Everyone experiences stress in their lives. Work, family, health, money and relationships all top the list of things that keep us from relaxing, and often, stress just leads to more stress. But in some careers, such as social work, stress levels can be higher than average due to the responsibilities of the job. Working with clients through their hardships, especially when combined with personal challenges, can be emotionally exhausting and contribute to serious issues, including burnout, depression and other health problems.
Therefore, it's vital that social workers—and those in the process of becoming social workers—understand the importance of self-care. Even if you have a busy schedule, taking time to nurture yourself both physically and mentally is important to your continued good health.
Put on Your Own Mask First
Anyone who has ever flown on an airplane knows that when the flight attendants give the emergency instructions, they tell you to put your own oxygen mask on before assisting anyone else with theirs. It only takes a few seconds, and you won't pass out from lack of oxygen while securing someone else's mask.
The same concept applies to self-care. If you are so exhausted that you can barely think straight, you aren't going to be of much use to anyone else who needs you. Therefore, you need to find balance between your work, school and personal lives so that you don't become overwhelmed in any one area.
The principle is simple, but it's often easier said than done. Burnout is common among social workers because they tend to be empathetic and take on their client's issues, a phenomenon known as "vicarious trauma."1 Some work long hours and skip breaks in an effort to do as much as possible in any given day. This is especially common when they have large caseloads or particularly challenging cases.
Self-care for social workers is a necessity though, if you want to avoid burnout. It might seem like taking care of yourself isn't or shouldn't be a top priority, but it has to be. To put your own mask on first, then, follow these self-care strategies for social workers.
Your physical and mental health are closely related; when you are physically unwell, your mental health is likely to suffer, and vice versa. Stress brings about a range of physical ailments like fatigue and insomnia, which can compound the stress itself. Make it a priority to get adequate sleep, eat as healthy as possible and drink plenty of water. If you only have a short amount of time for lunch each day, pack a healthy meal and eat when you can. Always have a selection of nutritious snacks on hand so you can munch on them during a short break rather than head to the vending machine.
Exercise is also important. You don't need to train for a marathon (unless you want to, that is). Simply taking a walk around the block or hitting a yoga class after work can help you release tension, get the blood flowing and help you refocus and clear your mind for a little while.
Schedule “You Time”
When you're busy with work, family and school, getting downtime can feel impossible. But you need to schedule in some time for yourself. Invest in a planner or calendar and schedule a few hours of downtime each week. During this time, turn off your phone, if you can, and do something that you enjoy. Read a novel, try something creative or just soak in the tub and listen to music. Anything that has nothing to do with work and is entirely for enjoyment will help recharge your batteries.
Self-care isn't just about relaxing. It's about understanding how you respond to stress and finding healthier ways of dealing with it.2 Take stock of your current coping strategies for stress and try to identify those behaviors that are negative or unproductive, like overeating junk food or withdrawing from social life. Try to eliminate or replace those unhealthy coping mechanisms with more positive strategies. Also consider how you respond to extreme stress or trying situations, and develop a plan of how you will respond and care for yourself in that moment. Having self-care strategies in place for managing stress before it arises can help ensure that you don't become overwhelmed or shut down in a crucial moment.
Finally, reflect upon the obstacles that are keeping you from adequately caring for yourself. What's keeping you from putting your mask on first? Start small: If you aren't sleeping enough, start going to bed 15 minutes earlier. Not drinking enough water? Buy a nice water bottle that you can fill throughout the day. Consider how you plan to address the barriers keeping you from caring for yourself, what you can do to stay on track and what you will do instead of reverting to negative or destructive behaviors.
Self-care isn't always easy and it's always a work in progress. However, it’s an essential step to reaping the full benefits of this challenging but rewarding field.
1 Retrieved on February 21, 2018, from prevention.com/mind-body/avoid-job-burnout/slide/5
2 Retrieved on February 21, 2018, from socialwork.buffalo.edu/resources/self-care-starter-kit/developing-your-self-care-plan.html