Compassion Fatigue. Vicarious Trauma. Secondary Traumatic Stress. Or, what people who do not have annoying professional jargon might call Had It Up To Here. Can’t Walk In That Office One More Time. The accumulation of experiences resulting in you having taken in more of other people’s pain and trauma than you let out until it is filling every nook and cranny and is trying to push its way out through every pore and the top of your head. You know, BURNOUT.
We’ve all seen it – the person who invokes in everyone the sensation of “Dear (Insert Belief System Representation Here), don’t let that be me in (insert # of choice) years.” Will that be you? (Is it you now?) Social workers tend to be like the mechanic with the clunker of a car, the gardener with the saddest front yard on the block – not doing for ourselves what we do for others, or encourage others to do for themselves.
So, why do I care if self-care is part of your life? First, if you are really good at what you do, our profession needs you, so I don’t want you burned out and leaving the profession a year out of this program (it happens.) Second, as someone in a position to hire, I don’t want to hire someone who either is going to walk out the door in 6 months or is going to entrench themselves and be the employee with whom no one wants to work because they super-saturated themselves with work and are utterly miserable to be around. It isn’t good for that person, their clients, their co-workers or the boss who has to deal with it. From a programmatic and agency standpoint, it is a waste of financial and human resources to hire someone who leaves in 6 months, or who stays when they are burned out and ineffective, so I hire someone who illustrated for me during their interview (among other things) that they take care of themselves. There is a better chance they will be in the position long-term while they grow professionally. Finally, I don’t want anyone entering our profession who is going to burn themselves out because one day I may be working for them – and no one likes working for the crazy-eyed, snarling, burned out boss.
So, what do you do to prevent yourself from burning out and becoming the office cautionary tale? Share your ideas in the comments, or a contribution to this blog. I humbly offer some ideas, reminders and suggestions (along with suggestions from former students) as you head toward mid-terms, project due dates, thesis deadlines or non-school related endeavors that need much of your energy.
In the immortal (paraphrased) words of George Carlin “Treat yourself nice, take yourself out to dinner and a movie, woo yourself”
Know what you need to feel better –½ hour of your favorite hobby each day? Blowing off some serious steam once a week? Great, now, get that time set aside and do it – we all know a zillion studies have shown you feel and perform better if you do.
Are you checking your work/internship/school emails/voicemails while you are having dinner or a conversation with your loved ones? Stop. Right now.
Keeping good boundaries can be challenging when you are vulnerable (tired, have a case that is “getting to you,” outside stressors.) If you are having difficulty maintaining those boundaries, dig into whatever helps you re-focus and reset those boundaries – talk with someone, turn off your phone, re-organize your closet, whatever.
Have a ritual or activity that helps you let go of those extra stressful days? What gets that 5150, or client who made that same poor choice for the 47th time off your mind and gets you “back to centered” after you walk out the door? Keep that ritual handy at all times.
How about an activity that helps you return to the Real World on a day-to-day basis? Do you need to be in near-solitude when you get home? Sing at the top of your lungs along with your car radio? Hug your kitty until it borders on Crazy Cat Person behavior? Make sure that happens (with your cat’s consent, of course.)
Make sure your Loved Ones Who Mean Well know what you really need, so they can support you.
Looking for something new? A few suggestions from students who, over the years, have shared what works for them
o gardening (you could even volunteer at Cuyamaca or another local garden)
o build a bingo game based on the most-repeated phrases of one of your professors that can be played during a student social event, or class if you are slick enough (oh, yes, we had this game)
I hope you find this to be helpful. I look forward to reading about your ideas, and maybe which professor you picked for building this year’s bingo!
Dawn Tol, MSW, is a Refugee Resettlement Supervisor at Jewish Family Services of San Diego and a Field Instructor for the School of Social Work.