For as long as I’ve been preparing to be a social worker, people have been preparing me for burnout. Back when I was an undergrad, I would mention that I wanted to work in child welfare. “How long do you think you can do that for?” people would ask.
The implication was always that this is not work that one can do for long. I’ve listed the reasons once or twice: bureaucracy, long hours, low pay, large caseloads, depressing situations, excessive amounts of giraffes…
Sorry, just wanted to be sure you were paying attention.
They talk about it throughout Psycho Beach Party social work school. If you’re at a halfway decent agency, they’ll also talk about it once you begin work. The phrase of the day is “self-care,” which is not nearly as dirty as it sounds.
Though I suppose it could be.
The idea is to take time for yourself. Do things to ensure that you aren’t taking your work home with you. Relax. Take a vacation.
Except you have to work those long hours, and you don’t get paid enough to take much of a vacation. (Though that Barbie kiddie pool on my roof served me rather well during the dog days of summer, thank you very much.) A day at the spa is kind of a tall order when you’re budgeting to pay off student loans so much that Wheat Thins seem like an outlandish luxury.
But still we try.
When I was an intern, I attended what was possibly the most hilarious training on sexual abuse that has ever occurred. That’s right, I said it. And I stand by that statement.
This training was run by a well-meaning lunatic who had established herself as somewhat of an expert in treating girls who had been sexually abused. It was actually a series of trainings, and this particular session was dedicated to, you guessed it, self care.
Working with someone who has gone through or is going through something like that can be very draining. It affects everyone, and if you don’t address it, you’re going to break down and quit sometime soon.
This woman thought it would be helpful if we all shouted out ways we have of “de-stressing.” Soon, the designated note-taker’s hand was flying.
“Call my mom.”
“Listen to music.”
“Dip bread in oil.”
“Get a mani-pedi.”
Ah yes, because nothing takes the edge off incest like a mani-pedi. Seriously? Yes, these stupid things can help us to relax. But I don’t think I need to sit around and share these earth-shattering notions with my coworkers. Hell, during that hour (yes, sixty full minutes) that we spent creating this list, we could have gone out for a shot of Jack walk.
It was even more helpful when we each got a copy of that list, typed up and placed in our mailboxes. Trees died for this.
Our supervisors tell us that they’re concerned about our welfare, and don’t want us to burn out. I believe them. I know that they don’t want to replace staff, and I believe that, for the most part, they care about their workers as people. But I’ll believe it even more when they do something about it.
Rather than email out a list of fifteen new requirements, including extra assessment tools to be completed, more required home visits, and larger caseloads, ending with the sentence, “And remember, our jobs are difficult. Take time to take care of yourself.”