Expert Tips for Fighting Burnout

Kathleen Callahan and SaraKay Smullens

For Kathleen Callahan, MSW, COVID completely derailed her carefully made plans. A social worker in Connecticut, she had spent the years immediately preceding the pandemic working to complete her master’s degree and building a community outreach department within the organization where she worked. When everything went virtual, her organization managed to survive, but the department she had grown did not.

It was a tough blow. Coupled with trying to achieve all the requirements from the state, she felt burned out. She left the organization and today works as a consultant helping organizations lead advocacy and policy efforts. She is the Chair of the NASW Connecticut Chapter’s Education and Legislative Action Network (ELAN) committee.

Kathleen’s story is not unique in the profession. Recent statistics from FlexJobs and Mental Health America indicate that 75% of social workers will experience burnout during their career, but some experts believe that number is even higher, as much as 95%.

SaraKay Smullens, LCSW, ACSW, BCD, DCSW, CGP, CFLE, a social worker in Philadelphia and an NASW member for more than 50 years has spent decades studying the subject of burnout and wrote the book, Burnout and Self-Care in Social Work, 2nd Edition: A Guidebook for Students and those in Mental Health and Related Professions.

She says social work is the impossible profession: a profession that sees endless suffering and the impact of grave inequities and prejudice. And she adds, the pandemic only made it worse.

“Of course, the pandemic has caused enormous social isolation,” she said. “We are social beings and the endless contacts without connection exhaust us.”

SaraKay became acutely interested in burnout in the 1990s while working in Philadelphia and seeing people who were mentally exhausted and leaving the profession even though they didn’t want to, they simply felt they had no choice. In those days, many experts believed burnout was a form of depression, but in fact it is not, and the World Health Organization now categorizes it as a syndrome in ICD-11.

“If you can go on a holiday and feel better, it’s burnout,” she explained.

In her book she describes signals of burnout, where burnout occurs, and strategies for coping with burnout.

Warning Signs of Burnout

Our body and mind give us signals, wake-up calls, and reasons that burnout begins and flourishes in five areas.

  • Compassion Fatigue—due to the enormous emotional and physical fatigue social workers and those in mental health professions experience, they feel as though they just can’t shoulder the weight anymore.
  • Countertransference—a client’s influence on the social worker’s positive or negative unconscious feelings about significant people in their life. It’s a problem when they don't realize that they are seeing and relating to their client as representing someone from the past or present.
  • Vicarious Trauma—the emotions that result from knowing about a client’s traumatizing experience and the stress resulting from wanting to help those who suffer. Secondary Trauma, a close cousin, involves the social worker’s feelings/reaction as a firsthand narrative is described. Traumatic Countertransference has been used to describe the social worker’s specific feelings about what a client has gone through. It’s intensified when they have gone through similar trauma.
  • Moral Distress and Injury—the distress of being in a situation in which one is constrained from acting on what one knows is right. In social work the concept extends to all aspects of being unable to provide the urgent help and services we know are critically needed in the manner we know is essential. It also extends to exposure to the violence, rage, and intractable divisiveness that are present in this country and beyond—from which there is no escape—perpetually played out through social media 24/7.

Arenas Where Burnout Occurs

While most people associate burnout with work, SaraKay says that burnout occurs in five places.

  • Professional—we need an environment where we have safety, opportunities for meaningful supervision and growth, and an atmosphere of self and mutual respect.
  • Personal—the psychological, emotional, cognitive, intellectual and spiritual aspects of our self, and the necessity of doing all possible to strengthen each for the demands of an “impossible profession.”
  • Relational—the interaction with those who are important in our lives.
  • Societal—the toll of the myriad longstanding, unaddressed societal problems and their impact on us, often accompanied by a deep sense of mourning for what should have been. It is intensified by dysfunctional leadership in families, work setting, communities and societies.
  • Physical—the care of our own body and understanding how the body speaks to us.

Strategies for Avoiding or Coping with Burnout

The good news is we can find a way to get past burnout. SaraKay offers many strategies.

  • Engage in your profession—take continuing education from NASW or do something away from your setting to gain more professional energy, such as supervising new social workers or acting as a consultant to a play or a film.
  • Build different relationships—we need different friendships. Don’t think one person can fill all intimacy needs. And release friends who by design or default are not offering you a good experience.
  • Change behavior—wake up and tell ourselves despair is not serving us. Acknowledge difficult times. (Never did we think an enduring pandemic would happen. It has. We will persevere.)
  • Find self-awareness—what is this client, family, world situation touching in me? If it’s an unfinished emotional situation, find a way to face it no matter how brutal.
  • Just say no—if someone asks something of us, and we don’t have the energy to do it, no matter how special the person is, say no. If you’re working in a setting where you can’t say no, plan for an exit.
  • Get involved—engage with NASW to help change laws through advocacy and activism.
  • Don’t let mistakes get you down—we all make mistakes. Learn from them.
  • Listen to your body—do things to strengthen yourself.
  • Practice self-care—emphasize “self”— what is right for you, energizes you. Care is not a one size fits all.
  • Establish boundaries with clients—we care for the clients, but we are separate. We have our personal lives, and they are not part of our personal world.
  • Value your creativity and emotional sense of direction—take risks to do new things. If it doesn't work out, that’s fine. Do another thing. Have a dream.

While advocacy work is challenging because of how hard it is to impact change and how it can sap energy, Kathleen Callahan carries on because she finds strength in the work she's doing with NASW and outside of it.

“When I listen to young people eloquently explain why we need to be pro homes, change zoning laws, have more education funding, or deal with climate change, I’m buoyed by seeing how much they care,” she said.

She’s learned to focus on how she takes care of herself.

“I’ve stopped thinking I have to do it all myself,” she said. “NASW trains everyone to have proper supervision at work and to put their computer away and take a walk, get outside, do something else.

After five decades in the field, SaraKay believes the strategies, behaviors, and attitudes discussed above and in her book are important for the social work profession to adopt and that resources and opportunities NASW offers are essential.

“We must connect with others meaningfully to remain strong. Toward this, NASW has been a life saver,” she said.

Become a member to access more resources on burnout, including podcasts, books, and articles:

NASW Social Work Talks

NASW Social Work Talks Podcast

Listen to "EP79: How Can Social Workers Avoid Job Burnout?"

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