7 Ways of Preventing Social Work Burnout

Graphic of a hand holding a burning match.

Burnout is “a state of physical, emotional or mental exhaustion combined with doubts about your competence and the value of your work,” the Mayo Clinic explains. While burnout occurs in all professions, the condition is particularly prevalent in the field of social work. Social workers with burnout may experience changes in thinking, mood and functioning, says the National Association of Social Workers. This may include mental and emotional exhaustion, decreased ability to prioritize tasks and impaired competence on the job.

Social work burnout occurs for various reasons. Burnout has been characterized as a mismatch fit between workers and their job. Social workers may work long hours or have exceptionally heavy caseloads. Although burnout is a serious professional concern, it must be emphasized that it is manageable and can certainly be overcome. Below are seven common ways for social workers to fight burnout.

How to Fight Social Work Burnout

Set Realistic Goals

Many social workers have the natural inclination to set high expectations for themselves and their clients. Coupled with high performance pressure in the workplace, this can cause frustration and disappointment whenever those expectations aren’t met. Choosing to focus on small and manageable goals allows for a feeling of accomplishment and more likely produces lasting change.

Know Your Limits

No one person is able to fulfill every need. As employees in a helping profession, it is sometimes difficult for social workers to say no. However, doing so is crucial. Refraining from activities and interactions that drain too much time and energy can help sustain social workers in the long run. Asking for help is also important. Although it may be difficult, requesting assistance from co-workers or managers when you feel too overwhelmed is key for maintaining the health and well-being of both you and your clients.

Seek Support

Common roadblocks encountered by social workers include being required to “clean up” the subpar work of others and experiencing secondary trauma from regular exposure to distressing situations. Solutions to overcoming these can arise from both individual and managerial action, according to the article “Ideas to Prevent Pathways to Burnout in Child Welfare Services.” Some include:

  • Regularly reflecting with co-workers on accomplishments achieved during the workweek.
  • Skill mastery, even if the skills are considered small. (Mastery is commonly considered an antidote to trauma.)
  • Increasing communication among teams in order to ensure accountability and fairness.
  • Seeking professional help during personally difficult periods.

Celebrate Your Small Victories at Work

With a job like social work, it can sometimes be difficult to see the positive results of your actions. Taking time to mark positive milestones is crucial to remaining engaged. Social workers may celebrate by:

  • Telling success stories to staff or co-workers about individuals or families who are doing well since obtaining their services.
  • Celebrating when deadlines are met.
  • Tracking and displaying data related to team success.

Make Time for Self-Care

Self-care is crucial for everyone, but is even more important for social workers, who tend to work in environments that are mentally and emotionally taxing. Making time for self-care means getting enough sleep, adequate exercise, staying hydrated and eating nutritious food. It can also mean taking time to recharge by spending time with friends or doing other pleasurable activities.

Have Creative Outlets

 Creative outlets allow for fun and joy, as well as the processing of difficult emotions. These outlets can include playing music, drawing, painting, sculpting, writing, dancing or any other expressive activity. Depending on circumstances, social workers may take time for creative endeavors both on and off the job.

Diversify Your Work

Monotonous work can be far more taxing than people realize. If you find yourself in a work situation that is boring or repetitive to the point of being problematic, you can ask to switch responsibilities or to try new initiatives. Diversifying your work also means finding opportunities for professional advancement. If none exist within your organization, seek out opportunities alone or move to a company with more room to grow.

Becoming a Social Worker 

Social work is a challenging — but ultimately rewarding — career. Brescia University’s online Bachelor’s in Social Work and online Master’s in Social Work provide the opportunity for those seeking jobs in service to gain exceptional training. BU’s Social Work degree program was ranked as one of the best online BSW programs by Affordable Colleges Online, and both programs can be completed in as little as two years.