The aircon blew gently. Outside, the 33 degree celsius heat made me grateful to be seated in the room.
I was seated in front of a client, listening to her talk about how difficult life was for her.
As hard as I tried to get into it, I couldn’t. And as hard as it was for me to admit it at that time, I finally realised the truth.
I didn’t care.
As much as I wanted to, I did not care. I could not care anymore.
I know. This sounds like the most politically incorrect thing you can say as a social worker.
How can you not care as a social worker?
How can you call yourself a social worker?
I am embarrassed to admit this. But it was that point where I realised,
I need a break. I can’t be a social worker anymore.
That was April 2021. 5 months later, on 5 October 2021, I left as a social worker.
This article is an attempt to change the conversation.
To help you, if you’re a social worker, better understand why you’re burning out, and how you can help yourself.
Why burnout happens
There is often no one factor that leads to burnout. Rather, it’s a combination of different factors that leads to eventual burnout.
Following the stress on social services that has come about as a result of COVID-19, there has been more research sharing about the emotional toll this has taken on social workers.
You’re emotionally entangled
You and I know that social work is emotionally draining. That may even have been part of the attraction in entering social work.
Because you wanted to feel emotionally connected to people, and able to help them through those emotional trials.
What you may not see is the emotional entanglement.
In 2008, Kim and Stoner’s literature review of why burnout happens found that role-related stress was a key predictor.
social workers are more likely to feel burned out when they perceive higher levels of role-related stress, which is characterized by a worker’s high role conflict, role ambiguity, and role overload.
Role ambiguity may be a key reason why you feel responsible for the change you want to see in your client’s life. You may end up wanting the change more than the client does.
This is dangerous.
It may lead you to feel frustrated that your interventions are not working, especially because the client isn’t owning the change.
You’re physically overworked
It’s nearing 10pm. I’m still seated with a client, in his home, listening to him share about his financial difficulties. I want to go home.
And I’m tired.
Of course I’ve tried putting boundaries. Of course I’ve tried to tell them that I cannot meet them after 8pm.
But when a client comes to you desperate, what can you do but to accept? It can seem almost cruel to say no.
This comes at the cost of your physical health.
As a social worker, you may be used to working physically long hours. With the caseloads you have, the paperwork you’ve to do, and the risk assessments you have to make, it’s a fact.
There’s just too much work physically for you to complete.
The delivery of services in social work is still largely face-to-face. For example, a risk assessment has to be done in person. You cannot expect technology to take off the load.
In other jobs such as healthcare, some of the work could be automated or delegated, such as appointment setting. But in social work, with technology still lagging behind, you still have to personally set appointments to the client’s schedule.
All of these menial tasks take time. Combined, can feel overwhelming. After a while, you may feel inadequate to the task.
Lack of autonomy
One of the reasons that led me to leave social work was the feeling of a lack of control. As much as you would like to de-risk the likelihood of crises happening in a client’s life, that is not entirely within your control.
One incident that led me to question my role in social work, and subsequently my ideas around how I wanted change to happen, was the time when I found myself in the hospital, on Christmas Eve. An incident of abuse had happened, and I was there to discuss the followup plans for the client.
I didn’t want to spend my Christmas Eve like that. And I realised that I had very little control, no matter how hard I tried, to prevent future such incidents from happening.
That’s when I came up with the maxim below.
Social work is long-tail change, enacted through short-term crises.
As a social worker, you’re called in during crises. Over time, it is short-term crises that prompt the client to realise that change is needed, and to make change over the long term.
Having worked with many social workers across Singapore, U.K., Peru, and China, I’ve observed that the more successful ones tend to be those who are able to adapt quickly.
You need to ask yourself,
Are you okay with a lack of control over the change you see in client’s lives?
What is your theory of change?
Is social work aligned to this theory of change?
Your internal and external resources do not match the demand
Look at burnout as an equation.
Demand and resources.
Do the internal and external resources you have match the demands of the work?
Whilst there are many internal resources that matter, one of the more important ones is resilience. Resilience is the ability to bounce back from setbacks, especially the multiple sources of stress within social work.
Kearns and McArdle (2012) identified the following as sources of resilience: “Positive role models, trust, ‘managed’ optimism, the flexibility of support in and beyond induction, and, crucially, self-efficacy and space for reflexivity” (p. 385)
The external resources largely relate to the support you receive at work.
Comparing my time as a social work student, and a registered social worker, I realised the reason why I burnt out faster as a registered social worker was because I felt the organisation I was at did not give me the necessary support needed.
Professor Seng (et al. 2021) into the resilience of social workers in Singapore found that
organizational support helps to ease psychological distress. The idea that the organization cares and is available for consultation and support is a great help to these social workers.
For example, small gestures helped organisations cope better.
At Care Corner Singapore, one of the bigger social service agencies in Singapore, they introduced a Care Bear initiative, where anonymous colleagues would send each other a gift and note every quarter, to show appreciation for each other’s work.
Now that you know the factors predicting burnout, the more important thing is to understand what you can do about it.
Here, one idea that might work is micro-practices, designed to raise your resilience levels. These are practices that might take as little as one minute, a day, but which over time, can contribute to huge changes in your resilience and ability to deal with the possibility of burnout within social work.
During my time as a social worker, what I found the most helpful was a consistent practice of self-care, regardless of how I felt.
Try it. You may be surprised at what happens.