One of the primary reasons I chose to pursue a career in social work is the personal fulfillment I experience from helping someone better her or his life. Like other ‘helping’ professions, social work attracts people who want to make a difference in the lives of others, either through direct service to clients or by shaping policy and programs. It is a career path that offers endless opportunity to invest our “selves” in activities and causes that aim to ease the suffering of others.
Unfortunately, our capacity for self-investment is not as endless as the opportunities and needs that are constantly before us. Our personal “checking accounts” of time, energy, and emotion can run low, and in cases where the debits exceed the deposits for extended periods, terms like “compassion fatigue” and “professional burnout” may begin to apply.
That’s where the notion of self-care comes in. Whatever form it takes, self-care is the process by which we as professionals (and as human beings) replenish our physical, mental, and emotional resources. It is a “deposit” into the account from which we draw the energy and compassion required to do the important work that we do as social workers. Self-care makes us more effective as professionals, and it is an ethical obligation.
Graduate school is a great time to learn the art—and develop the habit—of self-care. In fact, developing a self-care plan that will sustain your fledgling social work career is part of the curriculum (SoWo 769 – “Evidence Based Interventions in Direct Practice”). The keys for developing a solid plan are (1) reflecting on the mental and emotional challenges your present or future professional context will present; (2) discerning your “not-so-strengths”—areas where you are susceptible to discouragement, frustration, emotional triggers, exhaustion, etc.; and (3) identifying personal practices that will help you re-charge and will support you specifically with regard to the contextual and personal “risk factors” from (1) and (2).
A good self-care plan fits you as an individual. It may include a few hours on a climbing wall each week. Or a beer with a buddy every Friday night. Or a warm bath and a good book after a long day. Or all of the above. In case you’re curious, mine looks like this:
*Sleep : 6+ hours a night (on average) during the week, a solid 8 on weekends
*Exercise: 3+ workouts a week – could be basketball, running, swimming, weight training, or some other strenuous activity – great stress relief, positive health benefits
*Spirituality: consistent time for prayer and reflection at the end of the day – perfect wind-down before bed, helps me stay positive and thankful
*Social support: weekly time with family and friends – sustains close relationships, prevents isolation (we introverts are prone to that)
Social work is a fantastic career field…AND…it can be absolutely draining because of the nature of the work that we do. Self-care is not simply a survival plan for getting through grad school; it is a necessary component for a sustained and fruitful career. You only have one self, and in many ways, that self will be the key to your effectiveness as a social worker. You should take care of it. 🙂