Surviving Social Work Burnout: Prevention Strategies & Advice

Discover what burnout means to social workers, learn how to recognize the signs and symptoms, and get resources and expert advice for preventing burnout in yourself and others.

Last Updated: 05/26/2021

Janet Philbin

Clinical social worker

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Alisha Powell, Ph.D., LCSW graduated from Walden University with a doctoral degree in social psychology. She completed her graduate studies in social work, receiving her MSW at the University of Denver, and her undergraduate studies in social work, earning her BSW at Oakwood University. Alisha completed a post-graduate certificate in marriage and family therapy at Denver Family Institute. She has experience working in a variety of settings, including long-term care, hospitals, outpatient clinics, residential centers, and hospice. Alisha currently works as an outpatient therapist and adjunct professor.

Victoria Turner

Social Psychologist

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Alisha Powell, Ph.D., LCSW graduated from Walden University with a doctoral degree in social psychology. She completed her graduate studies in social work, receiving her MSW at the University of Denver, and her undergraduate studies in social work, earning her BSW at Oakwood University. Alisha completed a post-graduate certificate in marriage and family therapy at Denver Family Institute. She has experience working in a variety of settings, including long-term care, hospitals, outpatient clinics, residential centers, and hospice. Alisha currently works as an outpatient therapist and adjunct professor.

Social workers offer strong, compassionate help for individuals and families experiencing a variety of life’s challenges. From working in the foster care system to helping patients and families through hospice care, social workers engage with people experiencing upheaval and change in their lives. In caring for so many people in so many ways, however, social workers may find themselves experiencing the symptoms of burnout. This is true both for professionals with years of experience and for students in social work programs who are just beginning their careers.

Fortunately, there are real, concrete solutions for preventing social work burnout. It may not always be simple, but with genuine self-care and a helping hand, burnout can be prevented and treated. Learn how you can identify social worker burnout, find the tools and techniques needed to overcome it, and gain expert advice from experienced social workers.

Signs of Social Work Burnout

For most social workers, every day brings new challenges. As a social worker, you may be called upon to deal with people and families in significant crises while also helping people struggling with the challenges of everyday life.

When a social worker experiences burnout, they may become emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausted from the long-term worries and stressful events often dealt with on the job. Burnout may be cumulative and brought on by the day-to-day challenges of helping clients work through their difficulties, or it may be triggered by one particular event that leaves a social worker feeling drained. Burnout is not just reserved for social workers, however. People in all helping professions feel it at one time or another in their careers. Though burnout is a normal reaction to prolonged stress, in the vast majority of cases, it’s temporary and manageable.

The first crucial step to surviving and preventing social worker burnout is understanding what it is and being able to recognize the symptoms. Here’s what you need to know as a social worker or social work students.

What is burnout?

Characterized by exhaustion, cynicism, and feelings of decreased professional ability, burnout is the result of prolonged or repeated stress. Often associated with an individual’s professional life, burnout can technically stem from other life stressors as well such as parenting or caretaking. Burnout is not the same as feeling overworked but being overworked can contribute to burnout. Every individual may experience slightly different symptoms of burnout, but the defining features typically include a loss of interest in your work, an inability to focus or a lack of interest, and exhaustion.

How does burnout impact social workers?

Social workers help their clients during some of the most intense and difficult times in their lives. They use their professional resources and capabilities to not only find solutions to overwhelming situations, but they also spend a great deal of time empathizing with what their clients are going through. They may dedicate long hours to getting their client’s lives back on track, seemingly pouring their entire beings into their work.

When a social worker’s caseload becomes too heavy and their self-care routine (taking adequate lunch breaks, resting during nights and weekends, participating in personal relationships, etc.) takes a backseat, they are at high risk for burnout. They may also be at increased risk of compassion fatigue, a concept we discuss later in this guide. Burnout can be exacerbated by compassion fatigue and vice versa, making it crucial for social workers to understand and recognize the signs and symptoms of both.

What are the symptoms of burnout?

Before you can get to the bottom of addressing and treating burnout, you need to understand how to recognize the signs and symptoms of it. Below are the major symptoms to be aware of when looking for burnout in a social worker.

