Social workers dedicate their lives to helping others, including some of the most vulnerable people in our society. However, research shows members of the social work profession are more likely to experience work-related stress, burnout, and a lower quality of life compared to other professions and the general population.
Self-care is important to social workers and in fact the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics included the importance of self-care when it was updated this year.
North Carolina social worker Jocelyn Williams, MSW, learned about the importance of self-care when she took a high-pressure position at the Department of Social Services. That experience prompted her to write a book to help other social workers. NASW’s Social work Blog talked with Williams about self-care and why she decided to write about this issue.
Q: Why did you decide to become a social worker and work in the child welfare arena?
Williams: As a child, outside of my mother and aunt, I did not have a lot of guidance and stability from adults to teach me how to carry myself in a mature and respectful manner. It was not until high school that I was positively influenced by my basketball coaches and other teachers who helped instill hope, time, energy and accountability in my life. Gratefully, this support carried on while in college. It wasn’t until I started working in Level III boys/girls group homes that I realized that most of the children were lost or had behavioral barriers because they did not have someone to look up to or speak life to them on a regular basis. After this realization, I strived to be a positive light to all children and I wanted them to know that outside of my job role I am truly just a person with compassion who cares for their well-being. This opened my eyes to become a social worker and to provide children with the same positive interactions that I had while growing up. I strive to be like the adults and mentors who helped mold me as a child and I aspire to do the same in every encounter that throughout my career with future children.
Q: What prompted you to write your self-published book Soul Your Work.
Williams: Soul Your Work was written in the spirit of joy, frustration, exhaustion, self realization and hope while being in a leadership role as a forensic investigation supervisor for the Department of Social Services. While writing Soul Your Work, I was employed at a job that I had initially loved and it slowly turned into a place that I could no longer identify with for various reasons. As a social worker, we endure more trauma than the public believes and I wanted to acknowledge our struggles and let my colleagues know that they are not alone. We are encouraged to help protect children and families, but at times it can feel like we have to neglect ourselves while doing so. I’ve witnessed great social workers leave the field one by one and I wanted to speak about the reasons why they decided to leave a field that they loved. Soul Your Work shines light on the fact that while we are social workers, we are humans and deserve to be taken care of with intent. I wanted to provide a tool that could be utilized by leadership and key decision makers in hopes to promote positive alterations where applicable.
Q: How did you learn to practice self-care? What are some things that you do?
Williams: Sadly, I honestly did not learn to practice self care until I had no choice but to. I quickly found out that ignoring problems did not solve anything and I found myself being frustrated and annoyed on a daily basis. I also discovered that my body does not respond well to stress and I had to make a change quickly. It wasn’t until I spent hours venting to close co-workers on multiple occasions that I discovered that being vocal was the first step to decreasing my stress. By simply talking about barriers in a solution oriented fashion versus expressing empty complaints initiated my desire to increase my self-care practices. My favorite self-care practice is simple: take time to myself. No distractions, no phone calls, no house visits; just me, myself and I. This could carry on for 24 hours, or three days, or whatever is necessary. Taking time to myself creates the opportunity to recharge and reflect on what I need to address versus me spending energy on someone else. As a social worker, we pour so much of ourselves while at work and continuing to pour into family, friends and spouses after work hours can be completely draining. Exercise, listening to music, reading and spending time with friends and family who provide meaningful conversations is essential to my self-care methods as well. I am very intentional with whom, what and where I spend my time and energy and this has been the best decision I have made for my self preservation.
Q: You said many social workers stay on the job because they see themselves in their clients. Do you think many social workers go into the field to heal themselves? Do you think this makes them better at their work?
