National Social Work Month Exclusive
Strategies for Conquering Profession Fatigue
“I don’t know how you can do what you do. Listen to people’s problems all day? See the worst in people? Feel sad knowing there’s so much unfairness in the world? I couldn’t do it!”
If you’re a social worker, and you’re brave enough to tell people what you do, you probably have heard such sentiments at least once. And you may have been tempted to answer, “I don’t know how I do it either and, worse yet, I don’t know why I do it.”
Much has been written about compassion fatigue, burnout, and vicarious traumatization. They’re different but related concepts. Individually and combined, they can contribute to what I’ve come to view as “profession fatigue,” an existential crisis of sorts that several of my supervisees say they’ve experienced. They aren’t necessarily tired of caring (compassion fatigue), running on empty (burnout), or haunted by hearing about tragedy (vicarious traumatization). They’re hit with a stark reality that perhaps the caring, understanding, talking, and doing for and with clients doesn’t make much of a difference; perhaps the effort to eradicate societal inequities is too daunting. The result isn’t just a shattered naïveté or idealism; it’s a belief system that’s rattled. It’s an insidious disillusionment that erodes a professional raison d’être.
The bad news is that profession fatigue can be agonizing. The good news is that this type of self-reflection involves critical thinking that’s necessary for being the best social worker you can be. It can move you toward professional self-actualization and be a pause on your career journey from which you can emerge renewed, rejuvenated, and remotivated.
The need to reignite people’s passion for their profession isn’t new. Retreats and spiritual timeouts are offered to all types of helping professionals with the goal of allowing them to recharge.
But social work may require a more focused effort, as it’s the only profession literally charged with making the world a better place. Its mission is one of eliminating social injustice and ameliorating its effects. Cheryl Hyde, PhD, MSW, the MSW program director at Temple University, in a letter to one of the graduating MSW classes, said, “There is no other profession that works so tirelessly to advocate for the disenfranchised, help heal trauma, support and protect the most vulnerable among us, innovate new programs and services, and mobilize neighborhoods.” It seems an honor to be part of the noble mission she describes.
Creating Renewed Commitment
He used these words to justify his political beliefs against the Affordable Care Act, welfare, and raising the minimum wage. What happens when you, a social worker, start recognizing the merit of some of the purported conservative ideologies? Is that a betrayal to your profession? Or do you remind yourself that the quote is right, and life isn’t a level playing field. Indeed, you can’t help people by doing for them (what we might term “enabling”), but not all people have the opportunity or resources to do for themselves. That’s why social workers do the work they do.
Below are some questions and suggestions that may help social workers avoid profession fatigue:
• Why did I do this? Do you have a copy of the essay you wrote to apply to your social work program? If so, read it. If not, rewrite it, pretending that you’re applying to social work school all over again. Doing so will help you get in touch with your original reasons for entering the field.
• How bad is it? Measure the extent of your distress. The ProQol (Professional Quality of Life instrument) is a self-administered measurement tool that helps someone identify his or her level of compassion satisfaction and differentiates among compassion fatigue, burnout, and vicarious traumatization. It serves to propel us toward what is termed “vicarious transformation.”
• What about me? All the literature on burnout emphasizes self-care, and there are innumerable self-care techniques for physical and/or psychological stress. Here we’re talking about existential stress. How do we take care of our need for meaning? Finding helpful literature or tales of similar angst may be the encouragement needed. Journaling has been shown to spark creativity, and action can rekindle enthusiasm as motion begets momentum.
• Why do I do what I do? Develop your own philosophy of social work. Paul Mackie, PhD, MSW, an assistant professor in the department of social work at Minnesota State University, Mankato, advises us to develop a philosophy of social work that’s a personal and professional definition to guide our thought and practice. We must have a personal philosophy that then influences our public philosophy. The confidence and informed action evident as a result of defining a philosophy is reassuring.
• Is it me? How do you see your professional role? Are you a positive force in a negative profession? Are you a negative force in a negative profession? Are you a negative force in a positive profession? Are you a positive force in a positive profession? Perhaps reframe your doubts or questioning as a detour, signaling you to find another way to realize you can be a positive force in this most positive profession. As social workers, we may see the worst of life situations, but we also have been given privileged access to a world of resilience in both the people with whom we work and ourselves.
• Am I the only one who feels this way? Probably the most important step you can take is connecting with like-minded colleagues, supervisors, and peers. Take a lesson from nature and realize the life-sustaining qualities of interdependence. Social workers espouse the importance of the relationship but don’t always nurture their own. Peer support may be your lifeline back to the fulfilling rewards of being needed in this profession.
Robert Taibbi, LCSW, in his book Doing Family Therapy, provides sound advice that’s also applicable to addressing profession fatigue: “When you feel disillusioned by the grind of the work, pessimistic about your ability to help ... you can go back to your philosophy to reignite your creativity. Just as our theory helps us fill in the holes in our clinical understanding and points the direction we need to go, our personal philosophy helps us fill in the holes during our times of confusion and doubt. ... Our personal philosophy not only gives us a running summary of what we believe, but a continued vision of what we can become” (p. 10).
— Claudia J. Dewane, DEd, LCSW, is an assistant chair and associate professor in the College of Health Professions and Social Work at Temple University in Philadelphia. She is founder of Clinical Support Associates, providing supervision, consultation, and training to professional social workers.