Struggling to maintain focus

Losing focus may seem like a minor issue, but it can creep into all aspects of your life, not just your professional one. Losing focus can look different for different people, but examples include:

  • You open a file on a new client, read a few pages, and then completely forget what you read, so you have to go back and read it again, but the same thing happens.
  • You’re regularly distracted during meetings. You zone out, and by the time you tune back in, you realize you’ve just missed a large portion of what the speaker was saying.
  • You forget important items in your work schedule, even though you’ve written them down, or overlook significant issues at home.

Struggling to maintain focus means that your overwhelmed brain is looking for a break.

Lack of patience

Most people experience a lack of patience in their jobs, but social work is a job that requires infinite patience at times. Snapping at coworkers, getting easily frustrated with the slow pace of the court system, or getting angry at the slightest inconvenience can all be signs that your patience is slipping.

Exhaustion

Most people experience a lack of patience in their jobs, but social work is a job that requires infinite patience at times. Snapping at coworkers, getting easily frustrated with the slow pace of the court system, or getting angry at the slightest inconvenience can all be signs that your patience is slipping.

Loss of enthusiasm

You most likely went into social work with a strong desire to help others, but a difficult situation can sap the energy you used to have toward social work. Though usually temporary, a loss of enthusiasm is often a sign of burnout.

Physical pain and illness

Burnout can manifest itself physically, and it’s not all in your head. Stress can show up as headaches, stomachaches, fatigue, body aches, a racing heart, or increased blood pressure. Additionally, chronic stress brought on by burnout can cause your immune system to weaken, which can open you up to more physical symptoms and illness.

What is compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is the type of burnout experienced by people in helping professionals, It’s the emotional strain that comes with working with those in distress over a long period of time. Symptoms of compassion fatigue often include:

  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Mental exhaustion
  • Isolation through decreased interactions with coworkers, friends, and family members
  • Loss of accomplishment or pride in work
  • Physical exhaustion
  • Physical symptoms with no physical cause

You can also suffer symptoms like depression, loss of self-worth, lack of motivation, lessening of cognitive ability and emotional regulation, sleep or behavior issues, trouble in personal relationships, and anger issues.

Compassion fatigue is not usually brought on by one event. Instead, it can take weeks, months, or even years to show in your day-to-day life. You can be on the lookout for this sort of burnout in yourselves and others, and often a vacation or even regular, small breaks from the stress can help reduce compassion fatigue and allow you to recharge.

What Is secondary traumatic stress?

Secondary traumatic stress is another type of burnout that can be experienced by anyone in a helping profession, not just social workers. It is emotional pain and duress felt when hearing about the first-hand traumatic experiences of others. Social workers often hear harrowing details of situations their clients have faced, details especially painful to hear when coming from a child. Social workers are well-trained to make it through these conversations, but over time, they can become overwhelming for some.

Secondary traumatic stress shares some things in common with compassion fatigue, but they are not quite the same. Both can develop over time, but secondary traumatic stress can occur from just one incident of hearing about traumatic experiences, or, in some cases, from simply reading about those experiences in a case file. While some people experiencing compassion fatigue may start to feel disconnected from their feelings, those experiencing secondary traumatic stress may find their feelings and emotions heightened and unable to stop thinking about what they’ve heard, seen, or read.

Secondary traumatic stress can significantly impact your life, but it can be managed and even avoided by practicing self-care. Self-care includes getting enough rest and exercise, eating healthy foods, indulging in yoga or meditation, and reaching out for counseling if necessary.

Advice from a Social Worker on Spotting Burnout

Alisha Powell
social psychologist

Alisha Powell, Ph.D., LCSW graduated from Walden University with a doctoral degree in social psychology. She completed her graduate studies in social work, receiving her MSW at the University of Denver, and her undergraduate studies in social work, earning her BSW at Oakwood University. Alisha completed a post-graduate certificate in marriage and family therapy at Denver Family Institute. She has experience working in a variety of settings, including long-term care, hospitals, outpatient clinics, residential centers, and hospice. Alisha currently works as an outpatient therapist and adjunct professor.

