Image from the New Social Worker®

Social workers (and other helping professionals) often work in demanding contexts and help people process difficult situations. We’re expected to be keenly aware of the negative impact this work can have on our well-being and capacity for burnout. However, during my first years in the field, my understanding of self-care was synonymous with (and limited to) taking a bubble bath or getting a massage after a bad day at work. I had only an elementary understanding of how burnout and vicarious traumatization manifested. Unfortunately, attention to these areas wasn’t prioritized at the agency where I worked, and I didn’t understand the importance of seeking out that information on my own.

What I Didn’t Know, Was Hurting Me

As unbelievable as it seems now, the longer I stayed at my job and the better I became at engaging with my clients, the less aware I was of how their stories could negatively affect me. I was blissfully ignorant of the long-term toll this work could have on me because I loved my job! Most mornings, I was out of bed as soon as my alarm went off, if not before, and excited to start my day. I rarely, if ever, took time off and gladly brought work home with me several days a week.

One year, I took a vacation for my birthday and completely unplugged from work. I didn’t think I “needed” the break, but I remember being surprised by how rejuvenated and energized I felt when I went back to work. It was an aha experience that I needed that break. I needed balance that would allow me to be as committed to myself and my personal life as I was to my professional life.

Burnout: When Our Fire Becomes Ashes

George Carlin famously said that a cynic is merely a disappointed optimist. Similarly, maybe a burned-out social worker is one who was once “on fire” for the work. In my passion for the work, I didn’t understand that burnout is a “progressive state of inoperability” not a static state of being. Social worker SarahKay Smullens noted that new helping professionals may not know how to objectively assess the negative impact of the work on them and how to restore their equilibrium. This imbalance is especially true when the symptoms aren’t identified until they’ve reached overwhelming proportions.

For me, change came when my perspective shifted about what self-care really is: ongoing actions and attitudes that help me live my best life. A profound sense of illumination and liberation came when I learned that creating color-coded organizing charts, focusing on quality over quantity, redefining success, finding a balance that works for me, and, yes, even taking time off can all be considered self-care.

But why should these things only be pursued when working in a particularly stressful environment or after a negative event? Self-care is an individualized lifestyle; it is both unselfish and necessary. It is Breath. It keeps the fire burning in our spirits, without turning into ashes of burnout.

March is National Social Work Month, learn more about it here.