Burnout is a prevalent and enduring problem in the U.S. One study showed that 76% of Americans were experiencing burnout at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the phenomenon of burnout isn’t new. Burnout costs companies $190 billion annually.
While burnout is widespread, some people are much more likely to suffer its effects. For example, working moms are more susceptible to burnout compared to working dads. Professionals who work in high-stress jobs are also more likely to experience burnout.
If you are a social worker, this guide should help you understand what burnout is, how it impacts you, and what you can do to combat it.
What Is Burnout?
The World Health Organization defines burnout as the failure to manage chronic stress, but the pandemic has altered the discussion around burnout and employees. With so many people now being affected by burnout, it’s no longer rare and unexpected. Now, with the new and evolving stress levels, everyone is at some risk of burnout.
How Burnout Impacts Social Workers
Social work burnout is a well-known issue, especially for social workers and other healthcare professionals. In social work, workers can be exposed to harsher aspects of human nature, including abuse, neglect, and domestic violence. When the stresses of work are combined with huge caseloads and low pay, it’s not surprising that social workers are prone to experience social work burnout.
What Are the Signs of Social Work Burnout?
The signs of social work burnout can start with the inability to focus, the lack of patience and understanding, extreme exhaustion, lack of enthusiasm, or even physical pain. While the signs may at first appear to be innocuous, they can worsen. Here are a few of the most common signs of social work burnout.
Social worker burnout often involves compassion fatigue. After witnessing so much pain and suffering, you may not feel the same compassion for those you work with as you once did. It’s normal for social workers to distance themselves from what they see on the job to better cope and be of the most help possible.
- Compassion Fatigue: As a social worker, you may have been exposed to so much trauma that you’re mentally and physically exhausted. Here’s an overview of what compassion fatigue is and how to treat it.
- What is Compassion Fatigue: Here’s a quick overview of the causes and symptoms of compassion fatigue.
Secondary Traumatic Stress
Hearing about the trauma that your clients experienced puts you at risk of secondary traumatic stress. This is a disorder whose symptoms are similar to those of post traumatic stress disorder.
- Secondary Traumatic Stress: The Administration for Children & Families offers insight and research findings on secondary traumatic stress, including symptoms and coping strategies.
- Secondary Traumatic Stress: The National Child Traumatic Stress Network offers an introduction to what secondary traumatic stress is, and includes resources.
While social worker burnout is not the same as depression, the two are not mutually exclusive.
- Depression and Burnout: Dr. Ninivagi discusses why depression and burnout are different entities, with causes and treatments.
- The Relationship Between Burnout, Depression, and Anxiety: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis: This NCBI abstract discusses why there’s been so much disagreement between burnout and depression.
Advice for Managing Social Work Burnout
If you notice burnout signs, take steps to address the issue before it affects your life even more. Here are some of the things you can do right now to mitigate social work burnout.
Don’t try to save everyone in an instant. Social work takes time, as you work with people within structures and systems not known for speed or even fairness. Remember, it’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon. Take the job one day at a time and realize that change probably won’t happen overnight.
Take Care of Yourself
As you’re noticing the signs of burnout, check in with yourself to find out ways to better support your physical and mental health. It would help if you took time for yourself to relax, eat healthy meals, and exercise. Nobody else will do it for you if you don’t do it.
There was a reason you became a social worker, whether it was to help people or to make a difference. You may have forgotten your purpose. Maybe it’s time you remembered why you were so passionate about the job when you first started.
Change Jobs or Positions
Maybe it’s the job or your position that’s contributing to your burnout. Sometimes, you may switch up your job. You can list what you love and hate about your job. Then, discuss with your supervisor whether they can shuffle some items on your hate list or reassign some tasks. Also, consider investing in continuing education courses to advance your career.
Allow Yourself Flexibility in Your Routine
Routine is important, but if you’re experiencing burnout symptoms, it might be time to mix it up. Consider whether you can do things differently to allow yourself to cope better.
Take a Vacation
Sometimes the best solution may be to get away for a break or vacation. Whether it’s a staycation or a full-on beach vacation, it’s important to get away from social work and let yourself relax and unwind. You’ll be able to return to your job rejuvenated and be ready to continue the work you enjoy.
Tools and Techniques for Managing Burnout
While this advice can be great for handling the effects of burnout, you should also explore tools and techniques that will help you feel more in control of your life. These tools may seem simple, but they’re effective coping techniques.
Talk About It
Yes, it will help you talk about your current situation with a friend, but you should also discuss your overload with your supervisor. When you’re open enough to talk about it, you can discuss ways to share your responsibilities better. You may also find tools to streamline your processes and mitigate the overload.
Engage With Friends and Family
As you engage with your family and friends, those supportive relationships help you manage stress’s effects better. You can joke, hang out, and share what you’re experiencing at work while getting input and support to help you better manage the stress inherent to social work.
You may have already noticed that everything seems worse when you’re running on no sleep. You may be tense, working long hours, and dealing with the other stresses of social work. When you get enough sleep, you’re better able to cope with what’s going on at work and in life.
Several organizations have useful resources for those fighting social work burnout:
- American Psychological Association
- The National Child Traumatic Stress Network
- Child Welfare Information Gateway
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Brown, Helen, Ph.D. “What Is Compassion Fatigue? 24 Causes & Symptoms Explained.” PositivePsychology.com, 20 July 2022, https://positivepsychology.com/compassion-fatigue/.
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Morrison, Courtney. “16 Employee Burnout Statistics You Can’t Ignore.” EveryoneSocial, 11 Mar. 2022, https://everyonesocial.com/blog/employee-burnout-statistics/.
“National Health Costs Could Decrease If Managers Reduce Work Stress.” HBS Working Knowledge, 26 Jan. 2015, https://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/national-health-costs-could-decrease-if-managers-reduce-work-stress.
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Preston, Camille. “Pandemic-Related Burnout.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/mental-health-in-the-workplace/202101/pandemic-related-burnout.
Samra, Rajvinder. “Brief History of Burnout.” The BMJ, British Medical Journal Publishing Group, 27 Dec. 2018, https://www.bmj.com/content/363/bmj.k5268.
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