Burnout in Social Work

A study conducted by the University of Plymouth found that 75% of social workers said that burnout was a key area of concern, and this year, burnout was officially recognised as a distinct disorder in the DSM-5. The speed of burnout in social work is currently estimated at around 8 years, with more and more social workers having to take long term sick leave or changing professions as a direct result of the pressures of the job.

In 1975, Freudenberger defined burnout as a ‘state of being inoperative’ as a practitioner, and this can take many different forms. Compassion fatigue is a significant factor in the cause of burnout, and this refers to an overall feeling of fatigue, physically and emotionally. It is particularly common in professions that require significant amounts of compassion as part of daily practice.

In today’s world, social workers and other health and social care professionals are under extreme pressure. Whilst it is an immensely rewarding job, it also places the individual under high levels of pressure and involves continuous exposure to stress.  

Sign of Burnout

Everyone experiences burnout differently, but there are a few common social work burnout signs, including:

  • Lowered immunity
  • An increasingly cynical or negative outlook
  • Withdrawal from responsibilities
  • Lack of motivation
  • Disengagement from previously enjoyed activities
  • Feelings of loneliness
  • Social Isolation
  • Broken sleep
  • Irritability
  • Lack of Patience
  • Lack of enthusiasm
  • Feelings of hopelessness


In recent years, there has been an increased focus on the concept of self-care. This refers to any activity that we do to protect and promote our health and wellbeing. Once considered selfish or indulgent, studies are now showing that having ‘me time’ is essential. Schedule self-care into your life and treat it as you would any other appointment. Whether it is a professional massage, time spent with the family, or an hour of complete peace with just yourself and a good book, you deserve that time. How can you take care of others without taking care of yourself?

Setting Limits

Although research can easily explain why social workers are at increased risk of burnout, we are not able to change the very nature of our jobs. As a result, it is essential that we set limits. Whether it is lying awake at night thinking about a particular case, catching up with paperwork during family time, or anything else, we have all been guilty of taking work home. Yet establishing boundaries is so important as professionals and we need to do our utmost to ensure a distance between work life and our private life.

Another way to set limits is by making time each week to completely switch off. We live in a world in which media keeps us constantly up to date with the tragedies and inequalities that occur around the globe. This combined with a job in which we are constantly faced with the unfairness of life can be draining, and limiting our screen consumption can help to prevent us from becoming overwhelmed.

Physical Health

 Sleep, food, exercise and relaxation are critical components of physical and mental health and can play a key role in preventing burnout in social work.

Due to working long shifts and grabbing what we can when we can, prioritising good food and making time to exercise can be a challenge. However, we cannot expect our bodies to do the work of several without giving it the nutrition that it needs to function. Make sure that you are getting those eight hours a night, try to eat a rainbow of healthy foods, and incorporate regular exercise into your schedule.

Mindfulness and Acceptance

Even if it is just a couple of minutes a day, practising mindfulness can have a significantly positive impact on our mental wellbeing. Working constantly in a high-stress environment can increase the risk of developing mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety. Health and social care professionals are  also at an increased risk of vicarious traumatization. Also known as Secondary Trauma Stress, this refers to a situation in which a professional is traumatised by the experiences of their clients, and it is associated with similar symptoms to PTSD. It is perfectly okay not to be okay- reach out to mental health professionals and speak to your GP.

It is also important to practice acceptance. You are not a superhero and very often are hands are tied by a lack of resources, time and other such factors outside of our control. We also need to recognise the stressors that are apparent in our own culture. We live in a world that pushes hard work and productivity. We are constantly aiming to do more with our 24 hours, and working long shifts are praised in a society that prioritises material success. However, this glorification of work at the extent of our health can ultimately result in our mental health needs becoming overlooked.

The Social Network

As social workers, we all know the importance of conversation and communication. It is how we work with clients to establish action and intervention. However, when it comes to talking about our own issues, we are used to having boundaries in place. Whether it is a trusted friend, colleague, supervisor, or mental health professional, having someone to unload to can have a hugely positive impact. The old adage of a problem shared is a problem halved comes to mind. Our colleagues understand the unique challenges and demands of the profession as well as the importance of being able to get things off our chest. Management can also have a direct effect on reducing the risk of burnout amongst employees through changing attitudes and creating an environment that promotes positive communication and self-care and recognises the social work burnout signs.

Reflection and Evaluation

We are constantly told the importance of being reflective when it comes to practice, but we can also apply this to the concept of self-care. Take time to look back on how you spend your time, and how you can address specific symptoms and meet your own needs. Think about what you would advise a client or service user in a similar situation and whether your own actions have been conducive to creating a stress-free environment. However, this should not be placing blame on yourself in any way. Instead, it should be a process of recognising where changes can be made to prevent burnout in social work. It is about being self-aware and acknowledging the factors in your life that serve as stressors

Practice what you preach!

We choose to be in this profession because of a desire to help, but we also have to help ourselves. The way in which you prevent burnout is an individual thing, and it’s just about learning what works for you. Whether that is knitting, journaling, crafting, fishing or anything else, take time to do the things that you love and prioritise your own needs as much as you prioritise the needs of others.

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