51 Effective Ways to Fight Social Work Burnout

by Angy
social work burnout

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Social work burnout can affect the way we execute our role.

It can cause social work stress, and a stressed social worker cannot perform their role effectively.

What is social work burnout

Do you ever feel tired after a long day of sleep? Or always feel helpless, as if there is nothing left to do?

Then…. you might be experiencing burnout.

Feeling like this is very common among people; we live in a society where if you aren’t busy all the time, then you’re worthless and consequentially you tend to always find something to do. From the smallest task to the most complicated one.

A common denominator is the feeling of “not doing enough” or “doing too less”.

But what exactly is burnout and how can you overcome it?

It is a state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by stress and you might experience a few symptoms or all of them; there isn’t a manual or a checklist to find out if you are struggling with burnout, when you’re experiencing it, the most important thing is that you act on it and you try your best to overcome your struggles.

If prolonged, it can cause long-term effects that will affect your mental and physical health, so do take it seriously.

Speaking of burnout, there are many people that might be experiencing this overwhelming feeling of hopeless, especially those who work with individuals that are going through hard times. We’re talking about psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and many more.

A high-risk category is social workers, who spend most of their working hours with individuals that are going through hard times and are feeling demoralized, hopeless, desperate.

What is the burnout rate for social workers?

social work burnout

According to a study done by social workers by Siebert in 2006, there is a burnout rate of 39% and a lifetime burnout rate of 75%.

Social workers who deal with individuals who have been traumatised by a series of overwhelmingly negative events that have caused a lasting impact on their mental and physical health, might experience burnout more than those social workers who deal with other aspects and facets of life.

This does not mean that those types of social workers will never experience burnout; this is just to say that those who are around individuals who are experiencing trauma and burnout themselves are more prone to develop burnout and many other mental illnesses than those who don’t.

Social workers likely to experience burnout

Although no social worker is immune, social workers that are more likely to experience symptoms of burnout and secondary trauma are those who work with the following cases:

  1. Individuals that have been abused physically and/or mentally
  2. Individuals that have been sexually assaulted by a relative
  3. Individuals that have been sexually abused by a stranger
  4. Individuals that have been/are going through suicidal thoughts
  5. Individuals that are dealing with suicide (a case in the family or a friend)
  6. Individuals that have dealt/are dealing with injury
  7. Individuals that have dealt/are dealing with death

There are also some cases of social workers who show symptoms of burnout just because the environment they’re working in is very stressful; this is why we previously stated that any social worker can experience burnout and it’s not just exclusive to those who are working with the individuals we mentioned before.

Is burnout common in social work?

social work burnout

 

To answer very simply to this question: yes, it is very common to experience burnout in social work.

According to a survey of 1,000 practicing social worker, 34% have reported to be in a state of burnout and 75% have dealt with burnout before.

There are some warning signs that your body is sending you to communicate that you’re overworking yourself or you’re not taking enough care of your mental health because you’re too busy caring for others; most of the times, social workers ignore these signs and this can make the burnout ever more difficult to overcome.

Not many people know what social work burnout symptoms look like and the five stages of burnout; in the following two segments of this article we will talk the symptoms, the stages and how to overcome it.

What does social work burnout symptoms look like?

There are three areas that are affected:

  1. Body – Physical symptoms
  2. Mind – Emotional symptoms
  3. Personality – Behavioral symptoms

The physical symptoms include:

Feeling exhausted all the time, getting sick more often, frequent headaches or muscle pain, eating much or too less, sleeping too much or too less.

The emotional symptoms include:

Lack of confidence, self-doubt, isolation, loss of motivation, negative outlook on life, depression, anxiety, decreased satisfaction and sense of accomplishment.

The behavioral symptoms include:

Avoiding responsibilities, procrastinating, using illegal substances to cope, taking out your frustration on family or friends, skipping work or leaving early.

If you know someone who might fit into the category or you can find yourself in these symptoms, please go and get some help.

What are the 5 stages of burnout?

compassion fatigue social workers

 

We identified five stages of burnout:

  1. Honeymoon phase
  2. Onset of stress
  3. Chronic stress
  4. Burnout
  5. Habitual burnout
  1. Honeymoon phase

The honeymoon phase is an early part of the job, where everything seems easy and carefree.

Job satisfaction is at its peak and although you might be feeling a bit stressed, it’s a good feeling.

You want to take on new tasks, you’re excited and committed to the job, energy levels are through the roof and you just want more things to do.

The stress you’re starting to feel can only mean one thing: you’re doing a great job!

While it’s amazing to love your job, sometimes taking a well-deserved break is all you need to feel more energized, use all the energy and motivation you have to create even more amazing things.

The best way to do so is to just take a day off, otherwise, in the long-run, you’re going to feel unmotivated and exhausted.

