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How to practice self-care in social work

Self-care is an essential part of any good social work practice. Learn the importance of self-care and how to integrate it into social work with this guide.

Social workers are, at their core, caregivers. They work to provide support not only to individual clients but to larger communities and societal issues. However, some social workers may neglect to care and support for one key person: themselves.

This lack of self-care within the social work community is a significant issue facing social workers today. Without proper self-care, social workers may start to suffer in many aspects of life—be it personal or professional.

A lack of self-care can negatively impact a social worker’s job performance and lead to negative outcomes in their overall mental and physical health. Therefore, self-care is an essential part of any good social work practice.

Why do social workers need self-care?

Reason 1: Social worker burnout

Social workers work across a wide range of settings, including health care, education, government, substance abuse, mental health, and more. With the frequency and depth of issues they face, it’s no surprise that social worker burnout is extremely common in the profession.

Consequences of burnout can include:

  • Increased propensity for physical issues, such as cardiovascular disorders, fatigue, headaches, pain, and more
  • Mental health barriers, such as insomnia, depression, and anxiety
  • Other issues including job dissatisfaction and loss of passion

As a result of this burnout, many social workers believe they don’t have the time or energy to devote to self-care. In reality, self-care can help reduce burnout in the first place—allowing social workers to better perform and enjoy the work they do.

Reason 2: Compassion fatigue

Another problem faced by social workers is compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue occurs as a product of consistent exposure to the everyday issues clients face. Each day, social workers deal with intense emotions and situations, often involving suffering and pain. This can easily wear social workers down both emotionally and physically.

Signs of compassion fatigue in social workers can include:

  • Physical or emotional exhaustion
  • Increased anger or irritability
  • Struggle to maintain empathy or objectivity
  • Lack of sleep
  • Headaches or other physical pain
  • Feelings of failure, hopelessness, or depression

Self-care for social workers: resources, readings, and more

Self-care is the best method of preventative care in issues of compassion fatigue and burnout and should be a consistent part of social work practice.

The first step in achieving self-care is to believe you are worthy of it. Accepting that you are allowed to carve out time and space for your own well-being is crucial, although sometimes difficult for the selfless social worker.

Then it’s time to find the self-care methods that work best for you. By nature, self-care will always be individualized.

For some ideas on what self-care can look like for you, start here:

  • Readings: Books and articles are great guides for establishing self-care principles and routines in social work practice. We recommend “Self-Care in Social Work: A Guide for Practitioners, Supervisors, and Administrators as a great starting point.
  • Create boundaries: A work-life balance is important in any profession and becomes essential in the pursuit of self-care in social work. Social workers should ensure their work and personal lives are separate, so residual emotions from a day of work do not negatively affect personal time.
  • Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness can look like a variety of things depending on the person. Whether it’s through meditation, yoga, religion, exercise, or art—find the practice that allows you to center your mind, be intentional in your self-care, and fully relax.

Although social work can be a challenging career, it is also very rewarding. Don’t let compassion fatigue or burnout keep you from doing what you love. Practice self-care often as a way to maintain your mental well-being. And remember there’s no shame in reaching out for professional help to assist you in working through the emotions that arise from carrying out your job duties.

Pacific Oaks offers bachelor’s and master’s programs in social work that train future professionals through a lens of social equity, ethics, and holistic care. For more information, visit our program page or fill out the form below to request more information.


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