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Six Ways to Practice Wellness for Social Workers

A Helpful Guide by Lisa Dominguez

Woman sitting by her computer holding tea while taking a break

For social workers, and truthfully anyone in a helping profession, personal wellness is often overlooked when it should be a priority.

It is a gift to hear and hold space for our clients. Especially in adoption or child welfare, many individuals enter counseling in crisis mode or during complex life transitions. While empathy is a natural reflex, it takes intentional practice to manage the complex responsibility we have in service to our clients.

When you’re in a helping mindset, you’re often in an activated state. This elevated, engaged presence can help you focus, stay attuned to client needs, and feel energized. But without rest, this superpower is not sustainable.

Stress can be cumulative and can lead to burnout, compassion fatigue, and most seriously, vicarious trauma, which can occur as a result of prolonged or repeated indirect exposure to another person’s trauma. This can all manifest in somatic – or physical – responses, such as headaches, an elevated heart rate, or frequent illness.

While we can’t eliminate stress from our lives and work, we can react and respond to it with intention.

One of my favorite resources to understand the stress response cycle was developed by Emily and Amelia Nagoski, the brilliant authors behind Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. Social workers, add this to your reading list.

The Nagoski sisters talk about the importance of completing the stress response cycle and share ways to return to a regulated state. Acknowledging and attending to our needs is essential in remaining well within the work and available to our clients.

As trauma expert and educator Laura van Der Noot Lipsky writes, “By developing the deep sense of awareness needed to care for ourselves while caring for others…we can greatly enhance our potential to work for change, ethically and with integrity for generations to come.”

Before we dive into a few tangible tips, keep in mind that your wellness management is not just an individual responsibility. Employers must show accountability for supporting the wellness of their employees by establishing protocols that promote a healthy workplace, such as setting up frequent check-ins with employees, creating manageable schedules and workloads, and offering and encouraging adequate time off.

Six Wellness Tips To Try Today:

  1. Find Your Reset Button.
    Your path to restoration is unique to your needs. After you leave a client session, the stress or emotions can linger. This is the perfect time to practice parasympathetic recovery and try different tactics to regulate your emotions.

    This can look like deep breathing, messaging a friend, or even releasing your emotions through crying, if it feels right.

    For me, I always gravitate toward getting some fresh air and spending time in nature. If getting outside is hard to come by, especially in a virtual environment, a quick walk around the house will do the trick.

  2. Build in Mindful Breaks.
    If you have a packed caseload or a day where you have back-to-back meetings, there are tiny ways to make the time crunch feel more manageable.

    For instance, try keeping a 15-minute buffer window in between clients. Weigh the benefits of starting the day a little earlier or ending a little later, instead of sacrificing breaks. It’s better for your stamina, and your clients, to not stretch yourself too thin.

  3. Have An Accountability Partner.
    As I often say to clients, “Don’t be afraid to raise your hand and ask for help.”

    Your colleagues are a fantastic lifeline to turn to because they likely experience similar emotions. Daily positive social interactions go a long way to boost your mood, even if it’s for a few moments.

    Once you’ve found your trusted support system, make a plan to check in with each other. Maybe this looks like once a day, or once a week. Whatever you land on, make sure you keep it up consistently.

  4. Learn the Art of Urgency vs. Importance.
    Spoiler alert: Your to-do list will never be finished.

    When you look at your calendar, be agile and open to shifting priorities. Ask yourself, “What is something I absolutely have to get done today?” Once that task has been crossed off, then see what else you have space for.

    And when you feel ahead of your workload, that’s when you can be proactive. As a small example, this can look like knocking out an administrative task so you can take a longer break on a busier day coming up.

  5. Presence is Protective.
    At one point, we’ve all asked ourselves, “How can I not get too emotionally invested and protect myself?”

    The answer may surprise you. While we can’t undo the trauma our clients have witnessed or experienced, we can be helpful without it taking an emotional toll. When clients are experiencing trauma, the goal is to not turn away from it, but to lean into it with compassion, and resources to help us process what we witness.

    If we’re truly present for our clients, and we have tools to process, decompress, and reset – that is what will protect us. Some research suggests that if you want to be connected, and you find yourself detaching as a protective mechanism, it may be because you’re already burnt out. Intentional engagement is the answer.

    This concept is key to building vicarious resilience, which can be defined as the positive impact on and personal growth of therapists resulting from exposure to their clients’ resilience. Reflect often, and ask yourself questions such as, “What lessons of strength and hope can I find from the clients I serve?”

  6. Surround Yourself with Supportive Supervisors.
    This work is important and should never be done in isolation.

    Especially for new social workers, it’s hard to be vulnerable and say, “I’m having a really hard time with this client.”

    In my supervising experience, if I hear everything’s going great, and there are no issues, that’s a red flag. It’s impossible to do this work well and not have an emotional reaction. Don’t be afraid to share exactly how you’re feeling, especially if you’re constantly dreading sessions. Not every client will make sense for you. That’s okay.

    When in doubt, lean on your supervisors. For us at Paths for Families, we encourage one-on-one and group supervision to get the full picture of how our staff is feeling. If this doesn’t occur currently at your organization, advocate for these support networks to be put in place.

Ultimately, remember this. To show up, be authentic, and to be helpful, you have to take care of yourself. Otherwise, you will not be able to step into your power and show the world the incredible talent and compassion you have to offer.