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Self-Care for Social Workers: Tips and Strategies

December 16, 2022

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation,” wrote professor and civil rights activist Audre Lorde in her 1988 essay collection, “A Burst of Light.”

Social workers support other people every day — it’s an intrinsic part of their job. But they also need to develop effective strategies to practice self-care. With an array of effective self-care strategies, social workers can experience the renewal that all professionals need for overall health and well-being.

Explore some of the strategies and best practices for self-care for social workers and practical tips that social workers can use to develop their own self-care plans.

Self-Care in Social Work

Self-care involves activities that reduce stress and promote health. In the field of social work, self-care is considered a crucial professional practice. In 2021, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) added an amendment to the NASW Code of Ethics encouraging proactive self-care to support a healthy culture among social workers.

The amendment describes self-care in social work as “a key component of ethical and professional excellence.” The same amendment also refers to scientific research showing that “proactive self-care reduces the likelihood of impairment and enhances job satisfaction and professional longevity.”

Why Is Self-Care Important for Social Workers?

Self-care is beneficial for professionals in virtually any industry. However, self-care is especially important for social workers given the demanding and often selfless nature of their work.

Research has shown that individuals who practice self-care, and whom their organizations support in practicing self-care, are healthier professionals. For example, a 2020 literature review published in the International Journal for the Advancement of Counselling found that engaging in self-care is associated with numerous positive outcomes, including:

  • Greater well-being
  • Lower levels of stress
  • Higher levels of positive affect
  • Higher levels of clinical performance
  • Higher levels of compassion

Complete the Stress Cycle for Social Worker Self-Care

Much of maintaining a healthy work-life balance involves the effective management of stress. How can social workers manage stress?

First, social workers should understand the difference between stressors (things that cause stress) and stress (the mental and physical response to stressors). Social workers encounter many stressors on the job, such as the challenges of counseling a youth through a court procedure or managing large caseloads. Social workers can’t control the stressors, but they can manage how they process stress.

According to empirical research compiled by Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski, it’s crucial that people process stress by “completing the stress cycle” — employing self-care strategies to calm the body and mind.

In their book, “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle,” they describe this stress cycle completion process with a helpful analogy: “Emotions are like a tunnel we drive through to reach the light at the end of it. And emotional exhaustion is when we get stuck in the emotion, in the middle of the tunnel.”

Dealing with stress in effective, scientifically proven ways means engaging in an activity that prompts the body to process the pent-up stress. The Nagoski sisters describe seven scientifically backed strategies to complete the stress cycle:

  • Exercise
  • Deep breathing
  • Positive social interaction
  • Laughter
  • Physical affection
  • Crying
  • Creative self-expression

Self-Care Strategies for Social Workers

Social workers can employ many strategies to preserve their mental, emotional and physical well-being.

Four best practices for self-care for social workers, supported by empirical evidence and endorsed by the NASW, are:

  • Physical activity. Science shows that exercise enables the body to process stress, improving health and mood. Physical activity can take many forms, such as yoga, running, swimming or muscle tensing/relaxation exercises. Social workers can choose the type of physical activity that works best for them.
  • Deep breathing. One of the simpler self-care strategies for social workers, deep breathing exercises can produce feelings of calm. Deep breathing techniques — both simple and complex techniques developed in a meditation practice — can help the body process stress hormones and relax.
  • Positive social interaction. Seeking social affection — in the form of talking with colleagues, laughing, hugging a loved one or petting an animal — can reduce blood pressure and provide a context for support that social workers need to do their jobs well. Social workers may experience positive physiological changes, such as lower cortisol levels, when they engage in positive social interaction with peers, friends or family.
  • Creative expression. Engaging in creative activities — such as music, painting, storytelling, theater and dancing — enables people to express and process emotions. Creative endeavors can allow social workers to honor and feel their emotions.

Self-Care Tips

Along with recognizing the importance of self-care and developing routine self-care practices, social workers can benefit from learning additional tips for overcoming common obstacles to self-care.

Common self-care tips for social workers include the following:

  • Practice self-compassion. Self-compassion can decrease depression, stress, secondary traumatic stress and burnout in care professionals, including social workers.
  • Try various strategies. Different self-care techniques may be more effective in different contexts. By trying multiple self-care strategies, social workers can develop a wide range of tools for managing stress and improving health and well-being.
  • Develop a plan. Social workers should develop a plan for improving their self-care practice, paying attention to their own stressors, triggers and symptoms. By developing a structured plan, social workers can more effectively deploy self-care strategies in their professional and personal lives.
  • Know when to ask for help. Individuals who are struggling to care for themselves must know when to seek help from others. Social workers can turn to colleagues, mentors and supervisors for support — as well as qualified mental health professionals — when they’re unable to practice self-care. This could be a good place to include tangible information about how professional social workers can monitor their emotional responses to the intense nature of their work with the goal of increasing self-awareness and preventing burnout. A brief description of the signs and symptoms of vicarious trauma as defined by (McCann and Pearlman, 1990) could cover this.

Self-Care: Supporting Others by Supporting Social Workers

Self-care is a cornerstone of social work excellence. Social workers should strive to develop a set of self-care practices that promote mental, emotional and physical well-being. These practices can empower social workers to effectively support the individuals and communities that turn to them for aid.

Explore the Master of Social Work online format at Virginia Commonwealth University. The program’s curriculum has been designed to provide students with a diversity of direct learning experiences to understand how to improve the lives of all individuals and families.