March is National Social Work Month! Here at KVC Kentucky, we celebrate the life-changing work that social workers, counselors and other helping professionals do daily. Because of their work and dedication, children, families and communities are positively impacted.
Social work is both rewarding and challenging work: Social work professionals spend their careers advocating for and attending to the needs of others. Those in the social work and human services field are often prone to burnout and compassion fatigue. Their time, energy and hearts are committed to the work they do, the services they provide and assisting their clients in achieving their goals. Because of the front-line work they provide to their communities, social workers must balance their giving nature with ensuring that they take good care of themselves. Social workers can flourish in their professional and personal lives by understanding the importance of self-care and incorporating some simple steps into their routine.
Importance of Self-Care While Caring for Others
Why is self-care important to flourishing in social work? Each day in the life of a social worker provides opportunities to help people through challenging experiences and significant obstacles they are facing. This often involves serving children and adults who have experienced trauma, mental health concerns and challenging behaviors. With proper support and self-care, the day-to-day duties can stay manageable, and minimize the potential for burnout.
In the social work sector, compassion fatigue and secondary traumatic stress, an occupational hazard for professionals working with people who have experienced trauma, may contribute to higher experiences of burnout among social work professionals. Kimberly Miller, Director of Clinical Services with KVC Kentucky, explains that compassion fatigue can “develop when you put so much of yourself and your energy into absorbing the feelings and thoughts of other people.”
As these professionals work to help their clients navigate a situation, there is a foundation of investment and empathy. So if social workers don’t have proper self-care, it can be draining over a longer time period.
The possibility of becoming overwhelmed and experiencing burnout is common in the social work sector, making self-care truly vital for all social work professionals. To flourish in social work, self-care can’t wait until things get dire. Miller notes that social workers should intentionally incorporate self-care within their days, even during seasons when things feel manageable.
“Self-care shouldn’t happen when you’re burnt out,” she explains. “It is a preventative measure so you don’t get burnt out.”
Self-Care for Social Workers
Self-care isn’t always easy, but it’s necessary to restore balance. Learning and regularly practicing self-care should remain a priority in a career where so much energy is given to others. Sometimes, self-care gets limited to pampering activities, like an occasional pedicure or a movie marathon afternoon. But really, self-care is a life-giving practice that is integral to maintaining strong mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing. Here are some simple strategies for self-care, especially important for professionals in the social work field.
Positive Self Talk
The way we talk to ourselves matters. Research has found that negative self-talk causes limited growth, increased stress and creates more anxiety. It can manifest a cycle of pessimism that makes it more difficult to see the positives. As a part of our mindset, internal dialogue shapes our daily experience. “The way you talk to yourself impacts your life greatly overall,” Miller shares.
After 20 successful years working alongside social workers, Miller recommends avoiding the phrase “I have to…” when thinking and speaking about responsibilities. Telling yourself you “have to” do something can feel exhausting and can lead to feelings of resentment. Instead, try changing your mindset to “I want to…” or “I get to…” By making this small change, our tasks may not bring about as much distress.
Another form of self-care is the ability to set and hold boundaries. Katie Jones, Director of Behavioral Health Services with KVC Kentucky, notices many social workers falling into a rhythm of complacency.
“We’ve all gotten into the bad habit in our career of just going, going, going,” Jones says. “At the end of the day, you’re depleted and don’t have any room for yourself or your family.”
Joyfully, the field of social work has evolved in recent years. Burning the midnight oil and working far past overwhelm was previously viewed as a badge of honor. Jones encourages social workers to view setting boundaries as a form of self-care. This can be as simple as turning off your phone at the end of the work day, not checking email outside of work hours, taking a walk during the day or intentionally taking a lunch break with friends. When you’re flourishing, you’re better equipped to help clients flourish, too.
Other Self-Care Strategies
While positive self-talk and setting boundaries can be helpful for nearly anyone in social work to flourish, some self-care strategies are individual. Find what fills you with joy and hold yourself accountable to making it a habit. Here are a few other ways to practice self-care:
- Getting proper sleep
- Eating healthy
- Taking time off
- Spending time outdoors
- Meditating and other calming activities
How someone approaches self-care in their daily lives will also evolve over time.
“Self-care changes throughout your lifetime,” Miller says. “What you need at age 20 is not the same as it is at 30 as it is at 40.”
It’s about what helps keep you balanced no matter what stage of life you’re in. “Self-care is an ongoing journey.”
Maintaining Balance and Professional Growth within the KVC Culture
With the mentally and emotionally focused work they do, social workers need a professional environment with a supportive team to help them and provide the resources they need to flourish. Ultimately, a healthy work culture helps social workers cultivate mental health in their clients, too.
Both Miller and Jones agree that KVC holds work/life balance in high regard. Throughout the whole company, from top-tier to entry-level interns, there’s an active focus on self-care. KVC looks to professionals to practice what they preach. “The management team works hard to set the example and model it for the rest of the staff,” Miller says.
Across the board, professionals working with KVC complement on providing a supportive environment and ensuring staff are equipped with the tools to enhance the work/life balance.