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Managing Burnout as a Social Worker


Social workers take on an important role in our society, helping some of the population's most vulnerable people overcome challenges in their daily lives. They might work with abused children, adults suffering from addiction, bullied students, or people recently diagnosed with an illness.

Although social workers make a difference in people's lives, it can sometimes feel like a thankless job. Due to limited organizational resources, social workers often take on high caseloads and extra responsibilities, so it comes as no surprise that burnout is a real problem in the social work industry.

But exactly what is burnout in social work? In short, this phenomenon involves feeling drained after considerable and consistent stress. Social work burnout symptoms include emotional exhaustion and depersonalization. Left unchecked, social work burnout can lead to a hindered ability to accomplish work.

That said, social workers don't need to surrender to the feelings of exhaustion associated with burnout. In this resource, experts suggest strategies to prevent, manage, and defeat burnout.

Tips on Preventing and Managing Burnout as a Social Worker

Social workers can only provide adequate care for others if they first properly care for themselves. Many methods for preventing or managing burnout involve recognizing the symptoms, looking out for yourself, and taking care of your needs.

Feeling especially stressed one week? Practice self-care by taking your favorite book out to a park. Struggling to handle an impossible case load? Talk to your boss about lessening your responsibilities.

Our experts provide eight useful tips to manage and prevent burnout, ranging from small, everyday practices to more significant changes in your career.

1. Practice self-care

At its core, self-care is a good way to maintain your emotional and mental health, and in doing so to avoid burnout. "Self-care can mean different things to different people, but it is important that you find what works best for you," said Briana MaryAnn Hollis, a licensed social worker and self care-coach. That might mean getting enough sleep, meditating, eating nutritious meals, or taking time for yourself to exercise, among other strategies.

2. Pace yourself

Stay mindful of your time, and avoid scrambling to fit too much work within an impossible timeframe. Dr. Michael Mazius, director of the North Shore Center in Wisconsin, advises you to "make time for work, but make sure you're good at maintaining boundaries, which means you make time for play.

3. Find purpose

Sometimes you need to remember why you became a social worker in the first place. Many people go into the field because it offers a sense of personal and professional fulfillment; keep that in mind when you feel burnt out. "Spend as much time as you can pursuing activities of interest and passion at work if possible," Mazius emphasizes, "and if not, in free time you create and protect."

4. Change jobs

Sometimes the burnout doesn't come from within. Instead, it may develop from external factors, like a boss with unreasonable expectations or long work hours. In this case, you should consider finding a new job in social work.

5. Change positions

If you can't find another job -- especially in such a tough job market -- consider another position within your own organization. Hollis pointed out: "you may absolutely love the work that you do or the population that you do it with, but you may need a change. If there are openings in your organization, see if you can change to one of them."

6. "Craft" your job

You might like your job in general but find that certain aspects of it create a sense of burnout. In this case, you might be able to tweak your position through what Hollis called "job crafting." She explained, "you can begin job crafting by creating a pro/con list of the things that you like and dislike about your job, and then seeing how you can do more of what you do like and less of what you don't like."

7. Develop an "anti-ritual"

You probably know that implementing a routine can add structure and stability to your workday. But you don't always need to follow them, suggested Mazius. "Have routines, but shake them up so that every Monday doesn't feel the same (same with Tuesday, Wednesday, etc). Doing things differently, and more than just from time to time, makes life feel new and exciting."

8. Take a vacation

Sometimes, burnout is a sign that you are simply working too hard and need some time off. If planning a large trip sounds stressful, consider a staycation or short trip to another city in your area. The key is to let your mind rest. "They don't have to be elaborate, costly, or long, but when you vacate, do not work," Mazius emphasized.

Meet Our Experts

Briana MaryAnn Hollis, MSSA, M.Ed, CDCA, LSW
Briana MaryAnn Hollis is a licensed social worker and self-care coach. She has been featured in ThriveWorks and FabFitFun. Briana writes about mental health, self-care, self-improvement, and self-discovery on her blog Learning To Be Free.
Dr. Michael Mazius
Director of North Shore Center, Dr. Michael Mazius specializes in the treatment of children with Attention Deficit Disorder, Academic Underachievement Syndrome, and stress and mood disorders. Dr. Mazius also provides marital and family therapy. Dr. Mazius is active in working with school systems providing teacher consultation and is active in the North Shore and Waukesha communities, speaking to parents on a wide variety of topics pertaining to child development, parent-child attachment, and neuroscience-informed parenting. Dr. Mazius is an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Psychology at UWM-Milwaukee.