Burnout in social work and what you can do about it

While social workers are at higher risk of burnout than many other professions, here are some real, actionable strategies to keep it away.

Row of matches one is burnt

Social workers are angels who support and help the most oppressed and vulnerable in society. They’re truly motivated by wanting to make a difference in the lives of others. And while we celebrate them (and you, if you’re one too!), we also need to acknowledge the toll the job takes on their wellbeing.

According to Safework Australia, 90% of mental disorder claims are attributed to mental stress. And of 64% of mental disorder claims, four industries are over-represented—including healthcare and social assistance (or social work). 

The Australian Community Sector Survey also reports that social work organisations are often chronically underfunded, leading its workers to carry an oversized physical and psychological burden to deliver services to those who need it. As many as 50% of front-line social workers and 68% of leaders say they feel under pressure because of staffing shortages and are emotionally drained due to their work.

At the same time, the demand for social services has risen, starting with the bushfires in early 2020, followed by the COVID-19 pandemic and through to the ongoing cost of living crisis.

What causes burnout in social work?

Under-funding is one obvious reason, impacting social work organisations’ ability to hire, retain and reward staff, for mentally and emotionally demanding work. 

Being fiercely passionate about social justice and their clients’ wellbeing, social workers feel compelled to help, constantly, even if it requires them to work out of hours and on weekends, when they’re not being compensated.

Social workers who work with survivors of traumatic incidents or torture can also suffer from vicarious trauma, an occupational health and safety issue which results from engaging empathetically with those survivors.

Another reason social workers suffer burnout is because they feel helpless, which can happen when a client faces repeated crises. According to this article written by a social worker, ‘social work is long-tail change, enacted through short-term crises’—it takes multiple short-term crises for clients to realise that change is needed and to then make that change over the long term. Unfortunately, this process can negatively impact the social worker’s health.

What are the signs of burnout in social work?

Burnout in social work can make itself evident through physical, emotional and behavioural signs.

Common physical symptoms include feeling tired and drained, getting sick often, suffering from chronic headaches or pains, losing your appetite or overeating for comfort, insomnia or sleeping too much.

In terms of emotions, burnout can show up as a loss of motivation, depression, anxiety, self-doubt, feelings of emptiness and hopelessness. And when you’re feeling burnt out, your behaviour can change, which can manifest as getting angry easily (often at those closest to you), procrastinating, and avoiding responsibilities, including work.

Additionally, burnout caused by vicarious trauma often manifests as lingering feelings of anger or sadness about your client’s situation, becoming overly involved with your client, experiencing bystander guilt or shame and having horror or rescue fantasies about your client.

The best way to combat burnout, is of course to be aware of its signs and practise preventive strategies from the get-go.

Self-care strategies for social workers

As a social worker, it’s essential to take care of yourself. You need to keep yourself healthy and well to be able to support the people you want to help. Here are some strategies you can put in place. 

  • Set aside a regular time weekly to check in with yourself
    How are you feeling? If you’re feeling low, how many weeks in a row have you felt this way? Seek help sooner than later.
  • Maintain a healthy work/life balance
    Don’t try to take on more than you can handle. Rest, family, exercise and pursuing your hobbies are just as important as your job, if not more.
  • Attempt to balance your caseload, if possible
    Take on a mix of traumatised and non-traumatised clients.
  • Use your leave
    Take time off and change your environment, even if it’s just getting out of town for a night.
  • Lean on your peers
    If there isn’t a formal support system available at work, look beyond to professional groups of social workers or start one of your own. Being able to debrief and discuss your experiences with others who understand can be a huge relief.
  • Choose your employer carefully
    With all things in life, you should pursue the path that resonates with you the most. And if that’s social work, you now have the facts to properly take care of yourself.


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