Social Worker Burnout – Keep the Flame Alive!

I wanted to talk a little bit about burnout. This is something that was talked about in almost every social work class that I took but I never really understood it until it started happening to me. That’s why it’s important to know what burnout is, the signs and symptoms to look out for, how to prevent burnout, and what to do if you start to experience burnout.

What is Burnout?

Burnout is a term used by members of the helping profession to describe what happens when we don’t take care of ourselves. Too often, social workers take care of others all day and put all their focus on what other people need that they forget to take care of themselves. When a social worker is burnt out, they experience compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is a fancy way of saying they quit caring. It’s not because we want to quit but because we are emotionally struggling to keep up with the demands of the job.


This can happen for many reasons. Here are a few:

  • High caseloads
  • Falling behind on documentation
  • Poor supervision
  • Lack of time management skills
  • Working more hours than you’re supposed to
  • Constant worrying about client’s safety or other concerns
  • Being on call – never really getting a true break
  • Unrealistic expectations by your company – like how many units you must make or how many clients they expect you to see in short period of time
  • Frustrations with coworkers or clients
  • Personal problems that bleed into work
  • Inability to leave work at work

Signs and Symptoms of Burnout

There’s no one list that’s going to point you to every symptom of burnout. However, there are many common signs that you might be heading that way. It’s important to check in with yourself, just as you would tell a client to check in. Make sure you’re feeling your emotions and figuring out what’s going on with you. Remember, you can’t pour into others if you have an empty cup.

Here are some feelings to look out for:

  • Irritatilbity
  • Apathy
  • Overwhelmed
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Boredom
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Resentments
  • Hopelessness
  • Forgetfulness

Burnout also causes physical symptoms. You may experience:

  • Headaches
  • Stomaches
  • Muscle pain and aches
  • Increased use of drugs and/or alcohol
  • Exhaustion
  • Insomnia
  • Procrastination
  • Avoiding career goals
  • Falling behind at work
  • Frequent illness due to a lower immune system

What Can I Do to Prevent Burnout?

All those signs and symptoms seem pretty bad right? You may be wondering how in the world social workers allow themselves to get to that point! The answer is simple:

Burnout is a gradual process. It doesn’t happen overnight. Stress builds over time and eventually it becomes too much. Many times we are too busy worrying about everyone else around us to realize that we are reaching out breaking point. Here are some things we can do to prevent burnout from starting:

  • Set realistic goals
  • Engage in self-care
  • Seek supervision for stressful cases
  • Take a mental health day if you need one
  • Get a therapist
  • Talk with your peers about how you’re feeling
  • Practice good sleeping habits
  • Eat health
  • Exercise
  • Take breaks (both during the workday and vacations!)
  • Take your medication as prescribed

What To Do If I’m Burnt Out?

When you realize that you’re burnt out and are experiencing the signs and symptoms listed above- GET HELP! Talk about it, share your feelings with your colleagues or supervisor. Chances are, at least a few of them have experienced this before. Look at your self-care routine. Does it exist? Does it need to be modified? What can you do differently to ensure that you are taking care of yourself?

If all else fails, it may be time to make changes to where you’re working. Sometimes jobs aren’t a good fit for us and that’s okay! We can find a new job- whether within the social work field or outside of it. I always said that I love being a social worker becasue I have so much freedom. If I don’t like working in a particular setting or with a certain population, there are tons of other opportunities to try something new. Don’t be afraid to make that leap if you need to. You can’t take care of others if you aren’t taking care of yourself.

My Burnout Story

For me, when I was running a residential program I was constantly on call. This made it hard to set boundaries for myself to give myself time off because I was expected to answer my phone. I had to carry my phone with me everywhere, make sure it was charged, and be sure to answer if there was an emergency at the program. Now, this wasn’t a huge deal at first but after a few years it began to wear me down.

I also felt very unsupported at one point in my career. This led me to feeling like I was floating on an island alone. Most social worker are social creatures- they thrive on relationships and I’m no different. Feeling like I didn’t have support or anyone to talk to when I got stressed was extremely difficult for me. I found myself dreading coming to my job which I loved! I couldn’t figure out what was going on with me or why I was feeling that way. That’s when I started thinking back to what I learned about burnout in school.

When I was starting to burn out, I realized that I was experiencing many of these symptoms. But again, they came on gradually. One adds to the next and pretty soon I had all sorts of things wrong! I was irritable with my coworkers. I had a lot of difficulty concentrating. I felt “checked out” during staff meetings. I was exhausted all the time. I began putting off things that I knew needed to get done because I simply couldn’t get myself to do them.

This is when I realized that I was burning out FAST and I needed to make some changes. I looked at what I was (well, wasn’t) doing to take care of myself and modified what I do for self care. I upped my exercise almost immediately. This was so important to me and going for a walk or run always made me feel better. I used to run 4-5 times a week and it somehow slipped away.

I also started reading again. I LOVE reading but realized that at some point, I had quit doing this.

I began painting. I have tons of painting supplies at my home and I love creating things. I started an art journal made out of an old book and began filling up the pages with things I liked, journal prompts, and just about anything else I felt like creating that day.

Most importantly, I started talking to people. I vented to my coworker and my partner. I called my mom. I talked to my supervisor who encouraged me and supported me when I needed to take a mental health day to sleep because I stayed up the entire night before. I asked for help when I needed it.

How Can I Keep The Flame Alive?social-worker-burnout-keeping-the-flame-alive

The most important thing you can do for yourself is to pay attention to you. We all got into the social work profession to help people, right? (I mean let’s be honest, it wasn’t for the money!) But remember, you can’t help anyone if you’re not okay.

Burnout is gradual but the sooner we recognize the beginning of burnout, the better! We can make changes and turn it around if we catch it soon enough. Start engaging in self care now BEFORE burnout hits! This will help prevent it from ever happening.

When you realize you’re starting to feel burnt out DON’T PANIC! Look at what’s going well for you and what’s not working. Make changes where you need to and ASK FOR HELP!

It’s okay to leave a job if it becomes too overwhelming and you feel like you can’t make enough sustainable changes to reverse the burnout. Look for a new opportunity that excites you again and fuels your flame. Don’t let a job destroy your fire becaue once it does, it’s much harder to recover from.

If all else fails remember this, you are the most important person in your life. You can’t serve the clients if you are not well. Take the time to take care of you and everything else will fall in to place.


What types of things do you do to prevent burnout? Share any tips, tricks, or your experiences in a comment below!

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