Q. Burnout can be sneaky. You can be mired in it well before you realize what’s happening. What are some signs that scream “pay attention and take care of yourself?”

A. Some of the signs of burnout can include being more critical or cynical in your work with clients or colleagues. You may also experience difficulty focusing or concentrating on work-related tasks, decreased sleep, poor energy, increased fatigue, or being easily irritated. These are all signs that you might be experiencing burnout.

Q. What advice would you give to social work students and those just starting in the field for handling secondary traumatic stress?

A. As a social work student, it is imperative that you create a consistent self-care regimen. While it doesn’t need to be something you do every day, there should be certain activities that you engage in at least once weekly. Social workers interact with people of all ages who have experienced multiple stressors and traumas, and in order to remain empathetic and to be effective as practitioners, it’s important to take time away to process and rejuvenate. You can be more susceptible to vicarious trauma when you internalize the experience and stresses of your clients. Having supportive colleagues to talk to or being able to process feelings with a supervisor or therapist is important in preventing burnout.

Q. What are some ways to spot burnout in a colleague, and how would you approach them with your concerns?

A. You may notice that a colleague seems more frustrated or irritable than usual. They may make common mistakes or neglect to complete routine tasks in a timely manner. This could be an indication that they are experiencing burnout, and, instead of asking them directly, make yourself available to talk to them. Invite them to lunch or offer a listening ear if you notice that they look flustered or frustrated. Your conversation doesn’t have to be about burnout, but you can share what’s been helpful for you and encourage them to reach out for support if they need to.

Q. Have you suffered from burnout? How did you pull yourself out of it?

A. I experienced burnout when I found myself working in a job that was very high stress. While I enjoyed working with the population, the stories that I heard on a regular basis in my therapy sessions with clients and their families were very hard to hear. I found myself dreading going into work every day and counting down the hours during the workday until I could leave my office and go home. I quickly realized that I was becoming burned out, and, in addition to getting a therapist, I decided that the job wasn’t a good fit for me professionally, submitted my resignation, and started looking for other job opportunities. I knew that my health and well-being had to be a priority and that I had the skills to successfully work in another area of social work.

Burnout Survival: Tools, Techniques, and Talking

While burnout is common, it doesn’t need to be. While the job can certainly be stressful at times, knowing the risks of burnout can help you through it and prevent it from getting severe or even happening in the first place. Here are some tools and techniques you can use to help stave off burnout or reduce its symptoms.

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Tools & Techniques to Combat Burnout

The following activities, tools, and techniques can help you overcome burnout. Establishing some go-to approaches may even help prevent it before it sets in.

Take Time for Meditation

Many people who are devoted to meditation in their daily lives say it was hard to do at first, but worth the effort and life changing. To start your own meditative practice, sit or lie in a dark room, close your eyes, and breathe as a first step toward inviting meditation into your life. Start out with 10 minutes and build from there. Meditation can help clear your mind, increase focus, relax your body, and leave you feeling rejuvenated. Apps like Calm or Insight Timer can help in establishing a meditation habit.

Get Plenty of Exercise

When you have a pile of case files to wade through, it may seem impossible to carve out some time to exercise, but that’s the time when you need it the most. Any exercise, like a short walk or intense yoga class that gets your body moving is good for you. Consider Strava as a tool to help with walking, running, and other physical activity, and/or a workout buddy to keep you accountable. If you’re into yoga, yoga videos can help keep you motivated.

Get the Right Amount of Sleep

Lack of sleep makes you feel more stressed, but too much sleep can make you groggy. Aim for a solid seven or eight hours of sleep per night. Headspace, a sleep and relaxation app, and sleep tracking apps like Sleep Cycle can help you get there.

Keep a Journal

Writing down your thoughts gets them out of your head and makes them more manageable. Journaling, whether with a physical journal or apps like Journey or Day One, can help create a soothing, daily journaling routine.

Make a Difference Where You Can

When you feel helpless to stem the pain others are feeling, turn to positive action. Volunteer at the local food bank, tutor a social work student, or help out at your local school district. Consider anything from paying for the coffee of the person behind you in line to volunteering with Feeding America.

