STEPS: Surviving Social Work Burnout: Prevention Strategies & Advice

Discover what burnout means to social workers, learn how to recognize the signs and symptoms, and get resources and expert advice for preventing burnout in yourself and others.

Social workers offer strong, compassionate help for individuals and families experiencing a variety of life’s challenges. From working in the foster care system to helping patients and families through hospice care, social workers engage with people experiencing upheaval and change in their lives. In caring for so many people in so many ways, however, social workers may find themselves experiencing the symptoms of burnout. This is true both for professionals with years of experience and for students in social work programs who are just beginning their careers.

Fortunately, there are real, concrete solutions for preventing social work burnout. It may not always be simple, but with genuine self-care and a helping hand, burnout can be prevented and treated. Learn how you can identify social worker burnout, find the tools and techniques needed to overcome it, and gain expert advice from experienced social workers.

Discussing Burnout with a Licensed Social Worker

Janet Philbin
clinical social worker

Janet Philbin is a licensed clinical social worker, certified hypnotherapist, and certified conscious parenting coach. Janet helps adults heal from the emotional pain and trauma of their past. She is the owner of Janet Philbin, ACSW, a private psychotherapy and hypnotherapy practice. For 21 years Janet has been successfully helping people recover from their emotional wounds and change their lives with the power of transformational healing and hypnotherapy.

Q. How do you think the pandemic has affected burnout for social workers?

A. Some of the signs of burnout can include being more critical or cynical in your work with clients or colleagues. You may also experience difficulty focusing or concentrating on work-related tasks, decreased sleep, poor energy, increased fatigue, or being easily irritated. These are all signs that you might be experiencing burnout.

Q. What advice would you give to social work students and those just starting in the field for handling secondary traumatic stress?

A. I think the pandemic has been a call to action for social workers. Social workers are helpers. Social workers usually go into the field because of a deep calling to be of service. We want to help those who are struggling, who are in pain, need support, counseling and concrete services. Social workers are frontline workers providing emotional support to medical staff, families, and clients. Social workers are supporting others during the pandemic to cope with the same struggles and traumas they, themselves, are coping with. It would be impossible for social workers not to experience burnout during this pandemic.

Even social workers in private practice have been impacted. We are now working remotely. Since social workers are working remotely, we do not have the day-to-day, in-person support of colleagues to just quickly get support for a difficult case or have a casual conversation. Social workers are isolated, and that isolation can lead to depression, anxiety, increased fears, health issues, and a decrease in self-care. Social workers have an increase in clients dealing with loss due to the pandemic. We are counseling the essential workers. Social workers are witnessing, firsthand, the emotional trauma and devastation their clients are experiencing. It is our job to support them and at the same time care for ourselves as providers.

Q. You said you’ve experienced burnout. How did you get through it?

A. When I was a nursing home social worker, early in my career, I definitely went through a period of burnout. I got to a point where I became very exhausted in my job. I no longer liked working where my clients lived and found I was having a hard time making meaning out of the work I was doing. I was tired of tracking down lost remote controls and dealing with family members about their mother’s missing underwear. You would think that is not even part of a social worker’s job, but it is, and it is because as social workers we are responsible for the biopsychosocial health of our clients. That means we watch out for and consider all that is going on in their lives that affects them.

It hit me one day how frustrated and unfulfilled I was with having to do parts of my job that I previously enjoyed. Instead of enjoying connecting with my residents and families to solve these “small” issues, which represented larger ones like loss, I was not happy.

What I did in this instance was to make a big change. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to change my caseload and take on the role of hospice social worker. Though it did not eliminate having to deal with these issues, the new role offered me a new meaningful way to help a new population of residents and families which I loved. It was a renewal.

I was also in counseling with my own therapist at the time and used my sessions to talk about my work stress and experience of burnout. I also made sure when I left the building, I would take big exhales as I walked to my car, making a conscious choice to leave work at work as I headed home for the day.

Q. Anything else you’d like to add about burnout, specifically in social work?

A. Now that I am in private practice, I have had times where I feel as if “I have too many people’s problems in my head.” We hold the truths of our clients’ pain. The work of a social worker is sacred, but it is also hard, demanding, and overwhelming at times. While it may seem noble to be self-sacrificing, it is actually counterproductive. To sacrifice means to make sacred. As social workers, it is our responsibility to make ourselves sacred. We need to do this through self-care. Self-care also means creating and holding boundaries between your work life and your home life. When we take care of ourselves first, we have more resources at our disposal to give to another.

