14 02 2013

Last week I was all about what our field needs to do to keep us from burning out, and taking some of the load off of us. Unfortunately, we do still bear some responsibility. So I’m taking a break this week and letting someone else talk. Please enjoy this guest post from Addison Cooper, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Springfield, Missouri. He writes Adoption Movie Guides at

Four Things Social Workers Can Do to Avoid Burning Out

1. Get a Boss who “Gets It!”

We’re often drawn to working with specific populations. That’s understandable. Our own histories or inclinations lead us to naturally want to serve specific groups of people: kids in foster care, underprivileged youth, homeless persons or victims of crime. Doing work that means a lot to us personally is a great thing, but it also sets us up for burnout, if work that we care about with our whole heart is thwarted.

A long time ago, I worked with kids at a group home. One of them was sentenced there as a condition of his probation. He had been doing well in the program, and requested a day pass to take his citizenship test. The probation officer’s response, “He should have thought of that before he broke the law in my country.” I was frustrated for quite a while.

One way to avoid that is to work for an agency that “gets it” in the same way that you do. Maybe that means finding an agency that views their work as ministry, or an agency that’s unapologetically non-profit. Maybe just finding an agency that still has an obvious corporate culture dedicated to serving clients. One of the great things about social work is that our employment has the potential to be more than “just a job.” The next step is to find a place to work that’s “more than just an employer.”

2. Be Like an MMA Fighter!

Don’t hit people. That’s not what I mean.

Most people visit doctors when they know they’re sick, because they want to get better. But I’d bet that all MMA fighters visit doctors very regularly, even when they’re in excellent health. After all, they make their living with their body, and need it to be in top condition – even better than “no problems” – in order for them to do their job well.

Some people visit therapists when they know they’re having problems, because they want to get better. As social workers, we use our minds and emotions to make our living, and we need them to be better than “just not having problems” in order to do our best work. Preventative therapy lets social workers vent, process case-, office-, and life-related stress, and develop deep insight and awareness which can inform their own practice.

3. Get a Life and Keep It!

I used to train foster and adoptive parents on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. You probably took a quiz on it. Fundamental needs have to get mostly met before higher needs can be attended to. It took a few years of giving that training before I caught on that it doesn’t just apply to foster kids and their needs, it applies to social workers and their roles. Our more foundational roles (person, spouse/partner, friend) need to be in order before our more advanced roles (social worker, therapist, supervisor) can be at their best.

Social workers often put in extra hours in order to try to meet the needs of their clients. I left my first social work job about an hour late, more days than not. Sometimes, we forgo our own health and quality of life in order to try to secure health and quality of life for others. But it doesn’t need to be either-or. Schedule time for yourself. Quiet time at Starbucks, a run, a movie, game night with your friends, whatever. Put it in your calendar. Keep the commitment. Your clients, your friends, your significant other and you personally will all enjoy the refreshed, relaxed, more well-rounded version of you.

4. Mind Your Own Business!

Aristotle said (wow, do I feel strange starting a sentence with those two words…) that virtue was in between two vices. I think it’s pretty natural for good-intentioned folks, like social workers, to so fear the vice that’s furthest from them that they cling to another. If you’re reading this article, you’re probably not the kind of social worker who’s totally self-serving, not really invested in your clients, and just collecting a pay check. Heck, the article is about avoiding that. That’s probably not the vice that you’re going to struggle with anytime soon. But if virtue – or health – is between two extremes, maybe you’re clinging to the other vice – over-identification.

We want our clients to do well and to make good choices. We will continuously give our full, best, honest efforts to help them make decisions that will benefit them. But at some point, the point where the decisions are actually made, the choices are theirs. Social workers can and should still hold unconditional positive regard to the client, regardless of which choices are made. But the person making the choice is the client. You’re not responsible for it! At the end of your work day, breathe, reflect, maybe pray, and then let it go. This isn’t adopting a “who cares” attitude towards your job. It’s acknowledging that you do care very much, and that you’re taking intentional steps to keep good boundaries.



