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Self-Care for Social Workers: Personal and Professional Supports for Sustainability

Self-Care for Social Workers: Personal and Professional Supports for Sustainability
Nicole Steward, MSW, RYT
November 30, 2020

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Editor’s note: This text-based course is an edited transcript of the webinar, Self-Care for Social Workers: Personal and Professional Supports for Sustainability, presented by Nicole Steward, MSW, RYT



Learning Outcomes


After this course, participants will be able to:

  • Define secondary traumatic stress, its symptoms and understand its relationship to burnout
  • Identify the 2 categories of self-care and 3 domains of personal self-care
  • Recognize the connection between personal self-care and organizational self-care/workplace wellness.


We are going to talk about self-care for social workers with both personal and professional support for sustainability. 

Self-Care is Critical to Social Work

Self-care is critical to social work practice because it is a part of our ethics. The National Association for Social Workers says that self-care is an essential underpinning to best practice in the profession of social work. It is critical to the survival and growth of our profession. We have to focus on self-care, especially now, as we have a lot of work to do in the coming months and years. We need to be able to take care of ourselves as an essential underpinning of our work. 

Starting with reality, you want to get honest about the work that we do as social workers. We love our work, but we have to be honest about the ways that we do our work and under what conditions. I appreciate this quote on secondary traumatic stress: “there is a soul weariness that comes with caring.” This is the first line in the second edition of “Secondary Traumatic Stress.” We all love to care for people, but we have to acknowledge that there is a weariness that comes along with that. 

Understanding Traumatic Stress

The soul weariness we experience has different names. There are four different definitions for various nuances of stress and burnout:

  • Compassion Fatigue: physical and emotional exhaustion over time, the “Cost of Caring.”
  • Secondary Traumatic Stress: natural, predictable, treatable, and preventable consequence of working with suffering people.
  • Vicarious Trauma: gradual, unconscious changes in view of self, others, and worldview.
  • Burn-out: gradual draining of energy leaving no joy in the work that used to excite & energize.

The first type is compassion fatigue. Recognize that this is physical and emotional exhaustion that happens over time. It does not just happen once and it does not happen immediately. We may be in our profession for years before we start to feel compassion fatigue. That is why this is labeled as “the cost of caring.” We often pay with our physical and emotional exhaustion, as well as our energy.  

The second one is secondary traumatic stress. This type of stress is natural and treatable. It is also a preventable consequence of working with suffering people. We come into social work knowing that we are engaging with folks in times of trauma and stress. We do this work because we want to support these folks and increase their quality of life. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that it is preventable and treatable. 

The third one is vicarious trauma. Recognize that vicarious trauma can be unconscious, but it creates changes in who we are and how we show up for others and our work. This is important for us as social workers because if our worldview or view of ourselves shifts, it will impact the way we do our work. The difference between secondary traumatic stress and vicarious trauma is the amount of time it takes. Primary stress is the type that directly happens to you. Secondary stress is when it happens to someone that is close to you. Vicarious trauma is dealing with compassion fatigue and secondary traumatic stress. Over time, this creates many changes. Secondary traumatic stress can feed into vicarious trauma. Secondary stress can happen in an instant or situation, whereas vicarious trauma is cumulative. 

The last type of stress is burnout, which many of us are familiar with. Burnout is a gradual draining of energy. It is the absence of joy where there used to be energy, joy, and passion. We are no longer interested in doing our work and we do not feel like we fit in any organization that we serve. Burnout can happen in any occupation. However, the ultimate effects of compassion fatigue, secondary stress, and vicarious trauma can lead to burnout. It can also have some physical and physiological consequences. Therefore, it is important to understand why we need self-care and why we need to recognize the reality of our work while working with suffering folks.  

Secondary Traumatic Stress

We need to be aware of how often this stress comes up for social workers. The work we are doing is trauma-specific. Even if we are working on a case that is not as overwhelming, it can just be stressful knowing you are a part of an organization that works on domestic violence, rape crises, and so on. According to a survey, 70 percent of social workers who were asked about traumatic stress said that they had experienced at least one symptom.  