Silk Sonder — 80 Journaling Prompts for When You Don’t Know What to Write About

Close-up shot of student hand holding pen and writing in notebook, working at home. E-learning

If you’re feeling stuck—whether it’s in your personal or professional life—journaling can help close the gap between where you are and where you want to be.

“Journaling helps us to clarify thoughts and feelings, reduce stress, solve problems and helps to resolve disagreements with others, says Janet Philbin, LCSW. “In my 21-year practice as a clinician, I have found journaling to help my clients improve coping skills, maintain emotional regulation, decrease worrisome and obsessive thoughts, improve sleep and journaling allows for integration of traumatic experiences.”

When you sit down to start journaling, the words might not always flow onto the page, and that’s completely normal! If you’re unsure what to write, Philbin recommends the following prompts:

Journal a list of five things you did today that brought you joy and write down why.

Journal a list of five things that upset you today and write down why.

Sit still for a moment and journal how your body is feeling at this moment in time, use as much description as possible.

What are you afraid to speak out loud but wish people knew about you?

What was one thing you felt proud of yourself for today?

If you were to say one thing to yourself that is loving what would that be and why do you need to hear that?

What is something you have always believed about yourself and why?

What is something you always felt you wanted to accomplish and what has held you back?

Imagine your perfect day and write down all of the details.

What TV or movie characters do you most identify with? Write as many details as possible.

Mary Potter Kenyon, certified grief counselor and Therapeutic Art coach, program coordinator at a spirituality center and author of Expressive Writing for Healing: Journal Your Way from Grief to Hope, suggests these journaling prompts to raise your self-awareness and heal emotionally. 

Make a list of all the lies you tell yourself. Now go down the list, cross out the lie and write the truth.

Everyone has a story to tell. What’s yours?

Author Lewis Carroll marked never-to-be-forgotten days in his journal as “white-stone” days. What are some white-stone memories in your days?

Without thinking about it too much, make a list of ten milestone moments in your life from birth to now, moments, good or bad, that stood out. Now, take one of those moments and write more about it.

You don’t have to be a writer to express yourself through writing. When the writing is for ourselves, and not for publication, there are no rules. Try writing a free verse poem. It doesn’t have to rhyme, nor does it have to follow a certain format.

What have you learned about yourself in facing difficult situations? Maybe you are stronger, or weaker, than you ever imagined. Make a list of your strengths.

You are going to feel emotional pain during difficult experiences. That is a given. The question is; what are you going to do with that pain? Will you use it to propel you do make changes in your life, to become a better person, or to reach out to others? Write down some ways you can mine your pain.

Research has proven that practicing gratitude has health benefits. Make a list of three things you are thankful for. Some days, it might be as simple as a smile from a stranger.

If time or money were no object, make a bucket list of sorts, a list of all the things you’d like to do or experience in your life. Now, choose one, and make plans to do it,

Look back to your childhood. What were you naturally drawn to? Where did your natural interests and talents lie? Make a list of activities you loved as a child. Now, choose one and make plans to incorporate that same activity into your adult life.

Fill in the blank with these simple yet powerful prompts from Alexander Burgemeester, Neuropsychiatrist and Founder of “The Narcissistic Life:”

I couldn’t imagine living without…

I really wish others knew this about me…

One thing I wish I felt comfortable doing is…

What I loved most about today is…

The biggest surprise of my life in the past year has been…

The biggest lesson from my biggest mistake, so far, is…

What inspires me most is…

The State of Women — Amplifying Her Voice Featured Speaker: Janet Philbin

Amplifying Her Voice

The next speaker from the Amplifying Her Voice “In Moms We Trust” Summit we’d like you to meet is Janet Philbin, who spoke on our “Coping With Trauma and Stress” panel.

Philbin; a licensed clinical social worker, hypnotherapist, and conscious parenting coach; helps adults heal from the emotional pain and trauma of their pasts. She has spent the past 21 years helping people emotional wounds and change their lives, and is the author of Show Up For Yourself: A Guide to Inner Awareness and Growth, an Amazon bestseller offering a framework for emotional healing.

In our Q&A, Philbin discusses how showing up for ourselves can help us be there for others, the new and increased challenges faced by women and mothers, the importance of compassion and following your own path, the example we set for our children when we show up for ourselves, and more.


What inspired you to join Amplifying Her Voice for Mother’s Day?

