January 3

How social workers can burn through burnout



It was a Saturday afternoon. 3pm.

My dog is having a nap.

I’m working on my case-notes. Tallying up the numbers, uploading it to the system.

At some point, I look at what I type.

And continue looking. Nothing seems to flow anymore.

Then I ask myself:

Why am I doing this?

No really, why am I doing this?

You’ve probably had a similar experience.

Admin chases you for the case and session numbers. Supervisor says your assessments are not up to standard. Client calls you about a crisis.

Before long, you find yourself working beyond working hours.

Then on weekends.

Before long, you struggle to go on.

When you look up, you wonder,

Is there going to be an end to this?

You feel a sense of desperation.

You wonder if you should quit.

Social worker burnout.

What is burnout?

There’s no point in talking about addressing burnout without first knowing what burnout is.

The research is clear.

Burnout has been conceptualized as a syndrome of (i) emotional exhaustion, i.e. feelings of being emotionally overextended and exhausted;

(ii) depersonalization, i.e. cynicism or callous attitude towards others; and

(iii) personal accomplishment, i.e. negative assessment of one’s competence and work achievements.

Glasberg et al. (2007)

In other words,

  1. You care too much.
  2. You couldn’t care less about what’s happening.
  3. You feel you can’t match the standards required.

You’ve had that.

Here, Glasberg’s research offers a telling perspective.

In their research of 625 healthcare personnel, they found that a major factor for emotional exhaustion was ‘stress of conscience’.

Healthcare personnel found themselves having to deaden their conscience due to the lack of time to address all the needs of patients.

They had to lower their aspirations to provide the care standards they had in mind.

You go home, and you wonder,

Have I done enough for the client?

What if I could do more?

It’s hard to dissociate yourself from work, especially when a client has shared with you thoughts of self-harm and suicide.

As social workers have moved to working from home, what is usually left in the social work office is now brought home.

But at what point does tiredness become burnout?

Moving from a passionate social work student, eager to change the world, to someone who wants to quit the sector, doesn’t happen in a day.

Rather, it’s a process.

There is no one unique factor that leads to burnout, but the interplay of factors that leads a social worker to say,

Right, I’ve had enough of this.

I can’t go on anymore.

I need to leave.

I would hazard a guess though.

To move from bringing hope to clients to wanting to quit, the overriding feeling is that of hopelessness.


A sense that it will never get better, no matter how hard you try.

You project a year from now, and you see yourself facing the same thing.

More clients.

More casework.

More casenotes.

More compassion fatigue.

You up and go.

Why does burnout happen?

Irene Ng, assistant professor at the National University of Singapore’s social work department, did a study into the role of salary in attracting and retaining social workers in Singapore.

social worker burnout
Irene Ng (et al. 2007)

Whilst the study was published in 2007, 13 years ago, the survey still reveals telling reasons for why people stay, and leave.

social worker burnout

Okay, as social workers, we like to think we are bleeding hearts who don’t think about money.

We love working with people!

We aren’t here for the money!

But at some point, you realise that money does play a role.

That’s why the National Council of Social Service has introduced salary guidelines. (Yeah, I know. We all bookmark that page to see if salaries go up.)

But what’s more revealing is the 54% of respondents who said that the high workload was why they left the profession.

Mismatch between aspirations, and on-job expectations

You see a mismatch between your aspirations and the real, on-job, expectations.

You join for a reason.

Maybe you wanted to help the disadvantaged (as seen above).

But then you realise that yes, you can help them…

But not if you can’t help yourself.

At some point, having that sense of fulfilment is pointless if you look at the outstanding assessments, case notes, and clients you need to meet.

Ever gone into SSNET, and seen the sea of red on your missed deadlines?

You know the feeling.

How do you resolve burnout?

Okay, now for the answers.

If you want a quick-fix…

I don’t have any.

But if you are willing to commit, I hope these principles help.

I will first share the principles, before sharing the practical steps you can take.

Prevention is better than cure.

Don’t wait until you are truly burnt-out before you try resolving burnout.

Stop it before it starts.

Hold strict boundaries.

Oh, so you’re seeing a client tonight?

And tomorrow night too?

Well, do you really need to?

A simple measure of how hard you’re working is to observe the times you’ve ended work over the past week.

If you’re regularly working past work-hours, you might need some boundaries around that.

If you’re working weekends, boundaries around that help too.

But… I can’t finish my work!

Here’s the thing.

It’s not quantity of work time.

It’s quality.

Work is infinite.

Time is finite.

Work expands to fill the time you give it.

Give more time, and more work will pop up to fill it.

But when you begin to place limits around when, where and how you will work, you start focusing on the things that matter.

Ask: can it be resolved by moving elsewhere?

You know this adage.

Sometimes colleagues cause more problems than clients.

Some social service agencies can have toxic cultures.

As the saying goes,

If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.

If you are battling an organisational culture that is toxic, harmful, and not keen to change…

You change.

Get out.

Organisational change doesn’t happen in 3 months.

For an endemic problem like culture, it will take at least a year. There will be more pain as it changes.

Are you willing to wait it out?

Scaffold and schedule support around you.

Here’s a simple exercise.

Put yourself at the centre. Write down the people around you who you can depend on.

This means someone you can cry with, someone who you know can cover your gaps, someone who’s with you.

Colleagues at work can be great at helping you. It can help that you complain to them about work problems.

But spare some thought for them and their work too.

You don’t want to end up as the person everyone avoids because you are constantly drawing on their resources.

If you need some time to speak to someone, schedule it with them.

Ask, do you have 10 minutes? I need to talk to you about something.

Schedule it too.

When you’re in social work, seeing suffering everyday, it’s tempting to think that this is what the world looks like.

