We would all love there to be a magic wand, a pill or a practice that we could adopt to prevent the onslaught of Burnout in the Social Work profession. But I’m sorry to say that mysterious thing you just haven’t heard of yet doesn’t exist.

In reality Burnout prevention is simple, I argue that it requires three things;

  • A supportive organization,
  • Effective clinical supervision, and
  • Well-developed sense of self (self-reflection, self-awareness and self-compassion).(OK so maybe there are more than three things there.)

This is where the simplicity ends though.

These three elements are interrelated and dependent on each other to provide the environment where professionals can thrive in Social Work. They are also not clear cut and one size does not fit for every individual.

So what do we need to do first? I’d argue that whilst the main contributors to Social Worker Burnout comes from the organizational and systemic level the self is our starting point.

Each individual Social Worker needs to be able to prioritise their own self, be able to articulate their needs, values and intentions and be able to be self-aware to the times when these are being compromised. We need to teach every social worker the key elements of self-compassion and emotional intelligence at the onset of their career and keep supporting the practice and development of this throughout their lifetime.

No organization can be held solely responsible for something we ourselves did not see coming. Social Workers need the awareness, knowledge and skills to enact the basics of every day self-care, practice self-compassion and be attuned to their own dysregulation. Self-awareness and openness to addressing the pain and challenges our work brings is vital. We need to enhance the vocabulary and practice of emotional intelligence in our social workers to equip them with the tools to develop resilience and to know when to stop pushing and focus on self.

Effective clinical supervision is vital for continued professional practice and wellbeing. As social work by nature demands our use of self in the relational context of our work the connection and support of an experienced clinical supervisor can shed light on our blind spots, evoke discussion about our hidden biases and be supportive to our self-preservation in times of stress.

Effective clinical supervision should start with the social worker self and work outwards to promote consideration of the theories, values, practices and barriers the individual social worker faces. Case based and task management is not effective supervision with regard to worker wellbeing.

Clinical supervision supports the worker to  know and see their self and as a result strive to be their best professional self. Align this with the individuals work on self-awareness, reflection and the use of self-compassion in the face of challenges and we are making progress.

So thirdly we need a supportive organization. This needs to be in reality not just effused in the mission statements and marketing strategies. I argue that the moral obligation of organisations is increasingly turning to standing up to the structural inadequacies of the system or we cannot continue. But until the revolution happens we need organisations that see the person in every employee. That listens to the cries for help and support from the overworked, under resourced social workers.

By nature Social Workers are committed to action, to making change and supporting good outcomes. They are not looking for an easy ride. When the social workers’ collectively say they simply cannot do the work required, to prevent the risk and protect the vulnerable, with the resources they have… they are not saying that easily. We need supportive organisations that demand the appropriate funding, staffing levels, professional networks & support and resources to enable their Social Workers to enact the work.

I told you it was not easy.

We need to effect the changes we can at the level we are at. I know, because I was one and have worked with many others, that there are managers out there championing the cause and listening to the cries. But we have to remember that we can only effect what is in our own control. So without excusing the system, the organisations, the managers and funders, we need to take responsibility for our own wellbeing.

When you are fully aware of your needs, are enacting all you can do to support your health and wellbeing and are self-compassionate in times of challenges you will know if you can keep going or if the time has come to put yourself first and change your role or profession.

I am committed to helping those of you that want to do everything in your control to take the steps to put yourself first so you can continue with sustainable practice far into the future. And whilst we do so I’ll keep raising a voice to the unheard and making the case that this is not individual failings but a broken system that is crippling our welfare state and compassionate workforce.

To learn more about my specialized Social Worker support program ‘Because YOU Care’ go to members.helengray.com.au/because-you-care