People are complicated. As a social worker, you are often working with individuals in immense emotional and often physical pain. One of the best aspects of being a social worker is when you help someone heal. Other times, a client can have difficulty moving out of their pain. It can be scary for a social worker (new or experienced) to have a client indicate they are going to irrevocably harm themselves. I know a lot of therapists who say they don’t take clients who are at high risk of suicide but anyone you work with may be at risk. It is essential, to be willing to be aware that suicide might be a risk.
Although social workers often see the very best of people, there is no doubt that the average worker also sees much sadness and struggle. Some social workers practice among poverty and violence. Some work with individuals who are physically ill or dying. It is safe to say that social workers treat an array of people and problems.
This sadness can add up. I supervise a team of care coordinators who work with individuals who have high acuity of physical and/or mental health needs. They are transitioning clients from a long term setting into the community. Although they see lots of success, they encounter loss each day. They listen to people’s stories which are wrought with loss. They watch people relapse into addiction. They watch individuals deteriorate physically and sometimes decompensate mentally. They have clients die under both expected and unexpected circumstances. This can be wearing on workers. When we experience loss we often feel grief. Grief is one of those uncomfortable feelings we often try to avoid.
Most of us understand personal loss. Personal loss includes things like a death of family or a loved one. It may be loss of a pet, a job or of a dream. It may be loss of an idea or transition to another stage of life or a divorce. We deal with personal loss by using our support system and talking about it. We have rituals and memorials. We use self-care. Much of our personal life is seen by people we love so there is support. It can be somewhat different for professional loss.
Professional loss is what we experience in our work lives with clients. It is different from personal loss because the relationships are different and often we don’t stop and take a moment to acknowledge and grieve. Professional losses are often internalized. It is possible we might go home and say we had a rough day or maybe even say a client died but we can’t share much of our experiences with family and friends so we miss out on the support you would get when family and friends are sharing the loss with you.
A weird phenomenon in a society that is so much instant gratification and making sure “I” get my fair is that individuals are notoriously bad at self-care. Individuals take their responsibilities seriously and want to do great jobs at being a Social Worker, Parent, Friend, Caretaker or son or daughter, that all energy is focused on this task. It is admirable to live up to responsibilities and care for others, but there are pitfalls to not also focusing on self.
As a social worker, we care about people. We want them to live the best life they can. And…at least secretly – we are sure we know what the best choices are to get what we view as the best life.
It turns out though – that even though we are assisting people in finding their way – their choices and their desired outcomes aren’t up to us. One of the main tenets of social work is self – determination.
The National Association of Social Workers states self-determination is an ethical principle of professional practice.
“Social workers respect and promote the right of clients to self-determination and assist clients in their efforts to identify and clarify their goals. Social workers may limit clients’ right to self-determination when, in the social workers’ professional judgment, clients’ actions or potential actions pose a serious, foreseeable, and imminent risk to themselves or others.”
It is imperative that a social worker is aware of their own value system and beliefs so they aren’t subconsciously or subtly moving the client to the clinician’s goals. You want to act for your client’s best interest but who decides what that is?
In the recent years, more and more individuals are missing work due to something called “burnout syndrome.” This can be particularly tasking for social workers as they are often loaded down with multiple cases at once. Then add on the pressure of maintaining this level of stress every day, and a person is bound to become overwhelmed sooner or later.
So how can you recognize this sort of creeping burnout and intervene before it ruins your productivity, alters your personality and compromises your physical and emotional health? To get you started, we’ve put together this list most common burnout symptoms.