Dr. David Chenot
For several decades, workforce researchers have investigated the effects of stress on those who serve vulnerable clients, particularly social workers. This body of research has included a focus on a variety of constructs/variables related to stress including secondary traumatic stress, vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue and, of course, burnout. Each of these constructs has its own unique definition in the literature and captures nuances the others do not; however, they also tend to overlap somewhat due to the shared nature of the phenomena they are meant to explain.
Along with research on these phenomena, there is a quite a bit of discussion about them among social workers who work with vulnerable and traumatized clients on a daily basis (Beer & Asthana, 2016). These concerns are shared internationally, particularly in the US and the UK (Harker, et al., 2016; McFadden, et al., 2016). In addition, though the work force literature in child welfare includes many publications on these topics, they have also been addressed in other fields in which social workers serve, including behavioral/mental health and aging services (Brown, et al., 2017; Kim & Stoner, 2008; LaLiberte & Crudo, 2012; Smullens, 2015).
Clearly, the types of clients social workers serve are not going to change. In fact, the problems social workers’ clients experience often represent an accumulation of challenging personal histories and current difficulties that seem to be growing increasingly more complex over time. In addition, the organizations in which social workers serve, by and large, do not appear to be turning into less stressful environments (Chenot, 2011). The question then is: what is the antidote to the experience of stress among social workers?
Resilience and Self-Care
Resilience provides the buffer social workers need in the face of work-related stress and self-care appears to be one of the best ways to promote resilience (Harker, et al., 2016; McFadden, et al., 2016; Smullens, 2015). By definition self-care is individually practiced. However, it must also be supported and encouraged by organizations that employee social workers. This point relates directly to retention which helps organizations to maintain a stable, well-trained work force, and is highly likely to facilitate an increase in the effectiveness of services provided to clients. Social workers must be provided with an organizational environment that maintains contextual elements that facilitate self-care. For future employees of these organizations, those being educated to become MSW-level social workers, an emphasis on self-care is important within academic programs. This emphasis is likely to promote resilience in future professional social workers by encouraging them to begin to integrate self-care into their professional and personal practices while they are in graduate school. If students can learn how to sustain themselves when stressors become overwhelming, or become so constant that the negative effects of consistent stress accumulate over time, increased resilience is likely to translate to their future work lives as professional social workers.
Self-Care in Social Work Education
Many graduate level programs that prepare students for work in the helping professions are beginning to include information on effective self-care and to include self-care related exercises in the curriculum (Shapiro, et al., 2007). Graduate school provides a helpful “realistic preview” for helping professionals, including social workers, since graduate level academic programs tend to be inherently stressful. However, students experience a particularly stressful realistic preview in social work. They experience the stress of graduate school while participating in two full years of field placements in social services organizations; much like those they are likely to gain employment in after they graduate. In MSW programs, many schools/departments of social work are taking steps to address the need for students to learn how to engage in self-care. For instance, at California State University Fullerton, MSW program Field Directors Marcella Mendez and Debra Saxton have implemented changes in the curriculum in field seminars to teach self-care to all students. Some elements of these additions to the curriculum include required books on resilience, The Resilient Clinician (Wicks, 2008), and mindfulness as a way to manage stress (Alidina, 2015). Assignments in these courses include weekly exercises in self-care and, mindfulness in particular, as a way to practice self-care. Students are also taught to use stress and mindfulness scales in order to gauge how they are balancing the stress they are experiencing through the use of mindfulness techniques. These additions to the curriculum will encourage students to habituate self-care practices in a way that are likely to restrain the effects of stress through increased resilience.
Alidina, S. (2015). The Mindful Way Through Stress, Guilford Press, New York.
Beer, O., & Asthana, S. (September, 2016). How stress impacts social workers-and how they’re trying to cope. Workforce. http://www.communitycare.co.uk/2016/09/28/stress-impacts-social-workers-theyre-trying-cope/
Brown, J.L.C., Ong, J., Mathers, J.M., & Decker, J.T. (2017). Compassion fatigue and mindfulness: Comparing mental health professionals and MSW student interns. Journal of Evidence-Informed Social Work, 14(3), 119–130.
Chenot, D. (2011). The vicious cycle: Recurrent interactions among the media, politicians, the public, and child welfare organizations. Journal of Public Child Welfare, 5(2), 167––184.
Harker, R., Pidgeon, A.M., Klaassen, F., and King, S. (2016). Exploring resilience and mindfulness as preventative factors for psychological distress burnout and secondary traumatic stress among human services professionals. Work, (54), 631–637.
Kim, H., & Stoner, M. (2008). Burnout and turnover intention among social workers: Effects of role stress, job autonomy and social support. Administration in Social Work, (32)3, 5–25.
LaLiberte, T. & Crudo, T. (Eds.) CW 360 (Spring, 2012). Secondary trauma and the child welfare workforce. CW 360, University of Minnesota, School of Social Work.
McFadden, P., Campbell, A., & Taylor, B. (2016). Resilience and burnout in child protection social work: Individual and organizational themes from a systematic literature review.
Shapiro, S.L., Brown, K.W., & Biegel, G.M. (2007). Teaching self-care to caregivers: Effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction on the mental health of therapists in training. Training & Education in Professional Psychology, 1, 105–115.
Smullens, S. (2015). Burnout and Self-Care in Social Work: A Guidebook for Students and Those in Mental Health and Related Professions. NASW Press, Washington D.C.
Wicks, R.J. (2008). The Resilient Clinician. Oxford University Press, New York.