It might come as a surprise, but most social workers don’t get into the field for the money.
I know, I know. Contain your shock.
Social workers have different reasons that they choose to pursue social work as a career. Wanting to give back to a field that helped them when they were younger, wanting to make a positive change in the world, wanting to have a stimulating, challenging job that’s never the same two days in a row—there are plenty of reasons, and all of them are valid and generally pretty wonderful. But perhaps the biggest motivating factor that social workers tend to have in common is a desire to help others. In a 2002 study, Washington state social worker Brian Waterman found that social workers tend to be of the “Idealist” or “Intuitive Feeling/NF” Myers-Briggs type (where my fellow INFJs at?)—the type of people who want to make the world a better place by tangibly addressing human needs.
Myers-Briggs indicators aside, empathy is a major motivator for social workers. Plenty of books have been written on the subject and types of empathy, so I won’t bore you, but the definition boils down to the ability to understand and share another’s feelings. For social workers, this ends up being a critical part of the job. And note that I said empathy, and not sympathy—sympathy is about pity, while empathy is about understanding. You can’t help people help themselves up if you’re too busy looking down on them.
Empathy can be a wonderful thing. I love that I have the ability to sit down with someone and listen to them and hear what they’re saying without words. I love that I can talk someone through a problem and feel the tension leave their voice and fade away from their face. I love that I can meet a new client or family and project enough calm and compassion that I can watch them become more at ease within only a few minutes. Working with kids makes this even more important—children are more sensitive to the feelings and expressions of those around them than adults, and the ability to sit down with a child or adolescent in crisis and help them feel safe and comfortable is a crucial—and hugely rewarding—part of my job.
But empathy has its down sides, too. As wonderful as it is to help someone else with their feelings, the trade-off goes both ways, and sometimes I come home from a day of trauma work feeling completely bogged down by the weight of the emotional energy I’ve taken on from other people. I often end up at the point where I don’t have the energy to deal with my own feelings or problems because I spent all my spoons on my clients. As much work as I’ve been trying to do on my own happiness, it’s hard to find the energy to do that when I’m just about wiped clean by the time I get home from work.
This isn’t a problem unique to me. Social workers have a hugely high rate of vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue, leading to a disproportionate burnout rate of young social work professionals compared to their same-age peers in other fields. Absorbing so much pain, fear, and sadness from our clients, day after day, is a type of emotional labor that most professionals, even those in helping fields, don’t have to use, and the sheer weight of it can cause even the most dedicated social worker’s emotional knees to buckle.
Social work agencies of all sizes work hard to train their employees to practice self-care and develop healthy coping skills to prevent burnout, but however good the intentions (and I do genuinely believe the intentions are good), quarterly trainings are no match for work that comes with long hours, high stress, and low pay. On top of that, though, many social workers sacrifice their own self-care routines in order to spend just that much more time with their clients.
(I’m no exception to this—I spent an extra hour at work today seeing a client who showed up for an appointment that wasn’t actually scheduled until Wednesday. Cue sad trombone noise and Shelly putting her coat back behind her desk. Womp womp.)
This is the big challenge of social work: balancing the need for self-care with the desire to help. Self-sacrifice is a common thread in social work agencies, even in a society like the U.S. that prides itself on placing productivity over sleep any day of the week. And that doesn’t include the constant underscoring of the importance of putting yourself last. Even the brightest-eyed, bushiest-tailed young social worker (see: the Shelly of about a year ago) can end up exhausted and dragging their feet home from a long day of work, wondering just what it was that got them into the field in the first place. We go back and forth between too little self-care and just enough, but, more often than not, hover closer to the not-even-close-to-enough mark.
I like to try to wrap posts up in a friendly bow with a bit of advice, but in all honesty: I’m still trying to find my own self-care balance. I have some 2016 resolutions that are hoping to put some emphasis on improving my work-life balance, and I’ve already started taking steps to carve out intentional self-care time for myself. But it came with sacrifices that I’m privileged to be able to make: reducing my hours at work to part-time gave me more time to spend on my writing and to take the rest I need to sustain my physical health, but without a partner working full-time, I’d never be able to do it. I’m hugely grateful to my husband for being able to shoulder more of the financial responsibility (on top of the “caring for chronically ill wife” responsibility, which he’s already a champ about), but I know I’m going to have my hands full continuing to keep my hours part-time, as I’m already under pressure from work to take on more clients and keep a higher case load.
(And this is a social work agency. Remember that bit about intentions?)
In the end, what’s kept me from total burnout so far has been working to keep my eye on what got me into the field in the first place: a dedication to leaving the world a better place than I found it. I don’t know if that will sustain me in the social work field forever or if I’ll end up transferring that desire to a new profession, but for now, I’m just trying to match every emotionally exhausting day with a reflective record of gratitude, positives, and moments of triumph.
And if there’s a night every now and then where I stay later than intended to help a kid in need, well…there are worst things to do for a living.