Williams: Great question. I do believe that there are social workers who see themselves in their clients and this is one of many factors as to why individuals stay in this field. I have colleagues who were former foster youth, had parents that suffered from mental health barriers, or were victims of witnessing domestic violence between adults in the home. During my career, I have learned that these colleagues strive to provide hope in areas that they were saved from, or change the narrative to negative experiences that they were victims of. I can’t say for sure that social workers go into the field to heal themselves, but I believe that there is some relief, joy and a feeling of gratitude that is experienced during our daily encounters with children and families. I think that all social workers, rather they have dealt with severe trauma or not, are in this field because they simply have the passion to do it. They care for humanity and they want to be an essential part in seeing the world become a better place. Passion alone makes a social worker better at their job. Experience and trauma are factors that could be helpful or harmful depending on how it is projected upon the clients they come in contact with. We all deal with trauma and happiness in various ways, but we all hope that social workers utilize it to work to our clients benefit at all times.
Q: You have recommended that social service agencies give social workers and others more tools for self-care, such as yoga, support group sessions etc. Do you see any agencies doing this? How can social workers create such support if their employers are not doing so.
Williams: I believe that self-care can be encouraged and promoted at any agency, but it has to be accessible and consistently in the forefront . When there is an audit, a report or anything that requires a deadline, staff receive multiple alerts to promote meeting this expectation. There are signs posted, calendar reminders and your supervisor is constantly reminding you of what needs to be done. These same efforts can be utilized to promote self-care in the workplace. Instead of the basic “take care of yourself’ and answering ‘fine’ when asked how you are doing, we should take the time out to ask what employees need and find ways to support them. While emails are useful, more tangible resources have to be utilized because while at work, all we think about is work and not our needs. It would be beneficial to have yoga instructors, health consultations, estheticians, masseuses or other self-care advocates come to the agency to provide insight about self care opportunities in the community. Everything has to be accessible and consistent. A great example of this is on site gyms. We know that the accessibility of a gym at work is a game changer to those that know that when they go home they don’t plan to work out. Encouraging different self-care activities and making it a competitive contest is another suggestion to allow employees an opportunity to bond, take care of themselves and feel supported by their peers. Something as simple as having a lounge area where no electronics or talking are allowed can provide a great space for those who need to sit in silence and recharge before going to their next task. Self-care support does not have to be something grand and drastic.
Q: You have said in your book that if you do not feel like you are being heard or valued at a job you should leave. Is it really sometimes better not to battle the system and move on?
Williams: If you are not valued, or feel like you are being heard at your job, I believe it is essential that you express yourself and communicate your needs to leadership at your agency. If there are barriers at your job that you know go against the overall mission, I strongly encourage that you fight for a change and advocate for yourself as well as your peers, especially if the barriers are to the detriment of the population that you serve. At the same time, I believe that there is a time to leave when your fight negatively affects your mental health or when you acknowledge that the agency does not have plans to change their culture or overall treatment of their staff.
Q: You also stress the value of leadership and communication. Explain why these are important.
Williams: Without communication, agencies are not aware of what is working and what needs to be changed. Every social worker has a different perspective and outlook based on their personal experiences, despite all of us working in the same field. These career experiences and encounters should be valued and taken into consideration at all times. No one voice is more important than the other and communication is necessary to ensure that we are well versed in all aspects of social work. Leadership is essential to social work because at the end of the day they are the game changers. They are our voice to upper management and key leaders to make changes and they hold the power to what happens next in our field. Our leaders are who we seek guidance and support from. If a leader is detrimental to the agency this not only affects social workers but does major harm to the populations that we serve. As social workers we have to be vocal about all aspects of our work and we need positive, powerful and fearless leaders to help pass along the message and make changes. Our leaders are responsible for listening to what is being communicated on all levels in hopes to ensure that our overall mission of helping children and families is at the forefront.
Greensboro, NC native Jocelyn Williams is the self-published author of Soul Your Work. She earned a graduate degree in social work from Our Lady of the Lake University. Williams has worked with at-risk youth and other vulnerable populations. Williams currently lives in Charlotte, NC and serves as an Employment Success Manager for PRIDE Industries, which provides employment opportunities for individuals living with disabilities.