Supporting Our Social Workers
As a registered social worker, I am so grateful that I’ve been able to support others over years, and especially during the pandemic. It’s important to also acknowledge that we social workers have been facing challenges over the past few years. In honor of Social Worker Month, I thought I’d share some insights and supportive tips for my fellow Social Workers.
Social Workers And Pandemic Fatigue
It probably comes as news to nobody that the pandemic has negatively impacted the mental health and wellness of all Canadians. Depression, anxiety, and other mental health struggles are on the rise. As a result, social workers (and really every mental health professional) are in very high demand. Many are having trouble keeping up with the increasing workload and their quality of life is suffering. Up to two-thirds of social workers are also experiencing mental health struggles of their own. They’re exhausted and feeling the strain of no time off, higher than normal case loads, and the pressure of knowing that people are depending on them.
Challenges faced by Social Workers
Social workers have had to learn to navigate pandemic challenges just like anyone else in the world these days. Here are some of the struggles they have faced:
Burnout . Approximately 50 percent of patient care workers are experiencing burn out. They feel the pressure to take on more clients and to work more hours. Many have struggled to find a balance between helping others and caring for themselves.
Vicarious trauma. Constant exposure to other people’s pain and suffering can take a toll on a therapist. Vicarious trauma can occur in response to direct empathetic engagement with trauma survivors. Likewise, shared trauma refers to the negative consequences of providing mental health care in a shared traumatic reality (e.g. the pandemic). It can leave caregivers feeling helpless, incompetent and ineffective. Many social workers are reporting emotional exhaustion, uncertainty, isolation and depersonalization.
Compassion fatigue. Social workers must possess empathy and caring for others; however, these traits are quickly being depleted by the current state of the world. Compassion fatigue reduces a person’s ability to feel compassion for others. It often occurs as a result of physical and emotional exhaustion and feelings of inadequacy.
I am a huge fan of Dr. Kristen Neff, who is a leading expert on self-compassion. I’ve implemented much of her advice over the years for myself and my health care professional clients, which has been helpful in keeping afloat during these difficult days. She has shown many simple, practical ways health care workers can use fierce and tender self-compassion to succeed without burning out.
According to Dr. Neff, self-compassion can be broken down into the following concepts: self-kindness vs. self-judgment, mindfulness vs. over-identification, and humanity vs. isolation.
While it’s normal to be discouraged that things are not going the way you want them to, blaming yourself or fighting against your suffering will end up causing more stress and frustration. The pain caused by self-judgment is some of the worst pain. Self-kindness requires you to silence your inner self-critic, the voice that says, “I’m not good enough”. Be gentle with yourself.
Mindfulness is about being willing to observe a situation as it is without judgment. Mindfulness allows you to notice where you are and be with yourself in your suffering. It’s important to hold your emotions in mindful awareness. Try not to suppress them and avoid getting fully absorbed by them.
Let’s face it, the natural thing to do when you are suffering is to want to turn away from it. Often it might feel easier to blame yourself or to go into problem-solving mode than to simply sit with your emotions and allow yourself to feel vulnerable. Try instead to validate how difficult it is and find gentle ways to comfort yourself (this could be debriefing with a fellow social worker, or going for a long walk, or taking an afternoon off). Then put things into perspective by journalling or consciously reflecting.
Recognize Your Humanity
All humans suffer. All humans are flawed. Self-compassion is about recognizing that suffering and inadequacy are part of the human experience. Do you feel connected to others in your suffering, or do you feel cut-off and isolated in your suffering?
Know When It’s Time To Get Support
Social Workers have played an important role in helping Canadians deal with the mental health consequences of the pandemic. It is okay to acknowledge when you need support of your own. As mental health professionals, it’s important to remember we need to care for ourselves the way we would care for our patients.
Practice self-kindness and self-compassion. Reach out for support if you’re relying too much on substances to get through the day or to decompress, if you’re struggling with insomnia, or mental health struggles of your own. Yes, others might be dealing with worse, but you also deserve to talk to your doctor, a friend or family member, connect with a support group, or book a session with another mental health professional if you’re struggling. You cannot help others, if you are struggling severely. Your mental health matters too.