Addressing Stress and Burnout Among Social Workers: Implementing a Framework of Shared Responsibility

This blog journey is about sharing insights, lessons learned, and resources built over a 30-year career in social work, while building community connections with all of you. Being part of a vocation in human services can be tough work yet incredibly rewarding. It also comes with unique challenges and stresses that need to be addressed individually and collaboratively as a profession. My journey as a social worker includes serving individuals, families, and groups in rural communities while fighting against discrimination and injustice, along with educating the next generation of social workers through my role as an instructor and leader in higher education. At this point in my life, sharing my thoughts and ideas grounded in research and my lived experience is one small way to give back to the profession.

I have lived the ups and downs of being a social worker for the past 30 years. Much of that time has been spent in rural behavioral healthcare services, supervision, administration, and teaching. I have experienced work-related stress and observed it in others. To best support social workers who are distressed, it takes a multi-pronged individual, supervisory, organizational, and higher education approach. Social workers have the power and control to develop and implement their own unique, culturally-responsive self-care plan that is flexible and fluid to change when necessary. However, addressing stress and burnout among social workers goes far beyond individual responsibility and self-care. It includes peer-to-peer, supervisory, organizational, and educational strategies and supports.

In my supervisory role, I had the opportunity to walk alongside mental health practitioners and professionals who provided home, school, and office-based services. During individual and group supervision sessions, I listened to supervisees talk about complex situations, work-related stress, and secondary trauma. It is critical to create the space and time for social workers to process job-related challenges and stressors with their peers or a supervisor. According to Drs. Emily and Amelia Nagowski, individuals need to complete their stress cycle to avoid burnout. Specifically, after a stressful situation occurs, negative emotions arise and stay in our bodies unless an action is performed to release the negative feelings. For instance, social workers can complete the stress cycle by talking to a trusted co-worker or supervisor about their emotional experiences. For additional information, I highly recommend the following books by the Nagowski sisters entitled, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle and supplemental publication titled The Burnout Workbook: Advice and Exercises to Help You Unlock the Stress Cycle. These resources specifically highlight the importance of the social, emotional, and relational aspects of dealing with stress to avoid exhaustion, cynicism, and insufficiency.

Social workers understand the importance of building relationships with clients, colleagues, and collaterals. It is one of the pillars of the profession and countless studies indicate that the connection with a compassionate, empathic peer or supervisor fuels resiliency among social workers. In what ways do you process your stress with others? How do you support your co-workers or supervisees in dealing with work-related issues or emotional exhaustion? Critical components of supervision when mentoring a peer or supervisee who is struggling include, being present, listening to understand, demonstrating empathy, brainstorming, and problem-solving. Additionally, there are times when a supervisor needs to advocate for organizational change to address the wellness and well-being of social workers.

In 2019, as part of my doctoral dissertation, I conducted a study with health and human services supervisors on how they and their organizations address stress and burnout among social workers. Study participants shared a variety of responses regarding organizational approaches including, creating opportunities for relationship building, employee recognition, and “I don’t think we do…maybe we should”. I wholeheartedly agree, organizations should! Policies, procedures, and practices that support social workers wellness are critical to building and sustaining a workforce of providers willing and ready to show-up to engage in challenging, complex, and difficult human service-related work. As a consultant and trainer on the topics of stress, burnout, self-care and collaborative support, I have had the opportunity to be part of organizational strategies and solutions pertaining to employee well-being. I have been hired for one-time presentations that have been in-person or live online that ranged in duration from an hour, half-day, or full-day events. One organization contracted with me for a year to provide monthly, 1-hour online sessions via Zoom that focused on addressing stress, preventing burnout, and building resiliency. Other examples of organizational approaches include making sure employees have manageable caseloads, addressing discrimination and microaggressions, highlighting the importance of taking vacation days without checking e-mail or responding to phone calls, and promoting opportunities for employees to de-brief with peers or supervisors on a regular basis. Unequivocally, organizations play a critical role in the well-being of employees.

Finally, higher education has a responsibility to address the health and wellness of social work students to better prepare them for field placements and careers in the profession. When I was pursuing my undergraduate and graduate degrees, the topics of work-related stress, burnout, and ways to address them were never discussed. However, change is happening, some social work programs are embedding these topics into classes and field experience seminars. Textbooks now include chapters and sections on self and collaborative care which are helpful resources for instructors. Finally, national organizations like the Council on Social Work Education and the National Association of Social Workers emphasize the importance of addressing the wellness and well-being among social work students and professionals, through policies, ethical guidelines, and conference agendas. Approaching work-related stress and burnout using a framework of shared responsibility, among individuals, peers, supervisors, organizations, and higher education is not only necessary, but critical to a future where social workers thrive.

Be bold, be well ~ Dr. Brenda