How do you deal with social work burnout? Before I share some lessons, I would like to share a story. I sat on the bus, barely noticing what was around me. I felt as if I couldn’t move a muscle. That weekend, I felt as if all my energy had been drained from me.
I had just come back from caring for a family with five children. They had run around, demanded my constant attention, and had wanted me to carry them most of the time. It was exhausting.
Having had a long week of emotionally trying conversations with clients, I felt that I was close to burnout. I wanted to quit as a social worker.
How to deal with social work burnout is a frequent question at many conferences I attend. From those conferences, I have learnt some things that I share today.
Once, when I was listening to a refugee recount his stories of abuse, it felt as if I saw two self-s. There was one part of me who was seated in front of the client, listening and nodding, whilst the other part of me was standing at the corner of the room, trying to protect himself.
It was a deeply profound experience. I realised that I had been trying to dissociate myself from the feelings faced by the client to avoid from being emotionally overwhelmed.
Today, I have learnt to ground myself to remind myself of how to avoid being drawn into the client’s experience. When I feel myself over-identifying with the client, I would start noting – what do I see around me? What do I smell? Then, what do I hear? Furthermore, what do I feel? Using my five senses helps me to become more aware of my surroundings so that I wouldn’t drown in the emotions of the client.
An app like Headspace also helps to remind us to stay mindful. To be present.
Try that. It helps to prevent social work burnout by keeping you in your own chair, rather than being pulled into the client’s chair.
Have a physical change after work
When I asked my university tutor how to deal with social work burnout, his advice was not something I expected. He told me to have a change of clothes after work. Usually, he did this after his work as a mental health practitioner. He found that this helped him to put aside the stresses of social work, and to transit better into life at home.
Having such a physical change is important to keep clear boundaries between work and home. Even if you might be working from home at the moment, I would encourage you to dress up for work. Dress down after that. This helps to put clear boundaries around your work. This helps to prevent social work burnout.
I also find it helpful to take a shower after work. I find it feels like a physical washing of all the emotions I have gathered from my clients over the day, and refreshes me to enjoy the rest of the evening. You can try that too.
Take a step away
When you have clients shouting at you, angry colleagues criticising you, or a supervisor questioning your work, it’s hard to focus on the work that is in front of you. Setting boundaries is important.
As a social work student, I faced the potential breakdown of my placement twice during two months. I often felt that I could not cope anymore. Taking a step away, and going to the park everyday for a walk helped me to relax, and to take things more easily.
Today, you can do that too. When you feel stressed, just take a step away from your desk. Go for a walk in the park. You will find that your mind is cleared, and things become clearer. You gain a greater sense of perspective.
It’s easy to experience social work burnout when you listen to all the negativity that clients say about you. They might scold you for being useless and not getting the help they need. you might question if you really have the skills required to do this job well.
In his book Emotional First Aid, Guy Winch suggests that social workers write a letter of love to themselves. Write down the list of qualities you have shown in life. How have you shown these qualities? Then write down why you are proud of them.
Doing this helps us to remember what is good about us, rather than the deficits that are noted by clients. Celebrating ourselves, rather than putting ourselves down, is the first step to preventing social work burnout.
Get some quiet space
In today’s open plan workspace in social work offices, it’s hard to get any quiet headspace to think through difficult things. People are chatting to their colleagues, talking to their clients, and banging out nasty emails at the same time. It can be overwhelming. Getting some quiet space for yourself might mean finding a meeting room where there isn’t anybody. Just take the time to pause, and focus on your work.
You might find that easier to concentrate. When we are having to constantly tune into the litany of noises around us, we forget that we have the power to turn down the volume, and build a better space for ourselves.
How to deal with social work burnout is never an easy article to write, because different people deal with burnout differently. Whatever works for you, doing it with intention and deliberation will help.
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