Signs you’re going through the “honeymoon phase” are:

  • You feel satisfied all the time
  • You accept any responsibility
  • Your energy levels are high
  • Your creativity levels are high

2. Appearance of stress

In this phase you’re still optimistic, but the initial honeymoon phase starts to fade to leave space to the second phase: the appearance of stress.

If you weren’t already aware of how stressful some situations were or could have been, then you are now.

You’re starting to feel as if your energy levels are lowering down, you’re a little more tired than you were in the beginning but that doesn’t stop you from overworking yourself, because after all what is a job without a little bit of stress?

Be aware that if you keep working even after the appearance of stress, you’re on the road to burning out soon.

It’s important you stop doing whatever you are doing, slow down a bit and take a moment to breathe.

Signs you’re going through the “appearance of stress phase” are:

  • You can’t focus on your tasks and you’re less productive
  • High blood pressure
  • You’re sleeping less/eating more/eating less
  • You start having some mental health issues

3. The stress becomes chronic

The initial stress you were feeling in the second phase starts to become chronic; you’re no longer stressed due to a task or two, you’re stressed all the time.

Every single task will make you feel unmotivated, unfocused and exhausted.

This is because you’re no longer energized like you were in the beginning, you have used all your energy at once and now you’re left with a feeling of exhaustion.

Signs you’re going through the “chronic stress phase” are:

  • Your physical health starts deteriorating
  • You start missing deadlines and procrastinate more
  • You might be angrier and more frustrated than usual
  • You no longer have hobbies

4. Burnout

The symptoms have become critical, you’ve reached the burnout phase.

Your life has changed drastically and you find yourself unable to do the simplest tasks.

You’ve reached the limit because you decided not to listen to your body and mind; now you’re dealing with the consequences of your actions.

But there is always hope, the first thing you need to do once you reach this stage is to immediately stop working and seen an intervention.

Signs you’re going through the “burnout phase” are:

  • You feel empty and worthless
  • You have a pessimistic outlook on life
  • Your mental and physical health are decreasing fast
  • You get chronic headaches

5. Habitual burnout

Once you reach this stage is important you seek help; the typical burnout symptoms are no longer symptoms for you, they’re part of your daily life and you’re experiencing an ongoing mental, physical and emotional breakdown.

Signs you’re going through the “habitual burnout phase” are:

  • You’re sad, anxious and depressed all the time
  • You’re always tired
  • You are experiencing burnout syndrome
  • You feel exhausted

What does social work burnout look like?

burnout and stress in social work

 

Burnout looks the same on everyone: that feeling of exhaustion, stress and the inability to focus on one thing at a time is very common among people that are dealing with burnout syndrome.

Social workers might experience it a little bit different due to the fact that they deal with difficult situations and they might internalise it.

Above you can find the story of a woman who has been working as a social worker for a while.

She says: “I’d never experienced a lack of care for my work or indifference for the painful experiences of others. (…) I had mistaken my love for the job to be evidence of resilience and in fact it was not.”

Sounds familiar? It is the first phase of a burnout; this woman wasn’t aware of what was about to happen because she loved – and still does to this day – her job.

Is social work a stressful job?

Is it a stressful job?

The answer to this question may vary.

Every job can be a stressful job if taken it to an extreme level. It’s not the job you’re doing that’s stressful, it’s how many hours a day you’re working that job.

There are some jobs that are more stressful than others for sure, but that doesn’t mean that those jobs are better or that you should work harder and harder.

Make sure you take some time for yourself, put your needs first.

After all, if you can’t take care of yourself, how are you going to be taking care of others?

Why I quit being a social worker? – Andy Faulkner’s story

This is Andy Faulkner’s story.

“I did not go into social work expecting it to be all sweetness and light. (…) My children’s placement was amazing; it was within a referrals and assessments unit and I loved it. I met many wonderful and dedicated people there; my on-site mentor was a marvel and she taught me a great deal.

Her tuition enabled me to create assessments that were so good they were given out to Newly Qualified Social Workers (NQSW) as examples of good practice.

After we qualified in September 2013 there were no newly qualified places for us to go into, so I was offered a temporary post as a social work assistant for six months within the Looked-After Children’s team.

This gave me a good grounding in the processes and sheer scale of work and commitment that social workers were dealing with on a daily basis. But this didn’t deter me, I was still determined to become the best social worker I could be.

True to form, at the end of this temporary contract there was still no places available as a NQSW so I was offered another temporary contract as a Personal Advisor for their Leaving Care team.

While this was enjoyable (and instructive in how young people progress from being Looked After to semi or full independence) it is not what I’d trained to be.

Thankfully, in May 2014, I was finally able to take up a position as an NQSW; back within the Looked After Children’s team I had been with before.

I had expected to be put on the ASYE (Assessed and Supported Year in Employment) right from the beginning but delays meant it was a month or so before this happened. In the meantime, I had been assigned a caseload of 9 families.

