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Social Worker Well-Being in the Time of COVID-19
By Tonya Hansel, PhD, LMSW

Over the past several weeks of the coronavirus crisis, cities have gone into lockdown, governors have issued stay-at-home orders, and an increasing number of people have been practicing social distancing on a societal scale we’ve never before witnessed. As a result, there have been a spate of articles from media outlets about how the public can look after their mental health while staying at home.

These articles generally tend to include helpful ideas such as finding ways to socialize using technology, exercising, eating well, destressing, getting enough sleep, refraining from too much news consumption, and engaging in hobbies. People who had been seeing therapists have been advised to continue working with them through virtual platforms such as Skype, Zoom, or Google Hangouts. This is all sound, evidence-based advice.

But what about the social workers and mental health professionals who will be delivering the care to help the public weather the storm? What about their own well-being? They are also human beings, after all, and just because they are trained to help others with their challenges does not mean they are equally adept at doing so when it comes to their own challenges. On top of that, social workers may be dealing with some of the same problems that people in the general public are, including financial struggles and the stress that comes with social isolation, sometimes while having to take care of children or other family members simultaneously.

A silver lining of being beset with the same problems their clients are facing is that it may help social workers provide effective services and relate more closely to those they’re working with. This is what we discovered in a study of behavioral health recovery and social workers delivering services in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and Rita (Hansel et al., 2011). My hope is that the same will apply for social workers during the current public health crisis. At the same time, it is nevertheless incumbent upon those providing social work services to safeguard their own mental health, and there are a number of points that apply to them in particular.

Practicing What We Preach
Essentially, the same mental health risks that apply to the public right now, and the same suggestions being made to them, also apply to social workers and mental health professionals (Tulane School of Social Work, n.d.). Among these, one of the most useful remains the HALT acronym which involves being mindful of the warning signs of being Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired and doing what’s needed to alleviate those feelings be it eating, taking a nap, calling a friend, or taking a time-out.

Checking In With Peers and Colleagues
People are being rightfully advised to schedule virtual socializing and check-in sessions with friends and family. But social and mental health workers should make a special point of checking in with another group of folks as well: colleagues. Health workers in general are not always good at recognizing the signs of extreme stress or work overload in themselves (National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 2014). Part of the way that colleagues can offer support is by recognizing those signs and offering helpful reminders to each other. Fellow social workers can also serve as empathetic outlets since they’re more likely to understand what their colleagues are going through both professionally and personally.

Social Workers Need (and Deserve) Therapy Too
Peer support is mutually beneficial and important but it’s not therapy and isn’t meant to be (Kratz, 2018). It’s become almost a cliché that social workers and mental health professionals need therapy too, but it is quite true, especially now. Unfortunately, social workers often tend to prioritize others’ mental health needs over their own. Those who do not already have established relationships with practitioners shouldn’t assume that their colleagues in the mental health fields are too busy for them or wouldn’t be willing to squeeze them into their schedule. Most therapists probably realize that this is an “all hands on deck” situation in which mental health professionals need to help each other stay resilient so that they can all continue providing the critical services they are providing during these trying times.

Setting More Boundaries or Expanding Current Ones
Perhaps the single most important thing for social workers to keep in mind right now is setting boundaries or even expanding their boundaries more than usual if necessary. This can take different forms. While not actively on call, for instance, it may be a good idea to turn off work phones and notifications of texts and instant messages with the exception of truly urgent communications. It could also mean resisting the temptation, on social media or in real life, to step into situations and always be the expert in charge. Stepping aside periodically will not be the end of the world; there will be somebody else to fill in.

Self-Care for the Sake of Others
As previously mentioned, social workers are not necessarily very good at recognizing the signs of burnout in themselves, nor are they always good at prioritizing their own well-being even if they do. But research shows that burnout in mental health workers can have a range of detrimental effects on factors such as quality of care and patient satisfaction, both among health care workers in general and specifically for those working in mental health (Morse et al., 2012).

If there was ever a time for social workers to prioritize their own mental health in addition to that of others, that time is now. And they should do so feeling reassured that rather than being a selfish act, taking care of themselves will only help them take better care of others.

— Tonya Hansel, PhD, LMSW, is director of the Doctorate of Social Work at Tulane University. She is a social worker with expertise in research, statistics, disaster mental health, trauma, and maximizing outcomes for social service agencies.


Hansel, T. C., Osofsky, H. J., Steinberg, A. M., Brymer, M. J., Landis, R., Riise, K. S., Gilkey, S., Osofsky, J.D., & Speier, A. (2011). Louisiana Spirit Specialized Crisis Counseling: Counselor perceptions of training and services. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 3(3), 276-282.

Kratz, R. (2018, July 9). Peer support: Building up from the inside out. Social Work Today. https://www.socialworktoday.com/news/pp_070918.shtml.

Morse, G., Salyers, M.P., Rollins, A.L., Monroe-DeVita, M., & Pfahler, C. (2012). Burnout in mental health services: A review of the problem and its remediation. Administration and Policy in Mental Health, 39(5), 341-352.

National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (2014). Psychological First Aid for Schools (PFA-S) Field Operations Guide. https://www.nctsn.org/resources/pfa-s-provider-self-care.

Tulane School of Social Work. (n.d.). Managing mental well-being during reduced in-person contact. https://tssw.tulane.edu/tipsforwellbeing.