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Self-Care ‘IS’ an Ethical Imperative for Social Workers
By Jay Miller, PhD, MSW, CSW, and Erlene Grise-Owens, EdD, MSW, LCSW, MRE

Without question, being a social worker can be challenging. Collectively, the literature documents a host of suboptimal employment conditions, including poor perceptions of their work, inordinately high caseloads, and shortages of community resources. Consequently, social workers may experience disproportionately high rates of stress, vicarious trauma, and moral injury, among other consequences.

Within that context, an emerging self-care movement is afoot. Popular media outlets, such as Forbes, Slate, and NPR have lauded the importance of engaging in self-care. Empirical works have examined the construct in a variety of helping professional contexts. Recent academic journals such as Social Work have dedicated entire issues to the topic. In summary, these works conclude self-care is an integral aspect of adept professional practice. Indeed, the importance of engaging in self-care, no matter the context, cannot be overstated.

Despite the importance of self-care, several recent research studies have shown self-care to be an area of concern for social workers. Collectively, studies have shown that social workers only engage in moderate amounts of self-care. What’s more, these studies have suggested that factors such as race, age, professional credentials (e.g., social work license), and experience may impact self-care practices.

In the contemporary context of social work practice, self-care is not optional; it is imperative. Yet—despite the promise of self-care in allaying problematic employment circumstances—mistakes, misnomers, and misconceptions about self-care persist. For more than a decade, we (the authors) have been intensively studying self-care as a scientific construct, testing clinical interventions, doing professional presentations/trainings, and developing resources to assist professionals in their quest to improve self-care.

But given the inordinately heavy caseloads plaguing many social workers, we have distilled a few core, interconnected concepts on this important topic in a brief framework, Self-Care IS.

• Individualized. The very term “self”-care encapsulates the notion that self-care is individualized. What works for others may not work for you. One of the biggest barriers to self-care is the myth of a “perfect,” magical, one-size-fits-all self-care strategy. But the “perfect” plan is the plan that works for you. To be successful in achieving your self-care goals, you need to devise a plan that takes into account your values, personality, and circumstances. If you’re not a gym person—that’s fine, do something else to be active. Not a social person? That’s fine; read a book. Take a nap. Call a friend. Plant a garden. Play in the sand. No matter the approach, just do you.

• Integrated. You’ve heard of the notion “work-life balance.” Well, there is really no such thing. We propose an important simplification: “life” balance. One of the myths about self-care is that it is something to do after work—usually to deal with work stress. Successful self-care is not only about doing things after work, but how you work. It’s about taking care of yourself throughout the day—rather than just recovering from the day. Successful self-care is a lifestyle and way of being. Integrated self-care means anything from seeking support from colleagues, to practicing mindfulness, to incorporating movement, to going to a yoga class, and any other strategy that mitigates stress at work, home, and life.

• Intentional. As much as we would like it to be so, self-care does not just happen. Rather, you must be intentional about engaging in self-care. Intentionality requires being purposeful in thought and action. A pragmatic strategy for this intentionality is to plan your day in such a way that you can consistently integrate attention to self-care. For example, you need to put that professional development course, or your golf lesson, or just taking a time out to breathe on your calendar—along with all those other obligations and commitments.

• Structured. Engaging in individualized, integrated, and intentional self-care requires structure. We recommend developing an individualized self-care plan. This plan ought to include attention to physical, emotional, social, professional, and spiritual aspects. We emphasize that your self-care must include professional care—such as supervision, stress management strategies, professional development, setting boundaries, practicing mindfulness, and so forth. And, because this plan is individualized, you can add any other element you wish. This plan will provide you with the structure necessary to make self-care a reality, rather than just a vague wish.

• SMART. For conceptualizing your structured self-care approach, we recommend developing SMART goals. That is, are your goals specific (i.e., targeted in a specific area for improvement); measurable (i.e., quantifiable so as to monitor progress); attainable (i.e., achievable); relevant (i.e., worth doing); and time-limited (i.e., deadlines within specific timeframes)? Attention to these areas will assist you in strategically accomplishing your self-care goals and identifying strategies that hold promise, and others that you should exclude. We recommend developing a preliminary SMART self-care plan, testing it out, then reassessing. Self-care plans are living documents. Most of the time, if you don’t “succeed” in your plan, it is because you need to redefine success; revisit, revise, and restart.

• Sustained. Just like any professional practice skill, such as litigation, mediation, and so forth, self-care is a skill that requires ongoing, sustainable development. Several “A” strategies can help in developing self-care practices that are sustainable. First, Accountability is key. What people, strategies, and tools can you use to keep you accountable in your self-care commitments? Also, sustainable self-care requires ongoing Awareness. For instance, one of the studies we conducted found that practicing self-compassion contributes to better self-care; learning how to be more self-compassionate increases ability to practice self-care. Finally, self-care, just like any skill, requires ongoing Attention. Seek out opportunities to develop this important skill and commit to it.

Social workers are required to engage in ethical and competent practice in pursuit of individual, family, group, and community well-being. To achieve that aim, these individuals must engage in self-care that IS individualized, integrated, intentional, structured, SMART, and sustained. These interrelated elements comprise the foundational fundamentals for self-care. Remember that self-care is not a destination, it is a journey. Use these fundamentals to continue that journey.

— Jay Miller, PhD, MSW, CSW, is the dean, Dorothy A. Miller research professor in social work education, and director of The Self-Care Lab in the College of Social Work at the University of Kentucky.

— Erlene Grise-Owens, EdD, MSW, LCSW, MRE, is the founding partner at The Wellness Group, ETC.