I know that most of you started on the social work path to “save”, save the world, save a population, save at least one family or person. Maybe it’s because somewhere in your life you needed saving, received it, and now want to give back. Maybe you were never rescued and that instigated a vow not to stand by and allow others to experience that same pain. Maybe you see yourself as a caregiver. It’s what you are and what you’ve always been good at. Maybe you’re an activist at heart who enjoys the possibility of advocating for large-scale change. Each of these reasons to enter social work give you the energy to push yourself through the education, and inspire an almost idealistic perspective when beginning your journey to make change.
At some point those positive and powerful feelings can start to ebb away. In fact, they may distort into equally strong and constant feelings of helplessness, frustration, cynicism, depression, anxiety, and/or anger. These emotions don’t stay at work. They follow you home where you can barely sleep, repeatedly fall sick, are less present with family or friends, or worse, you begin to alienate them with your stress.
Congratulations, you’ve reached burnout!
At some point and in varying degrees, nearly all social workers have experienced burnout. Its power drains you of the joy in your life and can sometimes break your heart. For us the prevalence of burnout is overwhelming, and encourages professional instability ranging from job-hopping to completely walking away from the field. While most causes of burnout are due to administration, there are safeguards you can implement to keep yourself healthy as long as you are willing to make the commitment. This list is not comprehensive, but let it serve as a starting point.
Get some sleep! Inadequate sleep can lead to a mixture of problems such as poor concentration and memory, irritability, impaired cognitive and motor functioning, slower physical and emotional health recovery, and more. Also, loss of sleep can result in a body response similar to intoxication. Loss of sleep has an interesting impact on the body, because the deficit is both cumulative and final. Missing an hour of sleep every night for seven days can have the same impact as someone losing an entire night of rest. At the same time oversleeping on Saturday to reset will not work. You have to return to an appropriate sleep pattern to heal the effects over time.
What’s on your plate? Busy people often have poor eating habits. They barely eat, stress eat, or consume those tasty junk foods that contain little nutrition, while containing many ingredients that slow the functioning of your system. Consuming hearty meals doesn’t equate nourishment. Lacking certain vitamins can increase your anxiety, depression, and fatigue. You can also have negative reactions to some foods you love, such as gluten and coffee.
Sharing is caring! At what point do you ask for help? Would you seek assistance if you needed it? It’s not a weakness to request help. It doesn’t make you less competent or a burden. There is always support available if you look, even if it requires getting creative. Allowing the people around you to help benefits them too. Remember, when you reach out, they have the opportunity to experience the joy of giving just as you do. You feel less alone in your struggle, and you experience a little less stress. It’s a win all around.
Embrace failure! This step is for everyone, but I give special recognition to the Type A’s, perfectionists, and idealists. Sometimes (maybe often times), your best effort will not bring success. Failure simply teaches us what does and does not work. It’s expectations of others and our expectations for ourselves that corrupts our experiences, defining their value. Sometimes it results in near obsessive work which may be applauded by others, but is ultimately neither healthy nor useful. In fact, the most successful people are not perfectionists. They understand that failure does not make us failures, and it’s the strong that can view failure as the lesson that it is.
Work that body! You can use your body in many ways. Exercise has the power to lift your mood and relieve stress on a biological level. Taking periodic walks away from your desk can help release the feelings of tension and pressure in your body that may have been building throughout the workday. Those planned, periodic breaks can allow you to focus more intensely on work while preventing you from procrastination.
Diversify your identity! How you view yourself can bring on stress. Related to the issues of embracing failure, viewing yourself as only a caretaker (whether for clients, family members, and friends) can lead to an unhealthy connection between how successful you are at being that one identity and how valuable you are as a person. It’s helpful to embrace other ways of viewing yourself that allow you to feel successful during failures. Are you also a cook, a hiker, a gardener, a dancer? Who else are you? Most importantly, who else are you that is not defined as a relationship to other people?
Express the child in you! You looked in the mirror and suddenly realized you got old. Unfortunately, age can bring expectations of increased responsibility and a personality of seriousness. These characteristics can bring a feeling of carrying weight on your shoulders that you can’t ever remove. Release the connection between loss of joy and adulthood. Remember the moments you felt carefree and allow yourself to be childish. Find time to play games and be silly, darn it!
Say no to vampires! This is not a Twilight reference. As caregivers we tend to draw people in need of help. These people drain us while giving little in return. You can choose to not add more stress in your life by releasing the responsibility for the lives of others in addition to yourself. You can stop enabling them and allow them to build their own strength while you focus on you. Often times you need to look at why you feel the need to take on this role. Is it your perceived identity? Do you feel worthless unless you are helping? Do you have trouble saying no?
Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries! The importance of embracing “no” isn’t only for the vampires, you also need it to create the boundaries in your life. By using that one small word you can carve away the responsibilities that are unnecessary energy drains. It can also help you to build a more satisfying life, because you will now have more time to do so. “No” can be used with your job, friends, family, committees, and any other part of your life. If you feel that “no” isn’t an option in certain situations ask yourself why. Have you said “yes” so much that you are afraid of saying no? Do you believe you will become less important to others? Are you afraid of being rude? Do you value the opinions of others over your desire to treat yourself well?
Know when to walk away. Despite all the effort put into keeping yourself sane, the company you work for can still provide an environment that is too toxic for you to remain. Love yourself enough to walk away.
Nourish your spirit: What brings you back to yourself? The constant race of work and life can help create the disconnect between following social expectation and the way you want to live your life. Prioritizing those moments where you can look within is important to making sure you are living your joy. You can address anxiety and rumination through meditation, yoga, long walks, whatever allows you to focus quietly inward. You can also identify what activities excite you and bring out the creativity in you. The stress you experience can dampen your creativity.
I want to leave you with the top 5 regrets of the dying:
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish that I had let myself be happier.
You have this one short life to live that you are conscious of. Love yourself enough to live it well.
Rev. Jade de Saussure, OMC, MSW Program Administrator, Continuing Educ. Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service 113 West 60th Street New York, NY 10023 firstname.lastname@example.org