Wellness requires multifaceted approach

Angelo McClain, Ph.D., LICSWSeveral months ago, as I began to anticipate the end of winter and the brevity of spring, I contemplated writing a column encouraging social workers to think about self-care.

The summer months, I thought, “there can be no better time for attending to self-care, no better time for a really good vacation, no better time for pursuing personal interests, and absolutely no better time for taking an inventory of personal wellness.”

Over the intervening weeks, as the notion of speaking to social worker wellness gained momentum in my thoughts, I became concerned that encouraging better self-care might inadvertently imply that the determinants of social worker wellness simply fall to each social worker, individually.

I wanted to convey that achieving social worker wellness requires a multifaceted approach with strategies employed at the practitioner, management and leadership levels.

As social workers, our continuous efforts to discover better ways to more effectively treat, care, advocate, and teach often result in inattentiveness to our own personal needs to relax, reflect and recover.

In devotion to our responsibilities of helping children, families, communities and students, we can easily lose sight of our responsibility for self-care.

Our jobs are fraught with challenges, stressors and traumas that we must have strategies for addressing; strategies that are developed through self-awareness, self-regulation and self-efficacy.

Social workers in supervisory and management positions must create a positive work environment as they pursue organizational goals for optimal performance. They must create workplace cultures and climates that reduce stress and increase positive attitudes toward work; and create cultures conducive to superior service quality and outcomes.

Supervisory and management level social workers have the added responsibility of helping staff manage factors that contribute to burnout, compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma.

As their staff works to help better people’s lives and communities, supervisory social workers must ensure that their staff takes the personal actions needed to refuel, recharge and replenish.

Social workers who lead organizations must embrace their responsibility to address the organizational factors that promote or inhibit social worker wellness.

Social workers in leadership positions must ensure that their agencies thoroughly assess the factors that contribute to wellness, seek staff feedback and develop policies to improve social worker wellness.

An organizational commitment to wellness not only empowers staff, but addresses important organizational goals, such as improving retention and increasing productivity. In fact, focusing on social worker wellness is a win-win-win situation, because social workers with lower levels of stress are more productive in their work with clients and more committed to the organization.

For example, in a 2003 U.S. Government Accountability Office study, members of case management teams with more positive organizational cultures and climates had better work attitudes, were less likely to quit their jobs, delivered higher quality services, and produced more effective outcomes.

Other studies have concluded that increased workforce stability and positive organizational climates are critical to improving services.

Researchers argue that the culture and climate of mental health and social service organizations are important to service outcomes because they affect whether the best practices and most innovative service protocols are adopted, how they are implemented, and whether they are sustained and effective.

We each have a professional responsibility to provide self-care (for ourselves and our staff) to guard against overload, emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and many other things that diminish social worker wellness.

We know that multifaceted approaches to social worker wellness that address practitioner, management and organizational factors are effective. The determinants of wellness include variables such as supervisory support, autonomy and feedback, career advancement opportunities, salary, workloads, and clear role definitions.

In “Self-care in Social Work: A Guide for Practitioners, Supervisors, and Administrators,” Kathleen Cox and Sue Steiner offer true accounts of proven coping strategies that practitioners, supervisors, and agencies use to manage the stress involved with our challenging, yet rewarding, profession.

As you think about your summer vacation plans and contemplate taking an inventory of your professional wellness, remember all of the joys of social work and the reasons you chose to enter our wonderful profession.

And remember that your journey on the wellness path is not a journey you take alone.

Contact Angelo McClain at