Take a Break

Use your vacation time or take a personal day to decompress away from the workplace. If you work from home, as many social workers do now thanks to the pandemic, get away for a few days. Try out an app like Roadtrippers to escape on an adventure.

Maintain Healthy Boundaries

Maintaining healthy boundaries and making yourself a priority goes a long way toward calming your mind and heart. Protecting your emotional Space and learning to create healthy boundaries with others are ways to make this happen.

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Self-Care for Social Workers

You care for others all the time, and it’s important to carve out time to care for yourself, too. Self-care is essential for avoiding burnout and compassion fatigue.

What is self-care?

Self-care involves practices, routines, and activities that help reduce stress and lead to good emotional, mental, and physical health. Self-care helps you spot your vulnerabilities, meet challenges, and achieve life balance. Self-care looks different for every person, but it always brings joy, relaxation, and peace.

How to find and develop your self-care routine

Creating a self-care routine takes time. You might try something like meditation that just doesn’t work for you, and that’s okay. What works for one person might not work for another. Reflect on the following to help you get started.

  • How are you coping now? What’s not working that you can discard?
  • What do you truly enjoy doing that has nothing to do with work?
  • What are some barriers to self-care? How can you overcome them?
  • How and when can you practice self-care daily?

Find ways to make yourself a priority because the healthier you are in body, mind, and soul, the better you can help others. A good self-care plan should be one you can practice regularly. Also have an emergency self-care plan for times you become overwhelmed and near a breaking point. If you’re not sure where to start, resources like the Developing a Self-Care Plan information offered by the University at Buffalo School of Social Work can help.

Making time for yourself

Whether you’re in a social work program or have been working in social work agencies for years, the time you dedicate to yourself is precious and an absolute must for better mental health. Though it might seem impossible to find a large block of time to spend on yourself, be alert for the little moments during the day that you can take. This might mean sitting in your car for five minutes after work practicing breathing exercises. It could mean taking a long shower or breathing deeply while using aromatherapy products. It might also be as simple as taking the stairs to avoid elevator chit-chat and stopping at the landing to savor your cup of coffee while clearing your mind. These little moments add up, and they matter.

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Reaching Out

Though self-care can work wonders for those suffering from burnout, sometimes the burden is just too much and all the care in the world can’t alleviate the feeling. Never hesitate to reach out when burnout becomes overwhelming. Remember, even helpers need help from time to time.

Students

Social work students should start building a support network to help in times of crisis, burnout, and compassion fatigue. Consider the following resources for doing so:

  • Talk to your advisor. Your advisor is well aware of how social work can affect you, especially if you’re a student being introduced to the more difficult aspects of the job.
  • Go to the school counseling center. A professional can help tune up your mental health. Consider creating a relationship with a counselor before you actually need it.
  • Use online resources. You’re reading a great resource right now, but there are many others, including the burnout self-care tips offered by the College of Social Work at Florida State University. Your school may have similar guidelines they can suggest
  • Talk to fellow students. Ask your peers how they’re feeling, and, odds are, you’ll find someone facing the same pressures as you. Consider meeting up with a few students from your program each week or every few weeks to discuss coping tips and offer support.
  • Consider online support groups. There are numerous online options, including a Reddit forum for students and professionals in social work. Not only will you find useful, concrete, real-world advice from those who are living it, but you may also be able to add some valuable insight to help fellow social work students as well.

Professionals

Professional social workers also need someone who will listen to them and provide advice. Whether you’re a new social worker or a seasoned professional with a doctorate, you need help managing or avoiding burnout. We’ve listed a few places below to find that much-needed support.

  • Connect with your mentor: Your mentor probably helped you through your social work program, so turn to them now to help you through burnout. They’ve likely been there themselves.
  • Find a social media community: Look into Facebook groups, like Selling the Couch or The New Social Worker Magazine, which are virtual gathering places that exist for those working in social work and therapy.
  • Talk to coworkers: You’re not alone, and you’re not the only one feeling burdened. Open up to coworkers through phone calls, chats, emails, and the like, and find common ground for supporting each other.
  • Seek out counseling: Social workers take care of others, and it’s okay to invest in a therapist for your own mental health as well. Go the traditional route or turn to services like BetterHelp.
  • Tap into professional organizations: Not only will you find articles and information addressing burnout, but you’ll also find discussion boards, like the one at the Council on Social Work Education, where you can interact with others who understand.
  • Educate yourself: Always be learning, and that includes exploring resources like the ones offered by the University at Buffalo School of Social Work, that can help you identify secondary trauma, compassion fatigue, and more.

