article Well Done.

  5. Shirl Richardson, DSW, MSW

    This very well written article is applicable to the current issues facing the world. It is extremely resourceful in aiding the reader how social workers make use of realistic and practical solutions during this national epidemic. The authors also cover the spiritual aspects of how social workers care for them selves, which is a significant part of self-care, particularly among older social workers. Social workers have been an int]egral part society for decades. It is critical for social workers to apply self-care solutions in order to minimize and reduce burn-out. Social workers, along with other helping professions are considered front line employees. The authors acknowledge well renowned authors of the feild social work, which reflect their diligence in writing this article.
    I look forward to hearing more from these authors in future articles.

  6. This is a very well written article! Very informative and also provides key insights and recommendations for those in the social work industry. Please share with your other colleagues because it can seriously make a difference in their self health and the service they provide others. Please keep up the good work!

  7. Very well written and informative to not just social work. Thanks for taking the time to aid others and yourself during this time of crisis…

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