Social work can be an extremely fulfilling career path. Compassionate people who have the drive to help others can find their calling as social workers.

With that said, it’s also a very stressful job that can be frustrating, heartbreaking, and extremely challenging. Social workers help people during some of the hardest times of their lives. It’s hard to confront that reality every day and then go home to your own life.

Over time, many social workers develop emotional strain and other mental health concerns, such as burnout or compassion fatigue. These problems can cause a range of symptoms that can affect social workers on and off the job.

It’s very important to understand the potential for emotional strain as a social worker so you can work to prevent it. Here’s how a career in social work can affect your mental health, and how to cope with the emotional stress you might experience working in the field.

What Causes Emotional Strain and Burnout Among Social Workers?

Everyone gets stressed at work from time to time. But for social workers, emotional strain and burnout are extremely common.

Social workers often work with the most vulnerable communities. People living in poverty or those who are affected by addiction often need help from a social worker. Every social worker sees the impact of trauma, neglect, poverty, and severe mental health issues on people’s lives. Seeing these problems on a daily basis can easily lead to emotional strain from secondhand trauma and feelings of helplessness.

Because of staffing issues, social workers also typically have to work long hours and don’t always get time for adequate rest and relaxation. This can lead to issues like burnout, which causes feelings of overwhelm, exhaustion, anxiety, and other symptoms, which can make it difficult to stay productive at work.

Set Clear Boundaries Between Work and Home Life

Many social workers have trouble “shutting down” at the end of a long workday. They might dwell on the day’s cases and worry about what they weren’t able to do for people in need. This lack of boundaries can affect overall well-being and lead to emotional strain.

Setting clear boundaries between work and home life is critical for managing stress and mental health as a social worker. You need to be able to put up a wall between your work and personal life so you can use your time off the job to rest and recharge.

Prioritize Healthy Habits

Many social workers neglect their own health and well-being for the sake of their clients. Unfortunately, this not only leads to emotional strain and burnout but also makes them less effective and less able to help people.

If you want to continue being the best social worker you can be, then you need to prioritize your health. Healthy habits to focus on include:

  • Getting enough sleep
  • Exercising regularly
  • Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet
  • Drinking enough water

These are simple concepts, but it can be challenging to keep up with them when you’re stressed and serving other people. Planning ahead so you have time to exercise and cook is important for sustaining these habits.

Use Mindfulness Techniques

Mindfulness techniques, such as meditation, deep breathing, and yoga, can help you prevent and manage stress. Deep breathing is a great coping strategy during the workday, while meditation and yoga can help you manage stress more proactively. There are lots of great resources out there for mindfulness that social workers can use to get started!

Pursue a Hobby

In order to set boundaries between work and home life, you need to have more in your life than your job. Pursuing a hobby, especially a creative or outdoor hobby, is a great way to relax, unwind, and stop thinking about your social work cases.

There are hundreds of options for hobbies, and it might take some time to find something you really enjoy. Don’t be afraid to try lots of different options and see what you like the most!

Connect with Colleagues

If you can, try to connect with your coworkers as often as you can. Having that support at work can make a big difference in how you feel. Participating in events like social work month can also help you feel more connected and supported within the field.

Make Time for Friends and Family

Spending time with loved ones is important for managing stress as a social worker, maintaining healthy relationships, and setting critical boundaries. Your friends and family will support you and talk to you about your work, but they will also help you get your mind off your job and relax. Make sure to make time to care for your personal relationships regularly.

Remember That You Can’t Save Everyone

Many social workers unintentionally fall into the trap of feeling like they should save everyone and fix all the world’s problems. This can lead to feelings of guilt, overwhelm, and anxiety. It can also lead to social workers working too much and too long.

Be kind to yourself. Remember that it’s not your responsibility to save everyone. It’s your responsibility to help the people you can.

Avoid Self-Medicating with Alcohol or Drugs

Many social workers who experience emotional strain on the job end up self-medicating with alcohol and drugs. These unhealthy coping mechanisms can seem effective at first, but they gradually get worse and worse and can lead to addiction.

Get Help from a Mental Health Professional, If Necessary

If you’re struggling with emotional strain as a social worker, it can be difficult to manage your mental health and continue working in the field. It’s important to get help from an experienced mental health professional if your stress levels start to affect your life and work in ways you can’t cope with.

Take care of yourself. Social work is a difficult job, but it can make a world of difference for the people you help. To do that job to the best of your ability, you need to prioritize self-care and wellness.


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Sarah Daren has been a consultant for startups in multiple industries including health and wellness, wearable technology, nursing, and education. She implements her wellness and education knowledge into every aspect of her life, including her position as a yoga instructor and raising her two children. When she's not watching the New York Yankees play, Sarah enjoys practising yoga and reading a good book on the beach.

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