Whether we are helping individuals or promoting social change, our profession provides opportunities for intellectual stimulation, emotional gratification, and the development of competence.
Read an interview with SaraKay. The training to become a social worker is arduous, demanding, and complex. My concentration was clinical social work, which during my graduate education was known as casework. I well remember studying my basic curriculum; taking more electives than were required; receiving excellent supervision of my clinical work with individuals, couples, families, and groups; and before it was required, taking many continuing education classes.
Suffice it to say, I learned a great deal—but what it seemed that no one shared with me during these years, or seemed to discuss among themselves as either teachers or therapists, was the sheer exhaustion experienced in clinical work as we do our very best to meet the needs of others day after day, year after year.
When one of my deeply trusted supervisors died, and I met his wife for the first time, she told me that sometimes he would return home too exhausted to even speak, and that a frequent statement she heard from a man who obviously treasured his clinical work, teaching, and writing was: How well so many in our field must understand this feeling.
As burnout worsens, however, its effects turn more serious. An individual may become paranoid or self-medicate with legal or illegal substances. Eventually, a social worker afflicted with burnout may leave a promising career that he or she has worked very hard to attain or be removed from a position by a forced resignation or firing.
In the intervening 37 years, burnout has been the focus of several studies, each of which has affirmed the phenomenon van der Vennet, Yet, as social workers, we may still not pay full attention to the reality of burnout until suddenly everything seems overwhelming.
At such times, we may lack the knowledge of what is transpiring or the critical faculties to assess our experience objectively that would enable us to take proper measures to restore balance to our lives.
To explore and understand the phenomenon of burnout before it is too late, researchers have found it useful to introduce several components of the term or attendant syndromes, specifically compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, and secondary traumatic stress.
Yet, a large part of compassion fatigue is built directly into the fabric of the kind of work we do. Although we may strive for a relationship with our clients that is collaborative, our goal is not a relationship that is reciprocal.
In many important ways, reciprocity is unethical, even illegal. In our work, although we are surrounded by people all day long, there is not a balanced give and take.
Concentration is on clients, not ourselves.
In the truest sense, we are alone—we are the givers, and our fulfillment comes from seeing the growth, hope, and new direction in those with whom we are privileged to work. The fulfillment of our professional commitment demands that we ever do our best and give as much as possible in the ethical ways that are the underpinnings of the social work profession.
With this awareness, common sense predicts that burnout is a potential threat waiting for us in the wings. However, as we all know, common sense and clear thinking can be eroded when our own unfinished emotional business propels us. Most have experienced one or a combination of five patterns of emotional abuse, which has led to the relentless need to give to others what we wish we had received, coupled by an inability to care for oneself and set limits in order to counteract exhaustion Smullens, Social workers, therefore, are especially prone to compassion fatigue, not only because of the nature of our work, but often because our own natures have inspired us to enter this precise field.
As mentioned above, social workers are far more likely to have painful personal histories than those working in other professions or vocations. Additionally, women therapists appear to come from more chaotic families of origin, with significantly lesser experiences of familial cohesion, moral emphasis, and achievement orientation.
Unfinished emotional business can involve all aspects of our personal and professional lives. Do we have issues with members of our family of origin that are unresolved and drain present relationships, keeping us from seeing clearly?
Do we long to do the impossible for a deceased or suffering parent? Do we long to establish closeness with a family member who has continuously made it clear that this is not a mutual desire? Are there present issues regarding a partner, or sexual preference?
Are we struggling to find the intimacy we crave, yet still eludes us? The list, in myriad forms, can go on and on. It is essential to remember that when our clients bring these very same issues to us that we have not faced, burnout and the depression that accompanies it can and will set in, leading to emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a decreased sense of personal accomplishments.
Through the agencies of compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma, burnout systematically decreases our ability to relate to our clients, which strikes at the heart of our self-identification as a healer or positive force in society. This in turn results in increased disaffection for our work, disconnection, and isolation.
This isolation may in fact already be present; Koeske and Koeske found that in addition to demanding work loads, one of the causes for burnout was low social support, particularly low coworker support. Further, it can reverse burnout that has occurred. In other words, there is a cure for burnout—not a permanent cure, or a cure-all, but a process that can be engaged to restore balance in our personal and professional lives.The training to become a social worker is arduous, demanding, and complex.
What isn't always stressed enough are the issues of burnout, compassion fatigue, and the need for self care in the profession of social . The Code of Practice for Social Care Workers is a list of statements that describe the standards of professional conduct and practice required of social care.
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