I met Brenda (Not her real name) on her first day with the agency.  She was on fire to make a difference in the world through her role as a social worker.  I remember that her energy was contagious and her drive to do good was solid. My first thought on meeting her was “this young lady will really shine!” She was not assigned to my particular program so I did not see her again for a couple of years. When I did see her again I did not recognize her. She looked ten years older and appeared apathetic about the case we were discussing.  I knew something very wrong must have happened in her life.  I pulled her aside and asked her if all was well with her.  All she said was “It’s too much. I can’t do this by myself.”

Social Work Burn out, Compassion Fatigue, or Secondary Traumatic Stress.  Call it what you will but it is a very real side-effect of Social Work.  See if you can recognize these symptoms.  (Not all inclusive)

  • Increased sick days
  • Flashbacks of cases/people you have worked with
  • Decreased Productivity
  • Increased Irritability
  • Projecting a sense of “not caring”
  • Increased family conflict
  • Marked weight gain/loss
  • Increased alcohol consumption
  • Depression

This stage marks the point where social workers quit.  Seeing no relief to those feelings they flee the very mission that once gave them purpose.

What leads an excited new social worker to this low?  There are multiple variables related to individual agencies, policies and politics.   These external factors can restrict a social worker’s ability to do the level of work they feel they need to do to meet the needs of their clients. Those variables are real, but different to each agency.

Internal variables are even more powerful and affect Social Workers profoundly.  All social workers listen to, observe and take on the trauma of others in Crisis.  They see children burned or beaten.  They listen as a mother recounts a horrific rape.  What a heavy burden they bear every day! And to further the stress, these workers are expected at all times to know the right answers and make critical decisions without making a mistake.   They are often told, “A mistake can mean someone’s life.”  As social workers we deal with the abuse and sometimes murder of children. We listen to elderly adult victims tell us how they suffered at the hands of their own children.  We try to assure terrified foster children that the stranger’s home they will be living in will be safe.  And it all piles on our shoulders.

How do we process all the trauma, grief, anger and fear we deal with daily without running away ourselves to a safe place? In my career, I have seen support groups for every disease, social conditions and addictions.  What I have never seen is a support group for those social workers experiencing vicarious trauma.  Until one exists we must find our own self care plan so that we can continue with our purpose.

There are many proven ways to manage self-care in high risk jobs including healthy lifestyle changes, exercising, journaling, and self talk.  I will focus on one that is simple and may seem incongruent with the job.  But it is a tremendous stress reliever to me.  Laughter.  I love to laugh.  It releases tension and stress from my body.  I work in a serious field with real life trauma. How can I laugh?

When I was over the Investigation and Family Preservation programs,  every day brought new stress.  I found myself chained to my desk dealing with the cases, the state office and the community every day.  I felt like I could not afford to take a break. I ate lunch at my desk and plowed through the mountainous tasks in front of me. I was burning out fast.  One day, a colleague came to my office and asked if I wanted to eat lunch with her.  I really didn’t have the time (I thought) but I went.  During lunch we started to get to know each other and found we were alike in many ways.  She had a dry sense of humor that made me laugh. What an amazing feeling!  The more I laughed, the more I could feel the stress leaving my body.  I returned after lunch with renewed energy to complete the tasks before me.   Of course the stress came right back the next day.  However, after that day,  lunch together became a source of daily stress relief as we always found a reason to laugh.  We laughed at things our children had done, current events and even at ourselves.  We challenged each other’s maladaptive beliefs that the world would fall apart if we weren’t at the helm.  It was both humbling and incredibly freeing.   When she left the agency, I was devastated.  But,  I knew I had to keep the practice up and find others to break up the day with laughter. And I not only did that, but kept my friend on speed dial for much needed pick me ups.

Some would say that I simply developed a support system, which is another research proven stress reliever.  Of course I did.  But what I remember most of my time with that colleague was not just the support, which was huge.  It was the laughter.  Reach out to each other.  Get a lunch group together. Find things to laugh about.  Give yourself permission to let go of the trauma…at least for a that time you are together.  Find the ridiculosity in the world…and laugh.

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