I began my child welfare career in 2001 after working several years in the field of geriatrics. After reading the file of my first case, I was completely taken back and deeply disturbed by what the young girl had already experienced in her short life. Even to this day, I still remember parts of her story, and the feelings I experienced while reading it. During my first year of case managing children in foster care, I had trouble sleeping, my nights were wrought with difficult dreams, and I cried . . . a lot. I was consumed with worry over the kids on my caseload. Honestly, I did not know if I was going to make it in the field.
Secondary traumatic stress is a very real experience that can affect social workers. It encompasses symptoms of PTSD that are a result of the exposure to traumatic events that happen in the lives of the children and families that we work with. There is a lot of research into this, and according to one study, 48 percent of the social work workforce in the United States experience high levels of personal distress as a result of their work (Strozier & Evans, 1998).
If we stop believing that our clients are capable of change, then they may stop believing in that as well. Change stops when apathy begins. This is why self-care is so important in the field of social work.
People who enter into the world of social work often do so with a desire to help others and to make a difference in the world around them. They might enter the field unprepared for the impact it will have on their lives. It is challenging to not bring the struggles that we witness home with us, and yet, it is not impossible. When a job requires one to actively engage in the lives of vulnerable families and children, it is vital for the person to take care of oneself through spending time with family, friends, hobbies, and stepping away from work every once in a while.
A healthy diet, quality sleep, exercise, and personal interests help to keep a good balance between the responsibilities of work and our lives outside of our jobs. If we take care of ourselves, we are better able to take care of our own families and relationships, and we are more equipped to get up each day and head into the office with a healthier sense of the tasks at hand.
During my 15 years in the field, I have learned the real importance of self-care for social workers. I have seen well-meaning, hard-working, and qualified young social workers leave the field before their careers were barely able to begin. Burnout can lead to poor retention of quality staff, cynicism, lack of empathy, mistakes, and apathy.
If we stop believing that our clients are capable of change, then they may stop believing in that as well. Change stops when apathy begins. This is why self-care is so important in the field of social work. After all, the families and children we work with absolutely deserve our best—and when we take care of ourselves, we are able to give our best to them.