Social workers understand the importance of self-care – after all, they recommend it to their clients. However, social workers don’t always take their own advice, even when they feel exhausted and drained by the stresses of the job. They’re used to helping others, and it can be hard for those who are staunch advocates for the vulnerable to admit they need help too.
Knowing when to practice self-care and how to incorporate it into their lives can help social workers improve their well-being and be more effective in their work.
What Is Self-Care?
Self-care is activity that supports a person’s emotional, mental and physical health. An individual’s self-care activities are essentially a personalized wellness program. One person may find a forest hike just the solution to reinvigorate their body and spirit. Others may choose to knit, read or go out with friends when they need to replenish the well. These are some common examples of self-care.
But self-care doesn’t only mean partaking in a fun pastime. Other types of self-care may involve taking care of one’s financial matters, such as setting and adhering to a budget or starting a retirement fund. Self-care may entail improving one’s physical health through exercise, or setting goals for one’s career, education or personal life. It can also mean seeing a doctor or therapist, because self-care can include seeking professional help.
For social workers, the first indication that they may need to focus on some type of self-care is if they begin to experience burnout. Burnout is described as a feeling of exhaustion, lack of motivation and a sense of ineffectiveness at work. Individuals in any profession can experience burnout, causing them to become irritable, depressed or angry. Compassion fatigue, when a social worker loses empathy for their clients, is often a result of burnout.
What Are the Benefits of Self-Care?
When social workers sense they have become less effective at their job due to burnout, they may turn to self-care activities. However, the most powerful self-care happens before burnout sets in. Social workers with a mindset for supporting their own wellness can reap the benefits of self-care. These can include:
- Reduced stress. Activities that help with stress management include a brisk walk after work or turning off email notifications in the evenings and on days off.
- Increased well-being. Self-care can have a cascade effect, meaning an improvement in one aspect of a person’s well-being, such as their mental health, can contribute to improved well-being in other aspects, including their physical and emotional health.
- Sense of accomplishment. Setting goals and achieving them can boost a person’s confidence.
- Improved health. Self-care activities can help a person manage their physical and emotional health, which can lead to better long-term disease management. They can also help prevent illness.
- Healthy relationships. Burnout can cause anger, depression and other negative emotions to seep into an individual’s personal and professional relationships. Conversely, self-care can help strengthen a person’s relationships with their family and colleagues.
- Professional satisfaction. When a person takes care of themselves physically and emotionally, they are better able to be effective at their job.
What Are Types of Self-Care?
Many people allow themselves an indulgence after a stressful day of work. One of the problems with this behavior is that it’s often confused with self-care. When the behavior is taken to an extreme, however, it can cause more problems than it’s meant to solve. For instance, overindulging in alcohol or food, or running up credit card debt, can lead to physical health issues and financial difficulties. These behaviors worsen stress — they don’t alleviate it.
The most effective self-care for social workers is to engage in healthy, productive behaviors that support their physical, mental and emotional well-being. Practicing self-care in this way allows them to be confident and effective in their work, and ensures they support their own goals for how to live their lives. The following are the most common types of self-care.
1. Emotional Self-Care
Processing emotions can be hard to do. When negative emotions spiral out of control, they can impact an individual’s personal and professional relationships. Emotional self-care activities include gratitude journaling, therapy, meditation and similar techniques.
2. Mental Self-Care
Mental stimulation, such as learning new things, can help with a person’s energy and outlook. Activities may include reading or listening to a new book or podcast, doing brain teasers or trying out a new hobby. It can be as simple as learning a new route to and from work. Anything that gets a person out of a mental rut can be mental self-care.
3. Physical Self-Care
The expression “a sound mind in a sound body” may be old-fashioned, but it’s a core principle of physical self-care. Examples of physical self-care include adopting a healthy diet, exercising regularly and getting plenty of sleep. Physical self-care will be different for everyone. It’s most effective when an individual identifies their goals and the steps they want to take to achieve them.
4. Social Self-Care
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), loneliness and social isolation are associated with higher rates of depression, suicide and death. For many people, relationships with friends and family can be a nourishing source of mental and emotional well-being. However, relationships can also be a source of stress and unhappiness. Social self-care is complicated; activities that may work for one person (weekly calls with a parent, for instance) may be completely wrong for another.
5. Spiritual Self-Care
Not everyone has a spiritual or religious need. However, for many caregivers, whether they are social workers, nurses or other clinicians, a spiritual practice can provide comfort and strength. Paying attention to and tending to one’s spiritual needs, such as through regular prayer, meditation or meetings with a spiritual adviser, is often part of an effective self-care plan.
6. Professional and Educational Self-Care
School and work responsibilities can be overwhelming at times. Trying to manage all of these obligations can be a source of much stress, even in a fulfilling job or degree program. Taking the time to learn best practices such as setting goals, using time management techniques and setting boundaries with coworkers can help an individual get a handle on these pressures.
7. Financial Self-Care
Financial pressures are a common source of stress. Taking control of their financial matters can help an individual alleviate some of the anxiety they may have regarding their financial stability. Although beginning to practice these types of self-care activities may feel stressful at first, over time, financial self-care can result in peace of mind. Financial self-care tips include setting a budget, identifying financial goals such as paying off credit cards and contributing to a retirement fund.
Self-Care and Social Work — Learn More with Virginia Commonwealth University
The ultimate benefit of self-care is greater emotional, physical and mental well-being. For social workers, reaping this benefit can result in a more effective professional career and greater personal peace of mind. If you feel a calling to foster self-care in others, explore Virginia Commonwealth University’s Online Master of Social Work degree program.