I think it is important for mothers and women to understand themselves. I want to offer support and resources to help moms feel connected to themselves.

What most drives and motivates you each day?

What drives day motivates me each day is always stretching to know myself better and to continue on my healing journey. When I am working on myself I have the internal resources to be there for others.

Who is your role model, and why?

My role model is my grandfather. He was a Holocaust survivor. He taught me the value of family, the value of consistency, the value of following through, and honoring your word.

What cause, company, group, or movement are you a part of that you would like to share with us?

I am passionate about sharing and teaching conscious parenting. We can help children of today by helping their parents heal.

What do you think are some of the most pressing issues facing moms, families, and caregivers today?

I think moms are juggling so much. Now with the challenges of COVID, stress is higher. The pressures of online school, working, and trying to find balance each day are causing many people to reach their emotional limit in their ability to cope effectively. Moms need even more support as they continue to traverse this new territory.

How do you think issues like poverty, violence, racism, oppression, and inequality intersect with motherhood and with being a woman?

I think women have always been the ones fighting and advocating for their children. When a woman is also struggling with poverty, violence, racism, oppression and inequality then the challenges to survive and raise their children are magnified. Many women are living with more than one of these issues at a time. They are survivors. As a woman you are already faced with inequity so adding any other trauma creates even more of a barrier for women to be empowered to effect change in their lives.

How Finding Gratitude for Painful Life Experiences Helps You

Written by: Janet Philbin, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

It is easy to be in gratitude for the good things in life, but how about the bad, not so good, or unwanted.

Have you ever had an Ah-Ha moment? Mine was, “I am in gratitude for my trauma.” I was shocked and questioned how it was possible to be grateful for my painful life experiences. I wanted to understand what contributed to my transformation from pain to gratitude.

How do you find gratitude for unwanted life experiences? As I researched gratitude, everything I read was about how to be in gratitude for the good and positive things in life. What about gratitude for the not so good, or as Pema Chodron calls it, “the unwanted,” the bad, the struggles, and pain. Chodron says, “Use all the unwanted things in your life as a means for awakening compassion for yourself and others.” In other words, it’s important to be in gratitude for the unwanted in our lives, the not so good.

I also turned to Osho. In his book, “Buddha,” he talks about the Buddhist principle of Thahata, which means suchness. The attitude of suchness is described as: accept it. It is about accepting what is, as it is when it is. When you don’t fight what is in front of you, there is a shift because when the attitude of suchness is within us, healing can follow.

It would be wonderful if we only had good experiences, but the chances are that is not the case because life is generally full of ups and downs. Can you reflect on the downs, the ones you wish had never happened, the ones when you raised your hands and asked, “Why Me? Haven’t I been through enough already?” Can you find gratitude for those times?

Have you asked yourself these or similar questions?

  • Does this serve a purpose?
  • Haven’t I already learned this lesson?
  • Didn’t I already have enough trauma/drama in my life?
  • Didn’t I do my time (so to speak)?
  • Why do I have to take on more now?

Sadly, you cannot undo the past. I wonder what happens when you apply the concept of suchness to these questions?

Why anticipatory anxiety is like waiting for the other shoe to drop

How many times have you heard the phrase, waiting for the other shoe to drop?

I know I have said it many times.

That phrase has its origins in the tenements of New York City. The story goes that at the turn of the century, apartments were built with bedrooms on top of one another. It was common to hear your upstairs neighbor take off a shoe, drop it, and then repeat the action. In other words, waiting for the sound of the other shoe to hit the floor. It became known as an anticipation for something you knew was coming.

This has now become synonymous with anxiety, specifically anticipatory anxiety. According to psychology today, about 85 percent of things that people worry about never happen. Think about that 85 percent of us are lost in thought, which creates an emotional experience of worry, anxiety or fear about something that will never happen. That uses a lot of emotional and physical energy. It can leave you feeling exhausted, sad, confused, unable to take action steps to move forward in your life and feeling disconnected from the things that can bring you joy. It may even create the need to turn away from feelings because they are so painful, which can lead to all types of addiction and distractions. 

What I have come to understand through working with my clients, is that this type of anticipatory fear is actually held in our cellular memory. That means that the painful memory from a past event is so strong that the energy and the physical feeling you experienced from that event, actually gets lodged in your body.  When a memory is lodged in the body the result may be that every time you feel, experience, go through, or anticipate an event that is similar to the original painful memory your body reacts with the same response. The fear you hold onto rises to the top and you get stuck in the cycle of fear and anxiety.