9 responses

14 02 2013

Wow. I’m running an LCSW supervision group, and I have been talking about ALL of these things with my group members for months. It’s so hard for social workers to learn and apply these skills/practices. I will definitely be assigning them “homework” of reading and responding to this post, for sure. Thanks so much!

14 02 2013
Addison Cooper

Hey Lynsey – Thanks so much for the kind words. I’ll look forward to interacting with your supervisees 🙂

16 02 2013

Thank you, Addison – I love the way you presented these key 4 points on self-care… these are so important and yet, so easy to forget or put aside to take care of our clients or others.

It probably wouldn’t hurt for us to hang up in our homes/offices some gentle reminders:
1) Remember Maslow’s hierarchy ?- It applies to us too!
2) Therapy is good preventative mental health
3) End of Day: We are but little specs in this huge universe and we shouldn’t think/imagine that we as mere mortals have the power or responsibility to carry/fix all the troubles in this world. Furthermore, we can place symbols from different religions on one of our walls so that when we walk in/out of our office we are reminded of this fact… Jack Kornfield had made this wonderful suggestion in his workshop

16 02 2013
Addison Cooper

Hi Dorleem – Thanks so much for your comment! You know, I bet cross-stitching those reminders would be a pretty relaxing form of self-care 🙂 You’re right about us being “little specks in a huge universe.” I remember hearing about “The Messiah Complex” when I was in grad school. It seems like social workers have a tendency to want to (or feel responsible to) save the world. My professors’ message: “That’s God’s job. And, you’re not God.”

Virtue is in between two vices. Being selfish is unhealthy. But so is being “caring-for-others” to the point of self-neglect. Balance!

A pastor once made a simple connection for me: “recreation” is really the “re-creation” of your strength, your joy, and your energy. So don’t try to be a martyr!

18 02 2013

This is a very clear, well stated explanation of our need to find balance in our personal and professional lives.

I was just at a community meeting of various trauma informed programs. The meeting coordinator decided that we needed a day of “Organic Plant Interactions” because she hates the phrase “Self Care”. We talked a bit about needing to manage our own stress levels and find support for this which can sometimes be a challenge with certain supervisors/agencies. We planted seeds while an expert gardner gave us tips for growing things in our office or home. It was a very relaxing, engaging activity. A perfect fit for what you’re bringing up here. Will send the coordinator a link.


19 02 2013
Addison Cooper

Thanks so much, Emaufmuth! I’m glad the article was helpful to you, and I’m also thrilled that you’ll send it on. Gardening sounds like a great way to relieve stress. Actually, I’m waiting for the weather to warm up – this is going to be my first year planting tomatoes 🙂

26 03 2013

LOVE that you ended with the point that the client makes the final decision – we are not responsible! It needs to be printed on a banner “This is your life and I am here to help – not live it for you.” Give the clients back their control and stop exhausting yourself as a social worker!
Thank you!!!!

1 04 2013
Addison Cooper

Hey Sheila! Thanks for your comment. It’s true, though – we can only be responsible for preparing our best, practicing ethically within the scope of our practice, and, well, caring. But we can’t run clients’ lives for them. (Or friends’ lives. Or parents’ lives. Or spouses’ lives…) That’s disempowering 🙂 I guess the closest we can come to running someone else’s life is getting a pet. But even then – how fulfilling is it to have your daily mantra be “Spike, don’t eat that…”

21 04 2013

This was a great refresher! I’m starting a new job at a women’s prison and it’s nice to have seen these reminders, so I can be sure to apply them in my new work setting. The last one was right on! I just left working with at-risk middle schoolers and there were days I felt I was putting more in. We as social workers have to empower our clients and remember that they make the final decisions about their lives. I also loved the tie in about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need. So cool…lol

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