Social Work and Self-Care: A Review Through an Updated Lens | NASW Member Voices

Apr 24, 2023

woman relaxing in a hammock

By Violeta Donawa, LMSW, MA

Dr. Kathleen Cox and Dr. Sue Steiner bring the concept of “self-care” out of the shadows and demystifies its significance in the lives of social work practitioners and leaders. The authors’ undergraduate and graduate students inspired them to more fully flesh out the tenets of self-care as a means to prepare them for the field. In doing so, the authors embarked on a collaborative, ground-up approach to the research that guides their study.

They argue that organizations that prioritize self-care for social work and human services staff are more likely to improve client care and productivity. Moreover, it promotes a healthier and more joyful work environment where colleagues and administrators have greater emotional capacity and feel more comfortable supporting each other in the reduction of work-related stress, vicarious trauma and burnout.

Throughout “Self-Care in Social Work,” Cox and Steiner draw upon their extensive clinical and academic experience as social work faculty. Cox and Steiner make their research incredibly informative and engaging, for example, the authors highlight solutions to common problems that can often leave clients feeling emotionally dysregulated and direct service providers equally stressed out. They posit real time answers from the literature to help clinicians recognize stress appraisal, benefit finding, and cognitive reframes.

These techniques could support clinicians’ ability to minimize burn out. At the meso level, agencies could reflect these techniques into policies that promote organizational change.

A major strength of Self-Care in Social Work (NASW Press, 2013) is how it underscores the role of administrators and supervisors in promoting healthier work environments. This reduces turnover rates, increases workers reported job satisfaction, and minimizes reported chronic stress.

When workplaces investigate root causes of stress and take seriously what they find, the authors argue that this promotes “psychological health and safety, incorporating inclusion, and valuing vision.”

Policies that adopted surrounding these tenets can increase morale, greater leadership within staff, and deepen an agency’s ability to improve client care.

Given that this book was published in 2013, it is important that I bring in recent data to this review.

In 2020, the CSWE report, The Social Work Profession: Findings from Three Years of Surveys of New Social Workers, showed that Black and Latinx people are more likely to enter the field with tremendous amounts of debt and therefore financial stress separate from work-related stress. Further, the report found that women entering the field made up 90 percent  of new social workers.

Experts also say social workers most likely to enter the field with financial stress are Black and Latinx women. Further research also states that  although men are less likely to go into these professions, they are more likely to be in leadership positions and are more likely to be promoted at a faster rate. This speaks to the systemic importance of self-care in the workplace as also an issue of racial and gender-based equity.

How are we co-creating equitable work environments that make self-care for more accessible for those in helping professions at each level of analysis?

If established professionals in the field are willing to read with a beginner’s mind and suspend what we think we know already about self-care, we will give ourselves a transformational opportunity to better care for ourselves, our workplaces, and most of all – our clients. The authors remind us that self-care is not simply an individual endeavor but one that must have social contexts, environments, policies, and norms that normalize its significance.

About the Author

Violeta DonawaVioleta Donawa, LMSW, MA, is a fully-licensed clinical social worker inspired by personal growth, collective care and joy. She specializes in holistically treating clients whose mental health has been impacted by various forms of systemic harm or discrimination, and its relationship to patterns of addiction and other forms of trauma.

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Disclaimer: The National Association of Social Workers invites members to share their expertise and experiences through Member Voices. This blog was prepared by the author in his/her personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect the view of the National Association of Social Workers.