Beyond the Gimmick: Aware of the Importance of Self-Care, Social Workers Struggle to Practice It

Mar 13, 2024

Cat resting on a kitchen counter

By Sue Coyle

Self-care is an often-discussed topic among social workers, the organizations that employ them, and the profession as a whole—and for good reason. Social work is a challenging career choice in myriad ways. From the client-based schedules that often extend into the evenings, to the lack of resources available for organizations and individuals, to the emotional toll service work can take on a professional, social workers are likely to feel overwhelmed and stressed—at the very least—at multiple points in their career.

Evidence of this exists in the rates of both turnover and burnout throughout social work. It is estimated, for example, that turnover rates for caseworkers in child welfare averaged 30% nationally before the COVID-19 pandemic. (Casey Family Programs.) Similarly, researchers in 2005 estimated the rate of burnout among social workers to be nearly 40% with a lifetime rate of 75%. (Journal of Social Service Research.)

While self-care will not eliminate all of the factors leading to high turnover and burnout rates, it is one of the pieces most needed to help social workers. However, even though the importance of self-care is highlighted in trainings, webinars, podcasts, and, yes, articles, the application of self-care tends to fall short. Social workers as individuals and as a profession are not good at practicing self-care.

“Just like firefighters will run into a burning building, we ourselves are on the front line,” says Kristen Lee, Ed.D, LICSW, Behavioral Science faculty at Northeastern University, author, and speaker. “Thus by the very nature [of social work], it allows people practicing social work limited time in which to tend to their own needs.

“Secondly,” she adds, “I think we can suffer from the curse of knowledge. Because we are very versed in self-care strategies, we know what we’re supposed to do and then there can be this bias in our mind that it somehow gives us immunity or protection.”

For social workers to move from discussion to application, they must think differently and more deeply about self-care and the factors preventing them from implementing it in their own lives.

Read the full article in the NASW Social Work Advocates magazine

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