You respond from a place of fear, a fear that was trapped in your body.

As a clinician and as a hypnotherapist I understand this with a unique perspective. First, through the lens of Polyvagal Theory and second through the lens of the subconscious mind. Polyvagal theory takes us through the experience of the autonomic nervous system and its three predictable pathways of response. These are: Ventral Vagal, Sympathetic and Dorsal Vagal.

Each pathway has unique adaptive responses to help us survive. We interpret these responses through neuroception. Neuroception is our ability to detect what is going on in our environment, this happens without conscious awareness, just like we are not consciously aware of how often we blink, it just happens. When we are detecting what is happening in our environment we are always assessing for cues of safety and cues of danger. Based on our interpretation of the cue, either safety or danger, we respond from one of the three pathways of the autonomic nervous system. When we are in Ventral Vagal, we are experiencing safety and connection. When we are in Sympathetic, we are in a mobilized fight-flight state. When we are in Dorsal Vagal, we are in a state of immobilization, conserving our energy and resources.

Keeping Polyvagal theory in mind lets move onto understanding why we are waiting for the other shoe to drop from the perspective of the subconscious mind. The subconscious mind has no sense of time, it does not know the difference between real and imagination, and it reacts from old “programming” until those old programmed messages are healed. When it comes to the emotional experience of anxiety, this is something that is experienced when our Sympathetic system is activated.

Anxiety is an emotion.

We interpret a physical sensation we feel in the body and label it anxiety or maybe fear. We are activated in some way. If the sensation feels like a tightness in the chest we immediately interpret that as a cue of danger. This happens because we learned a long time ago, maybe as a child, that every time my parents fight, I get scared, my chest gets tight and I am anticipating something really bad may happen next. Now, it does not matter if something really bad happened or not, the body now has a cellular memory of a tight chest and this is connected to strong emotions. The Sympathetic system is activated, and you are in fight or flight. You learned to experience anticipatory anxiety every time you get this feeling of a tightness in the chest. Since the subconscious mind has no sense of time you respond to the event in front of you with the same or very similar coping skills you developed when you were young. 

Now, as an adult, every time the Sympathetic system is active you experience this anticipatory anxiety. It is interpreted as a cue of danger. The shoe is about to drop. What if you were able to change this perception? What if you still felt that feeling in your chest but did not have to automatically jump into your imagination and go into all of the stories of a bad outcome. What if the feeling in your chest was just a message to you to pay attention to yourself for a moment or two? It is an invitation to tune into what you are internally experiencing, slow down, to carefully assess the situation. Imagine that the tight feeling did not mean something bad was going to happen but instead means you can have a positive outcome in this situation.

You can be in charge of how you respond.

It is possible what you are anticipating is a good thing and when you get that feeling in your chest it means to be excited about the next event and not scared. You have the power to change your response, you have the power to change your thoughts.

Here are a some steps to take on how to do this.

  1. When you feel that physical feeling in your body stop and pause.
  2. Take a breath in, let the exhale be longer than the inhale.
  3. Take a few of these breaths, being sure when you inhale you are taking deep abdominal breaths so you can feel your belly rise up each time you inhale.
  4. Notice how the physical feeling in the body begins to shift or become alleviated as you breathe this way.
  5. Become aware of your physical body. Feel your feet on the floor, your body in your chair, take note of the time, day, what clothes you are wearing. Reorient yourself to the present moment.
  6. Talk to yourself by asking questions like; what is the truth of the situation right now? What are the real possible outcomes? What is the best outcome? What is the worst?
  7. You are empowered to choose how you will approach the situation. Will you approach in from the perspective of the worst outcome or the best?
  8. You get to choose the way you respond. What emotional and physical energy do you want to bring to the situation?
  9. Take another breath and notice the shift within you.
  10. Now you can move forward and choose to interpret that feeling in your chest differently. Now it gets to mean to stop, pause, pay attention and choose you.

When you step into the empowered self by choosing you, you are letting yourself know you are safe. You are in charge of how you respond. You are here in this present moment, not five, ten or thirty years ago in the past. You no longer need to imagine bad outcomes with anticipatory anxiety of a shoe dropping. In fact, you get to move into a new space where you do not have to hear the shoe drop at all.

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CHAPTER 1: Conscious Relationship With Self

 

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