The Importance of Self-Care in Social Work and Social Work Education

Social workers work with patients and clients in a variety of settings to help them handle, solve, and cope with both everyday problems and more serious problems that they encounter in their lives. While some clients may face joyous situations, such as adopting a child, many seek the help of a social worker to assist them during times of hardship. Whether they are supporting an individual suffering from depression or a terminal illness, or helping a vulnerable child, social workers must be able to cope with how their clients’ trials and unhappiness affect them emotionally.

Students in all levels of education, including master’s in social work programs, know how easy it can be to feel overworked and overwhelmed as they balance school responsibilities, career preparation, and their personal lives. The need for balance is particularly important for social work students, who must manage their own stressors (for example: balancing their desire to pursue a social work degree with other responsibilities), and the feelings they experience when working with clients. For some social work students, the first time(s) they truly work with patients in need can be incredibly stressful. Due to the added stress of their clients’ hardships, licensed social workers and social work students alike should take time to nurture their physical and mental health despite their busy schedules.

To help students understand the importance of self-care, we asked social work educators the following question as part of our interview series:

All interviewees were compensated to participate in these interviews.

Can you describe the importance of self-care in social work and social work education?

Hopefully their answers will provide students with some insights on how to manage their own self-care.

Dr. Jane C. Hickerson, PhD, LCSW (Assistant Dean of Field Education and Assistant Professor in Practice at the University of Texas, Arlington)

Self-care is fundamental for everyone. It is part of self-regulation, the physical and mental processes through which we create inner and outer balance. If we cannot self-regulate, we are prone to overwork, overplay, burn-out, and unhealthy living. As small children, we must learn to regulate our feelings and behaviors (e.g., find better ways than throwing tantrums to get needs met). We need to maintain these skills across a lifetime so that we recognize our feelings (sadness, worry, fear, happiness) and our physical needs (for rest, healthy food, play, pleasant environments) and respond accordingly. The lesson we learn to live by is that we must take care of ourselves before we can take care of anyone else. Just as a flight attendant tells us, “In the event of an emergency, put the oxygen mask on yourself first, and then help the child sitting next to you.” After all, if you faint from lack of oxygen while securing your child’s mask, you’re not going to be of much help.

[A] master’s program is physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging, and you must be ready for the challenge. Do all you can to ensure that you make time to eat well, sleep, and maintain your health. Health problems can knock a student completely out of any academic program.

Do all you can to stay prepared mentally. First of all, your brain is part of your physical system, so if you don’t take care of your body, your brain isn’t going to work efficiently. Especially when you are trying to do so many things at once, you want to cultivate mental acuity and energy for studying and learning.

Finally, your emotions work reciprocally with your mental and physical health. Your emotions can erode your mental and physical health and vice-versa. Times of emotional upheaval are seldom a good time to embark on graduate education. Be kind enough to yourself to work through your emotions and settle your heart and mind so that you can focus on schoolwork with greater ease. Slow down, and give yourself time to get in balance. In this, you are like an athlete: all of your systems must be in shape for the quest.

Take stock of your life. Are you in a place where you can commit all, or most, of your resources toward your education? Do you have a good support system to help you with the day-to-day needs of life (child care, chores, friendship)? Do you want to learn? Are the sacrifices of time and money worth the end result? Can you achieve the degree without sacrificing any facet of your health? These are serious considerations.

We’ll do all we can to make your experience with the UTA SSW as pleasant and manageable as possible. But only you can arrange to spend the extra time and effort to go to school and also to take care of yourself in the process.

(Read the full interview with Dr. Hickerson)

Professor Sarah Keiser, MSSW, LCSW (Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Field Services for the Online MSSW Program at the U. of Tennessee, Knoxville)

Self-care is essential to the practice of Social Work and students receive information about self-care during their Foundation Field Seminar [at UTK]. Students are encouraged to give themselves down time to relax and rejuvenate, and this is particularly important for our students in field. . . [Self-care helps students] recognize when they are experiencing stress, and how stress affects their daily functioning as well as their Social Work practice. The hope is that students will be able to implement a plan to alleviate the negative effects of stress they are experiencing. . . Burnout is a very serious issue among Social Work practitioners; therefore, it is critical that we teach Social Work students to not only recognize [stress], but also take action when they are experiencing stress. Having a self-care plan can be an excellent source of support for students, and creating this plan can be a validating experience. Students often question if it is normal to be affected by the stories that their clients share, and having a discussion about compassion fatigue can confirm a student’s experiences as well as teach them to be proactive about their own self-care.

(Read the full interview with Professor Keiser)

Additional Self-Care Resources for Social Workers on the Web

Last updated: April 2020