Discussing Burnout with a Licensed Social Worker

Janet Philbin
clinical social worker

Janet Philbin is a licensed clinical social worker, certified hypnotherapist, and certified conscious parenting coach. Janet helps adults heal from the emotional pain and trauma of their past. She is the owner of Janet Philbin, ACSW, a private psychotherapy and hypnotherapy practice. For 21 years Janet has been successfully helping people recover from their emotional wounds and change their lives with the power of transformational healing and hypnotherapy.

Q. How do you think the pandemic has affected burnout for social workers?

A. Some of the signs of burnout can include being more critical or cynical in your work with clients or colleagues. You may also experience difficulty focusing or concentrating on work-related tasks, decreased sleep, poor energy, increased fatigue, or being easily irritated. These are all signs that you might be experiencing burnout.

Q. What advice would you give to social work students and those just starting in the field for handling secondary traumatic stress?

A. I think the pandemic has been a call to action for social workers. Social workers are helpers. Social workers usually go into the field because of a deep calling to be of service. We want to help those who are struggling, who are in pain, need support, counseling and concrete services. Social workers are frontline workers providing emotional support to medical staff, families, and clients. Social workers are supporting others during the pandemic to cope with the same struggles and traumas they, themselves, are coping with. It would be impossible for social workers not to experience burnout during this pandemic.

Even social workers in private practice have been impacted. We are now working remotely. Since social workers are working remotely, we do not have the day-to-day, in-person support of colleagues to just quickly get support for a difficult case or have a casual conversation. Social workers are isolated, and that isolation can lead to depression, anxiety, increased fears, health issues, and a decrease in self-care. Social workers have an increase in clients dealing with loss due to the pandemic. We are counseling the essential workers. Social workers are witnessing, firsthand, the emotional trauma and devastation their clients are experiencing. It is our job to support them and at the same time care for ourselves as providers.

Q. You said you’ve experienced burnout. How did you get through it?

A. When I was a nursing home social worker, early in my career, I definitely went through a period of burnout. I got to a point where I became very exhausted in my job. I no longer liked working where my clients lived and found I was having a hard time making meaning out of the work I was doing. I was tired of tracking down lost remote controls and dealing with family members about their mother’s missing underwear. You would think that is not even part of a social worker’s job, but it is, and it is because as social workers we are responsible for the biopsychosocial health of our clients. That means we watch out for and consider all that is going on in their lives that affects them.

It hit me one day how frustrated and unfulfilled I was with having to do parts of my job that I previously enjoyed. Instead of enjoying connecting with my residents and families to solve these “small” issues, which represented larger ones like loss, I was not happy.

What I did in this instance was to make a big change. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to change my caseload and take on the role of hospice social worker. Though it did not eliminate having to deal with these issues, the new role offered me a new meaningful way to help a new population of residents and families which I loved. It was a renewal.

I was also in counseling with my own therapist at the time and used my sessions to talk about my work stress and experience of burnout. I also made sure when I left the building, I would take big exhales as I walked to my car, making a conscious choice to leave work at work as I headed home for the day.

Q. Anything else you’d like to add about burnout, specifically in social work?

A. Now that I am in private practice, I have had times where I feel as if “I have too many people’s problems in my head.” We hold the truths of our clients’ pain. The work of a social worker is sacred, but it is also hard, demanding, and overwhelming at times. While it may seem noble to be self-sacrificing, it is actually counterproductive. To sacrifice means to make sacred. As social workers, it is our responsibility to make ourselves sacred. We need to do this through self-care. Self-care also means creating and holding boundaries between your work life and your home life. When we take care of ourselves first, we have more resources at our disposal to give to another.