Burnout & Self Care – Social Work.

There is no inherent good to being a social worker. There is the assumption that social workers are inherently “good” people who can work tirelessly because they are seen an altruists for wanting to help people. But they are not “good” or “better than” other kinds of rockets because in doing so, it dehumanises them by placing them on a pedestal, rather than humanising them for the various struggles they may face while helping others. The training and the experience of being a social worker is arduous, demanding and distressing, especially when society views social workers as altruistic and forever giving of their time to those in need.


Most people assume that social workers simply just do their work, without experiencing any kind of fatigue — mental, physical, emotional, somatic fatigue. It is a fatigue that sits under the skin, and it constantly never allows for rest because such tremors is the body’s way of trying to get a person ready to run. But social workers are human beings, who need time and care and reaffirmation just like any living person does. When social workers do not receive this, they experience something called compassion fatigue and eventually experience burnout.


“Burnout” refers to when the social worker or practitioner progresses into becoming “inoperative”.  When a person becomes inoperative, they are less likely to take in input, they become irritable, are quick to anger, and become increasingly resigned. Burnout can be due to various factors, such as high performance or glamourised expectations, or inadequate supervision. Social workers, like any other human being, can also fail to recognise or pay attention to the extent of their burnout until it all feels overwhelming, and can then further fail to recognise and assess what is required to restore balance in their lives.


Compassion fatigue refers to the phenomena of physical and emotional fatigue that social workers experience due to the extensive and chronic use of empathy towards individuals who are suffering. Social workers strive for a relationship that is collaborative, and not reciprocal, which is necessary in facilitating boundaries, but compassion fatigue also reflects a deeper inability to say “no” to aspects of the work that are incredibly traumatising. This is especially true if social workers are engaging in daily traumatising conversations with people, and where there is no balanced give and take, and social workers cannot “take” as that may violate ethical standards. Compassion fatigue is part of the very social fabric of social work, which is why it requires extensive measures to help social workers recognise the symptoms objectively so that they may access the necessary faculties to take care of themselves. Unfortunately, compassion fatigue sees people leaving their jobs because they are unable to manage the demanding and emotionally draining nature of their work.


The symptoms of burnout are feelings of constant fatigue, which can then develop into insomnia. Lack of sleep, rest, and recuperation affects the workers cognitive abilities, affecting their deliverables and are unable to pay attention to job details. The physical manifestations of fatigue are a weakened immune system, heart palpitations, stress headaches or migraines, chest pain, and even poor digestion. The mental symptoms can range from anxiety, depression, anger and even vicarious trauma from clients. It can even lead to feelings of helplessness and detachment from one’s job, where their deteriorating mental health makes them believe that their work is probably not going to help anyone.


The solution to burnout is simple — and may feel like common sense — and valuable.


  1. Counterconditioning: This is a strategy that emphasises on physical activities or healing modalities. A workout, a place of worship or meditation, listening to an e-book at certain hours, artistic pursuits, or hobbies.
  2. Therapy: Seeking and understanding personal selves, and even better and deeper psychological work that will assist social workers with their work.
  3. Set limits: Create limits, set hard timelines for schedules, clients needs and family commitments.
  4. Eat, drink, sleep: Social workers are far less likely and vulnerable to burnout when properly rested, hydrated and fed.
  5. Maintain boundaries: It is important for social workers to create boundaries with their clients, colleagues, friends and family. It is also necessary that they do not give in to pressures that, over time, can harm them indefinitely.
  6. Personal time: Engage in creative activities, relieve stress, listen to music, journal, paint or cook.
  7. Do not be a sponge: Taking care with how one responds to clients recounting traumatising events or experience — this is called “vicarious traumatising”, which can be debilitating. Discuss with your immediate supervisor to prevent compassion fatigue.


Being a social worker can be rewarding in its own way, as they are skilled in assessing the needs of the people who are hurting, and to help them find solutions. But social workers are also people who need rest, especially more so to not become desensitised and hardened by the many people around them who are grieving. Rest can feel elusive, even frivolous, in a world that emphasises productivity as a function of worth, but staying soft and sensitive allows social workers to do their work in helping people effectively and with the care that they deserve.

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