Role of Self Care in Social Work Practice

Exposure to traumatic and distressing events affecting clients may affect social workers emotionally leading to their experiencing of conditions such as secondary traumatic stress, compassion fatigue and professional burnout (Newell & MacNeil, 2010). Such arises out of the nature of social work profession that requires the practitioner to develop a working relationship with the clients, that entails the practitioner gaining the knowledge of client’s life and events that have occasioned the client’s status. When not armed with effective preventative strategies, social workers may thus become vulnerable to the effects of such occupational hazards thus reducing their performance in the long term.

Professional burnout is one of the adverse effects that could arise when a social worker fails to identify its signs early enough thus institute preventative approaches. It refers to exhaustion – whether physical, psychological, emotional or spiritual – that may follow an individual’s chronic exposure to suffering or vulnerable populations (Pines & Aronson, 1998, as cited in Newell & MacNeil, 2010, p. 58). Such burnout occurs in a progressive manner that proceeds from emotional exhaustion through a lack of self-awareness to a diminished sense of personal accomplishment (Newell & MacNeil, 2010). Apart from exposure to clients’ events and life, social workers could experience a diminished sense of personal accomplishment when administrative demands and bureaucratic procedures (e.g. documentation) impede their effective performance in serving their clients (Newell & MacNeil, 2010). The vulnerability of a social worker to professional burnout is thus moderated by organizational characteristics (e.g. high caseloads and burdensome procedures) and individual characteristics (e.g. coping styles and strained relationships with co-workers).

Social workers could also experience adverse psychological events for instance when rendering service to clients who are recovering from traumatizing experiences. The adverse psychological events experienced by social workers in such situations range from vicarious traumatization through secondary traumatic stress to compassion fatigue. Vicarious trauma leads to the social worker’s changing ones beliefs and thinking (e.g. about issues such as safety and trust) following direct practice with clients recovering from trauma (Newell & MacNeil, 2010). Secondary traumatic stress (STS) exhibits in form of emotions and behaviours associated with individuals recovering from traumatic experiences such as angry outbursts, nightmares and avoidance of clients’ situations (Newell & MacNeil, 2010). On its part, compassion fatigue manifests both aspects of STS and professional burnout with its effects occurring in a cumulative manner (Newell & MacNeil, 2010). Social workers thus need skills that may help them cope with or reduce their vulnerability to such effects to ensure that their service remains focused hence responsive to clients’ needs.

One approach to managing such vulnerability to work-related stress is the implementation of self-care initiatives in ones practice. In professional self-care, social workers use the skills and strategies at their disposal to “maintain their own personal, familial, emotional, and spiritual needs while attending to the needs and demands of their clients” (Newell & MacNeil, 2010, p. 62). Self-care approaches that may reduce ones burnout include getting adequate rest and relaxation, keeping in touch with close friends and family and setting realistic workload goals. Additionally, fostering a good working environment where co-workers support one another in reducing clerical workload, engage one another in humorous discussions and help in providing service to overly difficult clients, could reduce instances of professional burnout (Newell & MacNeil, 2010).

Self-care also extends to development of coping strategies and skills that alleviate the effects of adverse psychological experiences. For instance, observing ones physical health, exercising regularly, engaging in recreation activities and ensuring that one has adequate sleep can mitigate the effects of work-related stress (Newell & MacNeil, 2010). Such self-care activities may also involve sustaining ones spiritual connections by attending religious functions and use of positive forms such as art to express oneself. One study has for instance established that use of artworks could help diffuse anxiety in social workers working in high-stress situations such as in war environments (Huss, Sarid & Cwikel, 2010). In this study that used a sample of social workers working and living in a war zone in Israel, it was demonstrated that social workers gained a sense of control over various sources of anxiety, when they expressed aspects of coping and resilience in their artwork (Huss, Sarid & Cwikel, 2010). In such respect, self-care helps practitioners to prevent work-related stress and develop better coping strategies that enable them to function effectively in their roles as social workers.

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