The Importance of Self-care for Social Workers

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.

Caroline Bailey March 13, 2016
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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.

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Caroline Bailey

Caroline is a mother of three children through adoption and a strong advocate for the needs of children and families involved in the child welfare system in the United States. At the age of eleven (1983), she underwent an emergency hysterectomy in order to save her life. Caroline is the youngest person to have a hysterectomy. Her life has been profoundly affected by infertility. In 2006, Caroline and her husband, Bruce, became licensed foster parents. They were blessed to adopt two of their children through foster care in 2008 and 2010. Their youngest child is a relative of Caroline, and they celebrated his adoption in 2013. Caroline works for a Christian child welfare agency in Missouri. She has been a guest speaker at churches and conferences regarding adoption and is currently working on a memoir about the impact of illness, faith, foster care, and adoption in her life. Caroline is also an avid cyclist and enjoys cheering her children on in their various sporting activities. She shares her experience about foster care, adoption, barrenness, parenting, and faith on her blog. She would love to hear from you! Contact her at barrentoblessed@gmail.com.


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