Symptoms of Secondary Traumatic Stress

Here are the symptoms of secondary traumatic stress: 

  • Intrusion
    • Unexpected thoughts about clients.
    • Disturbing dreams about clients.
    • A sense of reliving others’ traumatic experiences.
  • Avoidance
    • Inability to recall information.
    • Efforts to keep clear of clients.
    • Detachment from others; emotional numbing.
  • Arousal
    • Sleep disturbances and difficulty concentrating.
    • Irritability, hypervigilance, and exaggerated startle responses.

Intrusion can come up as unexpected thoughts about clients. They can be either good or bad. Another symptom can be having disturbing dreams about clients or their outcomes. This can give you a sense of reliving others’ traumatic experiences. If we go home and are still thinking about a family that we know is living and sleeping in their car, that is intrusion. It is great that we care about those folks, but intrusion is not good. 

Avoidance can look like the inability to recall information. It can feel like a block or a lack of focus. Procrastination can also be a form of avoidance. This can look like an effort to keep clear of clients. Also, there is detachment from others and emotional numbing. This happens both in our work and our personal life. With emotional numbing, some people might call this self-care when it is not. For example, we might say we are so stressed out, we have to do one thing. However, your responsibilities at home might require you to do something else. When we do not want to feel the stress of our work, we may start pulling in some numbing behaviors. 


Arousal can look like sleep disturbances or difficulties concentrating. It can also be irritability, hypervigilance in our nervous system, and exaggerated startle responses. I want you to take a moment and look at these symptoms in order to recognize if you are experiencing them. When I started my social work career in rape crisis, my partner asked me a few questions about it and I began to notice that it was impacting me. Anytime he put his hand on my shoulder, I would jump a few inches. My whole body was in a state of hypervigilance because of all of the traumatic content I was being exposed to. It impacted me with secondary traumatic stress. We need to be honest with ourselves about our work and recognize that self-care has to be a lifestyle. 

I have a quote from a book called “A‑to‑Z Self‑Care Handbook for Social Workers and Other Helping Professionals.” It says, “self-care is a lifestyle, not an emergency response.” This reminds us that when we talk about self-care, people say they are stressed and they need to do something to get it off their mind. However, that is an emergency response. The goal is to pull in little practices of self-care as a lifestyle, which will become habits that are a part of daily life. 

Two Categories of Self-Care

The two main categories of self-care are personal self-care and professional self-care. This is important to remember because we have to be able to separate them. As social workers who love what we do, we sometimes embody our work. It is important for us to make clear boundaries. We also want to recognize that personal self-care is about the things we are responsible for while professional self-care is about the organizations and agencies that we serve. 

Personal self-care includes activities and practices that we adopt for health and personal wellbeing. It is not just doing something to feel better during a crisis. This is about what you are doing every day to buffer yourself. We often talk about filling your cup before you fill others’. What I want you to think about instead is overflowing your cup. What we are then giving to other people is actually from our overflow in order to have a full cup all the time. It also may involve engaging in a fulfilling hobby, spending time with a supportive friend, exercising, using humor, or meditating. Professional self-care is in the context of our work. This includes how we do our work, which also might involve attention to our workload and overwork. 

3 Domains of Personal Self-Care

The three domains of personal self-care are self-awareness, self-regulation and self-efficacy. We are going to break them down and recognize how they relate to self-care.

Personal Self-Care: Awareness

Self-awareness is knowing the signs of stress. You may not be able to name it, but you know something is off. This can include lack of focus, a challenge in irritability, forgetting things, bumping into things, or being clumsy. This can be an early sign of stress because oftentimes the first kind of impact to our brain around stress is in our reptilian brain. This is the base of our spine and is responsible for balance. If you are experiencing this sign, it is your body telling you that there is something going on. Forgetfulness is a sign of stress as well. 

