As well as caring for others, it’s important that social workers care for themselves. Social workers are some of the most important people in their communities because they give a voice to the voiceless and tell the stories of people who need their stories told. There are plenty of different types of social work, from working one on one with children and adults to working with institutions and organizations such as schools and prisons to making a broad social change under the power of the law.

While social work can be enjoyable and rewarding, it can also be very demanding, and in order to make sure that you can provide the best care for your patients, you need to make sure that you have the skills needed to take care of yourself too. Here’s what you need to know.

Why can social work be hard?

As a social worker, no matter what level you are at, you will find that you are encountering a great deal of human suffering and people dealing with injustice. People who come to you seeking social work need help to right the wrongs they are facing, and even if you are helping them and making their lives better, you are still exposed to their difficulties.

Whether it is people being unfairly represented, people dealing with a lack of resources or opportunities, or a larger societal problem that affects a very large group of people, you will be part of the solution. Empathy is a crucial skill for a social worker to succeed in understanding, relating with and ultimately helping their patients. While social workers should practice empathy wherever possible it is important to ensure that they set and maintain boundaries between themselves and their patients.

Getting attached to the stories of your clients and how difficult their current situations are can start to drag you down, especially if you find that they aren’t getting the help they need. Or even worse, you are trying your best to help them and are running into roadblocks and delays.

In order to prevent yourself from getting stressed, burnt out, and discouraged in your work, you need to practice self-care. Only then you can keep your emotional state positive and continue to provide the best help you can to your clients. Programs such as the online BSW from an accredited institution such as Spring Arbor University provide an education that is both rigorous and flexible, while also being attuned to the need for social workers to be both highly qualified and happy and content in their work.

What are some skills you need to learn?

Be positive

It can be very easy to become jaded as a social worker, especially if you have been a social worker for a very long time. You deal with a lot of people who need help with various problems, and it seems that for every person you help, there are several more still in need.

Even if laws change and it becomes easier for people to get the resources and the help that they need, it seems like the core problems never really go away or get solved. It can become very easy to feel like you are rowing upstream in the middle of a thunderstorm with no paddle and no end in sight.

Before your thoughts get stuck in a negative spiral, you need to take a step back and remind yourself that there is still good in the world; when you spend all day dealing with difficult problems, it’s hard to remember the positive elements of life.

Take some time each day to remind yourself that the world and your community aren’t all negative. Watch inspirational videos, eat a good meal, pet a dog, or watch a sunrise. Focus on the patients you treat and the positive impact you have on their lives. Do whatever you need to do to ensure you maintain good mental health.

Have empathy for yourself

Empathy is one of the most important skills that you will need to cultivate as a social worker and it is also one of the biggest skills that you need to cultivate for yourself. Having empathy for your patients will make you a great social worker, but you mustn’t forget to take time for yourself.

It’s important to recognize when you are getting close to burning out and when you need to take a step back from social work. It’s often possible for colleagues to help with your workload for a while so that you can take a break.

If you can’t do a big vacation, you can at least take a small one. Even taking an hour a day to pull yourself away from your work and take some time for yourself can be a good idea and a great way to meet your own needs.

Practice good communication

One significant challenge in social work is that sometimes you feel like you need to handle everyone’s problems on your own and need to shoulder every burden by yourself. Even though you are a social worker, you will never be able to solve all of the world’s problems,  and trying to do so will lead to stress, burnout, and frustration.

So, make sure that you have someone to talk to. It doesn’t matter if the person in question is a therapist, a co-worker, a best friend, or a family member, having someone whom you can turn to in times of crisis who will listen to your needs is going to be very helpful for you and your mental health.

Friends and family are useful to talk to as they might be able to help you see your problems from a different angle because they aren’t emotionally attached to your issues and don’t have the intimate knowledge of the situation that you do. They might also be able to provide some knowledge that you would not have had previously.

Additionally, don’t be afraid to ask for help if the workload you are carrying is just too much for you to handle. There are often a lot of people that care about you and who want you to live your best life, and people who are more than willing to pick up the load and bear it themselves for a while.

Know when to say ‘no’

Another issue that can very frequently pop up among social workers is the inability to say ‘no’. They feel the need to take on every single case that passes their desks—and why wouldn’t they? These cases have real people attached to them, people who are desperately seeking help that they would like you to provide for them.

However, knowing when your plate is full is a skill that you need to have. Often the hearts of social workers go out to people who need help, but that leads them towards biting off more than they can chew and taking on more work than they can handle. Then they end up overworked, stressed, and unable to do a great job for all of their clients.

Knowing when to say no is one of the hardest skills for a social worker to master, but they need to do it in order to protect their own mental health, as well as the mental health and the expectations of all the people they are working with.

Keep in mind that the word ‘no’ doesn’t need to have the negative connotations that we associate with it. Just because you are refusing to help someone in need of social work doesn’t mean you can or should disregard the problem entirely. You might be able to pass it on to a colleague, another social work practice, or someone else in your field. That way, the people who need help can still get the help they need, while also making sure that you aren’t overworked.

Spend time on your hobbies

This isn’t so much of a skill as it is an activity. Nevertheless, it is extremely important to your well-being. While social work might be an important part of your life, it shouldn’t consume your time and thoughts entirely.

Make sure that you aren’t allowing your time as a social worker to take precedence over everything else in your life. Spend time with family, friends, and consider picking up a hobby that has nothing to do with social work.

You could go and take some classes, learn a skill such as cooking or dancing, or just spend some time in nature on a brisk walk. Anything in the world can be a hobby as long as it brings you joy and ensures that you get a chance to relax and separate yourself from your work for a while.

Many social workers that are overworked and burnt out don’t have hobbies. This isn’t by choice, but rather because they can’t switch off from their work. Don’t be afraid to get a hobby where you can turn off your brain and just relax for a little bit. Because that is going to ensure that you get to fully destress after a long day.

Establish a daily routine

Many social workers can find themselves overworked. If they allow themselves to stop and slow down for even a second, they feel like they have done something wrong and need to get back to work as soon as possible. This can lead to feeling out of control and exhausted, and that isn’t good for anyone. One of the best things that you can do to prevent this is to ensure that you are sticking to a daily routine.

A daily routine, especially one that focuses on the morning and the evening, will not only allow you to de-stress but will also ensure that you can pull your attention from your work. This will allow you to leave the various stresses and other problems of work behind and will give you the best chance to focus and prepare yourself for the workday that is ahead of you.

As a social worker, you need to have a tight grip on organization and time management, because these skills will help you keep track of all the cases you are working on. These skills should also be employed in your home life. Don’t be afraid to outline a morning or evening routine that will enhance your self-care.

Focus on these skills to become a better social worker

While it’s important to focus on your skills as a social worker, and how they can improve your work, it shouldn’t come at the cost of abandoning your own self-care. Using these skills to become a better, more rounded individual will also help you become a better social worker.

The more value you can give to the people seeking your help, the more help you can provide to the people who need your services, and that is always going to be a win-win.