Unfortunately, the majority of these cases had had very little social worker involvement for some considerable time before I had them (some hadn’t been seen for over a year) so all of their reports and visits were already well out of timescales.

The day after I was inducted onto the ASYE my caseload went to the 12 it should have been; it was meant to rise by 2 cases every three months until I was on a full caseload by the end of my first year. But this didn’t happen.

I started to dread going into work as it felt like every time, I went in another case had been added to my caseload. By the time I left in August 2014, I had 18 cases and had just been told that I was to get two more before the end of the month.”

You can read her full story here: 

 

Why do people quit social work?

stressed social worker

 

Mostly because there are way too many cases to handle and the authorities do not care about social workers; Andy’s story could be any social worker’s story.

Social workers are treated like machines that have to solve every case and it doesn’t matter they’re already taking care of other cases, what’s another one?

And another one?

And another one?

Andy was as social worker for about 4 months before she quit.

Are social workers overworked?

The stats do not lie:

  • 60% of social workers are stressed by their job
  • 58% of social workers believe their overall workload is too high
  • 55% of social workers feel they are being asked to fulfil too many roles in their job
  • 72% of social workers are satisfied with their job

How many social workers leave the profession?

According to a study by Linda Wermeling about 44% of social workers left or were considering leaving social work.

Is it normal to feel burned out and how do therapists deal with burnouts?

It is normal to feel burned out; some months are better than others and some are worse.

In any work environment there are busy months, as long as it’s not a habit then it should be totally normal to feel burn out. Just make sure you recognise the signs and seek help.

How do therapists deal with burn out?

  • They remind themselves the role they’re playing; they’re the therapist trying to help someone who needs help.
  • They go to therapy themselves.
  • They take time off.
  • Work belongs in the office; once they’re home there is no work to do.
  • They have hobbies.

Can social workers make 6 figures?

Social workers have the potential to make nearly six figures, but in most cases paying off their student loan won’t allow them to reach six figures.

Which social worker gets paid the most?

  • Child, Family, and School Social Workers – $48,430 or £36,528 a year.
  • Healthcare Social Workers – $58,470 or £44,100 a year.
  • Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers – $49,630 or £37,433 a year.
  • All Other Social Workers – $60,900 or £45,933 a year.

How to reduce stress and burnout in social work

I have identified 51 effective ways to reduce social work burnout:

1. Get some exercise
2. Eat a balanced diet
3. Go to bed early
4. Seek for help when needed
5. Listen to the people around you
6. Learn to recognize the signs
7. Understand that your feelings are valid
8. Research resources
9. Take some time off
10. Buy yourself gifts
11. Practice yoga
12. Make sure to have a self-care routine
13. Meditate
14. Find harmony
15. Learn some time-management skills
16. Know your breaking point
17. Fill your day with your favorite activities
18. Spend time with friends
19. Get a hobby
20. Schedule free time
21.Travel
22. Pursue your passion
23. Take a nap
24. Avoid coffee
25. Know your breaking limits
26. Spend time with your family
27. Work out
28. Live with mindfulness
29. Go out with your loved ones
30. Do something you always wanted to do
31. Be kind to others
32. Journal
33. Work with purpose
34. Follow your dreams
35. Take control
36. Learn to manage stress
37. Learn a new language
38. Perform job analysis
39. Learn to say no
40. Find a niche
41. Shift your perspective
42. Be kind to yourself
43. Find some time for yourself
44. Reduce exposure to job stressors
45. Cut caffeine intake
46. Learn to deal with stressful situations
47. Learn about new cultures
48. Seek out connections
49. Talk to others about your feelings
50. Don’t let other people’s problems affect your life
51. Talk to a professional

After all this knowledge you probably know more about burnout and how to avoid it; if you find yourself with any of the symptoms, signs or phases, please seek help.

Remember to learn to take care of yourself before taking care of other people, there is no other way to do it.

References:

https://onlinemsw.fsu.edu/blog/2019/06/12/social-work-stressors

https://www.noodle.com/articles/5-signs-of-social-work-burnout

https://www.thisiscalmer.com/blog/5-stages-of-burnout

https://www.theguardian.com/social-care-network/2016/apr/22/burnout-social-work-despair-addiction

https://www.communitycare.co.uk/2016/08/23/quit-social-workafter-four-months/

https://www.communitycare.co.uk/2021/07/26/growing-majority-childrens-social-workers-feeling-stressed-overworked-finds-dfe-study/#:~:text=A growing majority of children’s,Department for Education (DfE).&text=58% of social workers felt,and 51% in wave one

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03643107.2012.693057

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/in-therapy/200811/therapist-burnout

https://degreesonline.com/resources/career-resources/highest-paying-social-work-jobs/

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