You also want to be able to recognize your own patterns and behavior habits. Recognize if you always take a certain action when something happens or if you find your mood shifting once it reaches a certain time of day. For example, after attending certain staff meetings in the past, I would feel not good for the rest of the day. During the meetings, the supervisor would say, “This is a safe space to bring any complaints or issues.” However, anytime someone brought up an issue that made them uncomfortable, her response would be, “There are two sides to every story.” Her intention was to say she wanted to hear both sides, but I understood it as her not believing the person. That would put my whole body into a state of stress because it triggered something from my own childhood. For me, finding this out took months of self-awareness. I was able to talk to that supervisor and let her know that it was triggering for me. She was appreciative that I brought it to her attention and shifted her ways. Therefore, we want to be aware of those signs of stress. 

Also, acknowledge the impacts of our work. Recognize that as much as we love it, it is still challenging and has an impact. 

Ten Occupations with High Rates of Burnout

In recognizing when stress is happening, it is important this is part of validation of the work. Looking at this list, notice that social work is one of the top occupations for burnout: 

1. Physician

2. Nurse

3. Social Worker

4. Teacher

5. School Principal

6. Attorney

7. Police Officer

8. Public Accounting 

9. Fast Food/Retail

10.Customer Service

A survey from the Mayo Clinic says that the two highest risk groups for burnout are emergency service personnel and healthcare and social service providers. It is important to know that our work is hard and can lead to burnout, so we want to figure out how to prevent that. 

Job Burnout Risk Factors

You might be more likely to experience burnout if you lack a work-life balance. It is important that we have clear boundaries between the two. We might have a high workload that includes overtime work. Personally, I do not believe I have ever worked an eight-hour day in all my years of being a social worker. We are also trying to be everything to everyone because of all the systemic, personal, familial, and community suffering we know of. We may start to feel like we have little or no control over our work, or our job becomes monotonous. Take note if you recognize any of these factors within yourself. 

Possible Causes of Burnout

Some of the factors that can cause burnout include a lack of control. This could be when decisions are made without input from those of us who are in the field and have direct contact with our clients. That information is then sent down to us and we are asked to do things that do not actually have any impact on those we serve. 

Another factor is unclear job expectations. In the public education world, we get a lot of duties as assigned or unfunded mandates. You think you have your job description, but other duties are then added to it. 

There are also dysfunctional workplace dynamics. Recognize if there are bullies in your workspace. For some of us, we may, unfortunately, experience sexual harassment or racism. 

Another factor is about the extremes of activity. This means that our job is super chaotic or super boring. Recognize that either one can lead to burnout. 

There is also the lack of social support, especially when we do not have colleagues that we can connect with. We are separating personal and professional aspects of life, but we still need to have some peers and connection to our work. 

Finally, there is the work-life imbalance, which is a huge issue for us. Again, we need to be able to separate those two things. 

Personal Self-Care: Regulation

Self-regulation is about mastery over our thoughts and emotions. This does not mean the lack of feeling emotions or having challenging thoughts. Instead, we want to notice those emotions when we have them. We then do something to regulate ourselves. It is okay to be upset, angry, frustrated, or sad as long as we are in control of that. I do not mean control in terms of deciding to feel one emotion over another. Being in control means having the ability to feel an intense emotion and taking responsible action. 

Be able to reframe distressing and hopeless situations using self-regulation, which is similar to our job as social workers. We take tough situations and provide strength, support, resources, and hope. However, part of that self-regulation is noticing when we, as the caregivers, are in a state of hopelessness. Self-regulation can also include relaxation and mindfulness as soothing practices. 

Self-Awareness and Regulation

Self-awareness and self-regulation are important in order to understand how they show up and what happens in our brain. 

The first part of this is recognizing our fight, flight, or freeze response. When we feel an intense emotion or a threat in our environment, our body and brain go into our fight, flight or freeze response. It is not always a physical or visceral response. It can present itself subtly in our behavior, which is the important part to pay attention to. We might have a fight response in our nervous system based on the stress we are experiencing. This can look like agitation at work, pushing back on management or colleagues, or having a chip on your shoulder. With the flight response, it can look like taking a sick day or going from job to job. Regarding the freeze response, it can present itself as procrastination, missing deadlines, or showing up late for meetings. All of these are ways that our nervous system is trying to keep us in a state of regulation, while also responding to threats in our environment. 

