Self-Care in Social Work: A Guide for Practitioners, Supervisors, and Administrators

May 9, 2013

Most social workers enter the profession out of a desire to help others who are in need, and to contribute to society’s betterment. They are drawn to a career in which they can assist individuals, families, groups, and communities in surmounting the challenges and hardships of life. New to their craft, these nascent professionals seek to use their hard-earned knowledge and to hone their skills to pursue a rewarding career in a people-oriented practice. Unfortunately, they are often blindsided by the huge toll social work takes on the lives of social workers in terms of mental and physical health, and interpersonal relationships.

Social workers report high levels of work-related stress, leading to burnout and compassion fatigue. Their exposure to the sufferings of their clients can lead to what is known as secondary traumatic stress. Secondary traumatic stress can manifest in psychological symptoms such as depression, anxiety, fear, rage, shame, emotional numbing, cynicism, suspiciousness, poor self-esteem, and intrusive thoughts or avoidance of reminders of client trauma. Social workers may also experience physiological symptoms, such as hypertension, sleep disruption, and immune system malfunctions, all of which have been found to result in serious illness and a relatively high mortality rate.

To combat this work related stress, social workers are encouraged to practice “self-care”; to that end Kathleen Cox and Sue Steiner have written Self-Care in Social Work: A Guide for Practitioners, Supervisors, and Administrators. The book is designed to be a guide to promote effective self-care tailored to the needs of social workers, both in an individual practice and an organizational setting. Individually, the book addresses the development of self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-efficacy. Organizationally, the book guides readers through a process of learning about areas of match and mismatch between themselves and their agency structure and culture.

“Our study of self-care in the helping professions has just begun,” write Cox and Steiner.

It started with a desire to support our students who lamented the lack of time for self-care and who had a limited understanding of what we meant by the term. They asked, “What is self-care anyway?” To learn more, we went to the experts. We recruited over sixty social workers in the field to participate in workshops, and we asked colleagues to send us their stories. Furthermore, our work in the study and promotion of self-care continues: we have constructed a website that offers ways of sharing stories, and we invite readers to submit their contributions to the site:

Each chapter in Self-Care in Social Work comes with a list of discussion questions and a set of chapter exercises. The book is divided into three parts:

  • Understanding Stress and Self-Care
  • Personal Strategies for Self-Care
  • Organizational Strategies for Self-Care

The issues of stress, burnout and fatigue for social work practitioners has never been more urgent, and Cox and Steiner’s book and website serve a vital need in the social work community. It is hoped that in implementing the exercises in Self-Care in Social Work, practitioners will be able to serve their clients’ needs more efficaciously, and extend their careers further.

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