That it’s all dull and dreary.

Schedule time where you can meet up with your support networks – friends, family, loved ones.

Think like an athlete.

You’re running for another home visit.

Then back for another meeting.

You still need to rush out your assessments and case notes.

Ever wondered why athletes can consistently churn out top performance, week-in, week-out?

Look at footballers.

The most consistent ones are playing Wednesday, and Saturday, weekly. The amazing thing? They are consistently good.

Look at Cristiano Ronaldo.

Ever remembered him having an off season?


I’m drawing on the research of Loehr and Schwartz, who studied how the work with world-class athletes could be adapted for the modern executive.

The corporate athlete.

Okay, before you go – I am a social worker, not a corporate worker…

Hold on.

It’s still relevant.

They argue that the ideal performance state, where talents and skills are brought to full ignition and where high performance is sustained over time, is caused by:

the capacity to mobilise energy on demand.

The first step is oscillating between stress and recovery.

Here’s something interesting.

The real enemy of high performance is not stress, which, paradoxical as it may seem, is actually the stimulus for growth. Rather the problem is the absence of disciplined, intermittent recovery.

Loehr and Schwartz (2001) The Making of a Corporate Athlete, Harvard Business Review

This means that habit of moving from one thing onto the next, in social work, from email to call to WhatsApp message to home visit…

It’s harmful to your long term performance.

Instead, what’s more useful is to regularly move between stress and recovery.

Have a home visit, come back, take a snack and rest for 15 minutes.

Then carry on again.

The second step is to have regular recovery rituals.

Whatever your ritual is, have them regularly.

Here’s an example of what I do in a typical work-day at social work.

Think of it as a sponge.

You need to compress, and de-compress.

Here are some useful recovery rituals.

  • mindfulness meditation via Headspace.com
  • have a healthy snack like an apple
  • walk out of home for 10 minutes
  • do some simple exercises – pushups, sit-ups


Practical steps

Schedule timeouts

Call life timeouts.


Every month, I take a weekend off, where I don’t see anyone, or do anything social. For me, that’s because people can drain my energy. Seeing clients and colleagues 5 days a week requires me to take time out to recharge my social battery.

Every 6 weeks, I date myself.

One of my favourite places is East Coast Park, where I take a journal, and find some time to reflect on where I am, and where I want to go.

Whatever your way is, it’s vital that you regularly take time out.

This allows you to assess, reflect, and look ahead.

It’s tempting to charge through life, without any thought of where you’re going.

But pause.

Take time out.


And return, refreshed and recharged again.

Focus when you need to.

Your phone pings, an email pops up, and a call comes in.

You’re trying to do up an assessment, but you can’t.

I mean, how do you, when things are constantly demanding your attention?

The secret?

Have connection-dead zones.

I know, I know… a client might need you urgently!

That’s why I’m not recommending that you be a hermit, go into a cave, and be connection-less for the rest of your life.

Schedule it on your calendar.

The concept of ‘prison’ and ‘fortress’ time is something introduced by entrepreneur Shane Melaugh.

In your fortress time, you protect it against interruption and disruption. This way, you can focus on your deep work.

Here’s how.

Shane Melaugh introduced this 90 Heroic Minutes in his Focus and Action course, which I highly recommend others who are looking to be productive.

Firstly, schedule a 90-minute block where you can clear out your highest-priority work. When are you most productive?

Schedule it then.

Secondly, get tech-free.

Get your phone out of the room.

Switch off your WIFI and email client (Outlook etc.).

Thirdly, shape your environment.

To prevent yourself from being distracted, face a blank, empty wall.

Yes, I know it’s tempting to have a motivational quote.

But rather than risk being distracted, and having your mind go places, give your mind only 2 choices.

  1. Be bored.
  2. Do work.

Lastly, write down an implementation intention.

This is what I do.

  1. What am I working on?
    1. Working on case notes.
  2. Why am I working on this?
    1. To build a better idea of what happened, and how to move forward.
  3. Obstacles and ways to overcome
    1. I might get bored.
    2. I can try to think of better ways to do the assessment
  4. What am I excited about?
    1. Having breakthroughs with clients

During these 90 heroic minutes, I take no calls, no messages, no client sessions.

I clear off my highest-leverage social work. This can be an assessment, case notes, or even a programme proposal.

I urge you to try it. Your productivity will go into super-saiyan mode.

Learn to quit.

At some point, no matter how hard you try to manage burnout, you might reach burnout.

I’m not going to sugarcoat this, and say,

Oh you’re very important to the profession!

You’re making such a difference!

Maybe you can give yourself some time?

You might want to hear this.


Who doesn’t want to hear that they are valued and be validated for that?

But sometimes, certain organisations and colleagues are not ideal for that.

It might not be about you.

It might be about them.


Don’t put yourself through deeper agony.

Sometimes, quitting can be the best thing you do for yourself.

You’re 100% responsible for yourself.

No one else is. Your clients might need you. But you’re responsible to them, not for them.

You’re accountable to them. But the change they need, is the change only they can make.

Your organisation might up your pay (though this is very unlikely in social work).

But realistically, are they going to up their game?

If you’re physically, emotionally and spiritually harmed by your time in social work, take a break.


Don’t push yourself over the limit.

If you’re wondering how to make your decision, make a pros and cons list.

This brings rational thought into what can be an emotionally difficult decision.


If you’re reading this because you feel yourself on the edge of burnout… I’m sorry.

Social worker burnout is something no social worker wants to face.

But sometimes, it’s something you will need to face.

And only you can face it.

You can have supportive friends, colleagues, and clients that want you…

But at the end of the day,

Don’t fight the battle, and lose the war.

Live to fight another day.


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