By Essie Bester
Social work is a calling ─ a purposeful choice to help people. As a social worker you are a voice for people who are not heard. You confront serious social issues ─ something that makes burnout in this profession a sad reality.
In South Africa with its high rate of unemployment, increasing criminality and escalating socioeconomic problems, the chances are good that you as a social worker will lose the balance between work and life. You are, after all, working with negative aspects of life and are constantly in conflict.
“People think that you only work with poor people, hand out food and take children away from their parents. This is not true ─ you work with ordinary people in the community who are experiencing problems. Sometime this has a negative effect on a person. You see and experience the ugly side of humanity. As a social worker you have been trained to stay neutral in situations, but this is not always easy. Sometimes you feel as if you are putting out fires all the time,” said the former social, worker Sarie Marais-Nell in 2014.
Circumstances have not improved at all. South Africa is experiencing a tremendous shortage of social workers. Previous statistics of the South African Council for Social Service Professions (SACSSP) shows that the ratio of social workers to the population of South Africa is estimated at 1:5000. With Covid-19 lockdown social workers’ burden became even heavier.
The unrealistically high work load combined with exposure to violence, aggression and other traumatic situations often lead to tension and depression. The emotions shown by social workers cannot be easily missed when knock-off time arrives, says Prof Ansie Fouché and Dr Elmien Truter, both professional social, workers at the North-West University (NWU).
Social workers often report that other people’s problems have a profound effect on them and linger even after the day’s work is done. Sometimes they feel so overwhelmed that they do not even realise that they are maintaining a poor balance between work and life.
Warning signs to be looked out for:
- eating disorders
- sleeping disorders
- lack of focus, absent-mindedness and loss of concentration
- nightmares about work or certain situations with clients
- feelings of fear, anxiousness, depression and irritability
- a lack of enthusiasm for things you previously enjoyed
- feelings of alienation
- feelings of hopelessness
- struggle to differentiate between work and personal time
- lack of sympathy with others
- feelings of resentment
- increase in bad habits, e.g. use of alcohol, drugs and/or gambling to handle daily stressors
- complaints by family members that you are never at home any more
- not eating lunch
- excessive intake of caffeine (more than five cups of coffee per day)
- refusal to take rest breaks at work
- weakening immune system and you get sick more often. You may also experience stress-related symptoms such as palpitations, chest pains, headache or indigestion.
As a social worker it is important to remember that if you want to care for others, it is critically important first to take care of yourself. The aim of your self-care plan must be finding a balance in three key areas: your mental, physical and professional health.
This is what you have to regard as important:
- Take trouble to understand what it is that affects you. Recognise your own personal triggers and weak spots in your work.
- Don’t be a sponge. Take note of your reaction when clients tell of traumatic events. Does it keep on haunting you? Do you experience flashbacks about the situation? This can cause trauma, which makes you a high risk for compassion, tiredness or empathy exhaustion. Regularly talk to a supervisor or colleague to assess your work while at the same time you also allow yourself some time to reflect on it.
- Establish a strong support system of friends, colleagues and family.
- Maintain your distance with clients, colleagues and even friends or family. Do not yield to pressure that could with time become the straw that broke the camel’s back.
- Celebrate the small victories. Social workers often feel that they don’t make a difference because the indigence that they see every day is so big. Remember that the problems you are dealing with now have often developed over a period of time. It is therefore just natural that it could take years to resolve. Handle yourself gently.
- Be physically active. At least 20 minutes’ physical activity such as walking, jogging or cycling could increase the feel-good hormones in your brains and have the same effect as an antidepressant.
- Take care to eat healthy, drink enough water and get enough sleep.
- Schedule regular rest breaks and holidays, even if you stay at home.
- Get rid of tension. Get something that could help you forget your workday ─ perhaps a longer route home while you practise consciousness or a hobby about which you feel passionate. The key is to give you time for reflection. Also consider meditation and/or yoga.
- Plan an enjoyable activity once a week ─ such as a special dinner or a movie that you enjoy. Regard it as a date with yourself.
- Learn to accept help and to ask help when necessary.
The world needs more passionate and dedicated social workers like you ─ but this does not mean that you have to drive yourself to the brink of burnout. Get a healthy balance between work and life to make sure that you will be able to render this very essential service for many years to come.
For more information, self-tests and resources about burnout among social workers, visit the website http://www.friedsocialworker.com/.
Social workers who work with the protection of children, can go to https://www.thecave.africa/, a digital safe haven created by Fouché and Truter for practitioners who find themselves in a “drastically changing community ecology”.