People who go into social work are almost always deeply compassionate, kind, and caring. These are incredible assets in a job that involves helping people deal with tremendous problems on a daily basis. However, social work can also be a mentally exhausting career, which frequently takes its toll on the compassionate people who are drawn to the field.
If you’re a social worker or you’re interested in becoming one, it’s very important to be prepared for the challenges and to prioritize your own mental health. Here are some tips for coping with the day-to-day challenges of life in the social work field.
Social workers are tasked with helping people get through difficult situations and improve their lives. This could mean helping former prisoners re-integrate into society and find a job, working with victims of domestic violence, or helping people experiencing homelessness find more stable living situations. These are just a few of the many tasks social workers might be asked to perform on any given day or week.
The people dealing with these situations are often living in poverty, suffering from severe mental illnesses, having unstable relationships, or struggling with the long-term effects of trauma. Witnessing people dealing with these problems day after day can lead to emotional distress and even compassion fatigue, which is extremely common in social workers and is caused by secondhand trauma.
Physical and mental consequences
Most social workers have to work long hours and take on high caseloads to ensure that people get the help they need. They often don’t have the ability to spend as much time on each case as they’d like. In addition to exposing them to more secondhand trauma, these long days can lead to chronic stress, anxiety, and even physical health problems.
You can deal with work-related stress as a social worker in a few different ways. The first is to set clear boundaries between your work and home life. If you allow your work to creep into the time you are supposed to be spending on yourself, you won’t be able to take a break from the emotional exhaustion that accumulates during the workday. Ruminating on cases when you’re off the clock can also lead to issues like anxiety and poor sleep, which affect both physical and mental health.
Taking care of your diet, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep are basics for maintaining good mental health as a social worker. These elements of a healthy lifestyle are the foundation for other self-care techniques.
Social workers need to care for their mental health as well. This could mean relaxing and engaging in enjoyable activities, spending time with friends and family, and/or meditating. You need time to rest, relax, and recharge after spending hours each day seeing everyday tragedies play out.
Mindfulness can also be effective in helping social workers feel calmer and better equipped to handle their daily responsibilities. Meditation, yoga, and breathing exercises are all great mindfulness activities you can try.
It’s important to understand and fulfil the 7 Pillars of Self-Care as a social worker. If you aren’t taking care of yourself, then you won’t be able to do your job effectively and you will be vulnerable to burnout or even compassion fatigue.
Self-care can keep you in your career
It’s easy to brush off self-care when you have too many cases, but that’s exactly when you need it the most. You’ll be more effective, productive, and mentally strong if you take care of yourself and spend your off hours thinking about your hobbies and relationships instead of the people you meet at work. You’ll also help prevent burnout in your career. Taking vacations is also important for your well-being.
Taking care of yourself could even keep you on the social work career path. Many social workers develop compassion fatigue or burnout and eventually leave the profession altogether, putting additional stress on their colleagues. Self-care can be the difference between a stressful career and a fulfilling one.
And remember, if you ever need to speak with a mental health professional, don’t wait. It’s much easier to deal with mental health problems before they get out of hand. Everyone needs help and support – even social workers.
Ellen Diamond did her degree in psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. She is interested in mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.