Why Self-Care Is Vital For Social Service Professionals

Self-care isn’t just about eating right, exercising, and getting enough sleep. While important, these elements only scratch the surface of an intentional and successful wellness plan. Maintaining physical, mental, and emotional health is vital for everyone, but it can be particularly important for those working in helping professions like social work, nursing, and counseling.

Practicing self-care can be an antidote to burnout, which is a combination of mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion. While employees in many fields experience burnout, social service professionals are particularly susceptible because of the high levels of empathy required by their jobs. They also experience the stress of working with clients who are often in crisis and of working for an agency where resources may be scarce. It is intrinsic to their work that social workers strive to ease their clients’ suffering, which can lead to emotional and physical depletion.

Christina Borel, who teaches at Simmons School of Social Work, is a social work administrator who encourages her team of clinicians to practice self-care to mitigate burnout.

According to Borel, this means creating an environment with “flexible scheduling, lots of continuing education, identifying opportunities for growth and development, increasing time off, and including self-care in their job descriptions, evaluations, and agenda for weekly supervision.” Borel adds, “Another way that we practice self-care at my agency is to actively identify and develop practices that help us sustain hope in the midst of suffering.” 

Self-care is a way for social service professionals to balance activities and preserve longevity and happiness in both their relationships and their careers. To do this, they need to accept that it is OK — and actually essential — to put their needs first.

“Scheduling time for self-care is just as important as scheduling time for everything else,” says Shari Robinson-Lynk, professor of practice at SocialWork@Simmons. “Hoping and waiting until you have time means you rarely have the time to do it.”

 Once the need for self-care is acknowledged, creating new habits is essential to keeping burnout at bay. Below are six tips compiled from interviews with SocialWork@Simmons faculty members you can use to practice self-care.

Take a Break

Remember to give yourself a rest. Take an hour to read a book or watch your favorite movie. If you have vacation or personal days, use them to step away from the workplace and recharge. Erin Benner, an instructor in foundational clinical practice courses, says that heading outside can be extremely beneficial, even if it’s just for a five-minute break.

“For me, taking time to be out in nature is important and what I need to do for self-care,” Benner says. “Sometimes that can take the form of walking or kayaking, but if I am really overwhelmed with work, it can also mean taking my paperwork or my laptop outside and sitting in the sun, rather than in my office.”

Set Goals

The overarching key to preventing burnout is to reduce the stress levels in your life. One way to do this is by setting short-term goals. Break down your obligations to small, attainable chunks or set out to learn a new skill. For social service professionals, the goal can be simple: Don’t give up on your clients.

“Tell yourself you can quit tomorrow,” says Elise Magnuson, who teaches an assessment and diagnosis class. “You need to do what you need to for today, but you can quit tomorrow. When tomorrow comes, tell yourself the same thing.”

Say No

Resist the urge to take on new commitments. Decline to do tasks that will add extra stress to your life. It’s OK to say no because it means you are saying yes to your health. For social service professionals, this can be difficult because they don’t want to disappoint people who are relying on them, says Veronica Davis, who teaches an advanced clinical course.

“I try to explain to those in my life that I appreciate that they came to me to ask for help, but I’m working very hard these days on achieving my goals. Although I want to help, I have to decline and thank them for thinking of me,” Davis says. “It’s hard to say no, but sometimes you have to and not extend yourself too thin.”

Create a Support System

Reduce stress in your life by asking those around you for help. Lauren Fallon, academic advisor and instructor in social work with groups, says it is OK to remember that you can rely on other people.  

“Tell them about your work so that you don’t feel like an island,” Fallon says. “Set up times to speak with people in your line of work about work, and then set up times to be with them and not talk about work.”

Connect with Your Emotions

If you’re feeling anxiety or stress in certain situations, your brain and body are trying to tell you something. Listen to what your emotions are saying about what you want and need, potentially with the help of a mental health professional. Fallon says she always preaches the importance of balance to her clients, and social service professionals should remember it as well.

“I listen to myself and my behaviors all the time. I know that if I am off balance because I’m worrying, my body is in knots, and I feel tight and breathless,” Fallon says. “Once I realize that something is off balance, I try to really pay attention until I figure out what it is.”

Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness can help lessen anxiety and depression symptoms, and there are many ways to put it into practice. Take up yoga or unplug from technology and social media. Try out a few breathing exercises. Elana Sandler, field education liaison, says that when she started participating in a weekly mindfulness meditation group with co-workers at a previous job, it was transformative.

“We sat together for 30 minutes each week and slowly learned how to sit with mindfulness,” she says. “This practice provided a welcome, needed break from a fast-paced job, as well as a chance to just sit and work on accepting my thoughts, and has helped enhance my mindful awareness.”

Burnout can feel all encompassing, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. Remember, you don’t have to sacrifice your own well-being for the health of your career. After all, the healthier you are, the better you can help those who rely on you.

If you’re experiencing physical pain or illness, please contact a doctor. If you’re suffering from anxiety or depression, please seek out a mental health professional. If you’re feeling suicidal, call 1-800-273-8255 for help.