New Social Worker and Seasoned Pro:
Burnout is defined by the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and reduced professional efficacy. It’s a common struggle for social workers. So common in fact, social work ranks fourth in careers with the highest burnout rates. While burnout isn’t new, the past three years have only exacerbated the problem.
Burnout can affect new and experienced social workers as well as students studying to enter the profession. Two social workers, Gina Rosich, PhD, has worked in direct practice and is currently a faculty member at the University of St. Joseph in Connecticut, and Vimmi Surti, a social worker at a New Jersey domestic violence agency where she offers case support and legal advocacy, both identified periods of burnout in their careers. Rosich has been in the field since 1998 while Surti has been in the field since 2018. While burnout often causes social workers to leave the field, these two social workers found ways to overcome the situation and remain committed to their work.
Causes of Burnout
The stress that leads to burnout can be caused by the amount of work, the type of work, or challenges brought on by supervisors, colleagues, or even clients. If the workplace culture doesn’t provide an outlet for the stress, burnout symptoms may fester and grow.
Rosich’s first job was at a foster care agency where she was the supervisor of her unit.
“I was quite young at the time and the job involved a tremendous amount of paperwork; I was making life and death decisions for these children; making ethical decisions that I wasn't fully prepared for,” she explained.
She was not given a lot of supervisory support in her role. She also found arguing with the city to get permission for therapeutic services very frustrating.
“If more state and city child welfare workers had BSWs it would bring greater alignment between government and foster agencies when it comes to making ethical decisions.”
Within a year, Rosich found herself having such a difficult time that she knew something had to change and ultimately left the job.
Surti went through a period where she had a lot on her plate—studying part time, working full time, and working another six hours a week as a research assistant for a professor.
“I had no energy, felt exhausted all of the time and had no time for my family,” she said.
Where to Turn for Support
One good first place to look for support is: Talk to supervisors or colleagues to find ways to alleviate the pressure.
“We all need to cultivate agency culture where talking through the stressors of a job is normalized,” said Rosich. It’s not about complaining about a job, but constructively examining the work, the contracts, and the support.”
“If you can’t make it the office culture, then that’s not the place to work—it’s ok to leave,” she added.
Surti brought her concerns about her well-being to her employer and her professor and learned that they had experienced burnout as well at points in their career.
“I had to take a back seat and take some time for myself,” she said. “I realized I needed a break and resting is fine.”
NASW can be another resource, providing members with tools that help social workers understand and address burnout including podcasts and articles that dig into the topic.
“NASW has a self-help webinar, and yoga and reiki webinars that I found helpful,” said Surti.
At the time, Rosich didn’t think to use her NASW membership for support in that specific situation, but says looking back, the resources she used to facilitate training in her subsequent role helped her manage stress and avoid burnout.
“At one point, I had difficulties with staff members not appreciating the legal implications of case writing, so I bought a video from NASW because we didn't have a training budget,” she said. “It took the burden of developing training on certain things off of me and made those problems manageable.”
NASW also advocates for legislation that can provide relief for social workers and circumvent burnout in the first place.
For example, two years ago, the NASW Connecticut Chapter team, which included Rosich, rallied its support around legislation that would reduce the caseload for social workers in subacute rehabilitation facilities from 120 cases per social worker to 60.
Managing Burnout Throughout a Career
Each social worker had advice on how to handle burnout or avoid it as much as possible. They said it’s important to address this issue with senior management who may not always understand what is happening on the ground.
“Communicate, be transparent and explain how you want to move forward,” said Surti. “People understand and want to give you a break.”
Rosich recommends drawing boundaries to give yourself time to unwind.
“Always book self-care into your life,” said Rosich. “Put it into your schedule to get exercise or take time off and create a line after which you won’t do any work.”
“Work it out with your colleagues and supervisors to ensure there is coverage so people can go away on vacation and not regret it when they come back,” she added. “Supervisors should ensure people take their vacation time. Don’t create the type of agency where never taking time off is rewarded.”
SaraKay Smullens, a social worker in Philadelphia, NASW veteran, and author of the book “Burnout and Self-Care in Social Work, 2nd Edition: A Guidebook for Students and those in Mental Health and Related Professions,” offers similar advice: practice self-care, establish boundaries, and engage in your profession.
“We must connect with others meaningfully to remain strong. Toward this, NASW has been a life saver,” she said.
NASW is always working to help members manage burnout. Listen to a podcast interview with SaraKay Smullens to hear more on this topic. Did you know? NASW members get 10% off books from NASW Press, including “Burnout and Self-Care in Social Work.”
To learn more and find resources for support, visit socialworkers.org and search “burnout ” or “self care.”