The opposite of the fight, flight, and freeze response is the rest and digest response. In our autonomic nervous system there is the sympathetic nervous system, which has our fight, flight, or freeze response. Whenever we feel stressed, our sympathetic nervous system comes online to help us figure out how we can meet the threat and survive. Once we have met that threat and everything is fine, we come down and shift from the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the rest and digest response. It is the system that tells us we are safe. This is good because we want to be able to work from a state where we are fully in our own consciousness. 

The relaxation response is the antidote to the stress response. It is about getting your body into a state of rest. What that means is calming down your limbic system and giving your body and brain a point of clarity and safety. This way we can recognize what relaxation feels like in our bodies. One technique for stressful situations is deep breathing for a period of time. Once we regulate ourselves, we can make better choices. We can be less reactionary and more responsive, and that will have better outcomes for those we serve. If we want to help other people, we need to show up for them with a regulated nervous system. 

Personal Self-Care: Efficacy

Self-efficacy looks like the ability to persist in the face of insurmountable odds, which can happen often in social work. We are given cases where all odds may be stacked against someone and it is our job to help them seek a sense of efficacy and agency. The only way we can do that is if we understand what efficacy feels like within ourselves. Self-confidence in our work as social workers is part of that efficacy. That is hard to have if you are feeling overwhelmed or overworked. When we have too much on our caseload, we cannot do a good job for everyone. This continues to impact how we show up for work, which can ultimately lead to burnout. 

Our self-efficacy is also associated with high levels of human caring. Research says that when we have self-efficacy, we feel effective in our work. It increases our levels of human caring and actually makes us want to work more. It is a great loop for us to be in because it allows us to care more. 

Challenges to Social Work Efficacy

Here are some of the challenges to our efficacy: 

  • Faced with insurmountable demands.
  • Uncontrollable conditions & situations.
  • Expected to do magic & achieve miracles.
  • Inadequate resources to achieve impossible results.

The first challenge is being faced with insurmountable demands. We are often given uncontrollable conditions and situations. We are given cases and scenarios where we cannot have control over what is happening, whether it is interpersonal dynamics or a situation in courts or in schools. 

Additionally, we are expected to do magic and achieve miracles. I happen to be the only social worker in my school district. With some cases I get, I have to remind folks that I only have so much power and I appreciate that they think I can do all these things, but I cannot move mountains. We are sometimes asked to do things that are just not possible. 

We are also asked to do our work with inadequate resources. It is obvious why we might face some lack of self-efficacy when we are being asked to do things that are impossible. We are either not being supported or the systems are pushing back against us. When you first get into certain systems, you recognize the injustices and it can feel defeating. When you think everybody will agree with you about it, it then seems like no one cares. It is important for us to focus on self-care that will help support us when we feel defeated. 

I appreciate this quote that says, “workers with high self-efficacy were less affected by high-stress conditions and exhibited reduced levels of burnout and compassion fatigue.” When we have a certain level of efficacy, we can make decisions and have a sense of control in some of our work. With that support, we are less impacted by burnout and compassion fatigue. We have people in our corner telling us that they appreciate what we do. This way, we can do challenging work from a place of full support. 

Self-Care is Multi-Dimensional

Recognize that self-care is multi-dimensional. When we talk about self-care in general, we often only think about physical self-care. This refers to how we feel and how we look. We need to realize that caring for ourselves is achieved through multiple areas. This includes psychological, emotional, social, spiritual, leisurely, and professional. 

Making a list of some practices within each category is a helpful action to take. You will want to do this in the rest and digest state because that will allow you to have more available options at that moment. This is for when you are in a crisis and in need of that self-care. This is because if you are trying to think about what to do in a time of crisis, you are either not going to be able to think about it or you might end up doing something that is more harmful. 

Basic Self-Care and Wellbeing

I like to break self-care into three different categories. The first is basic self-care, which refers to what we need to survive and live as humans. You need to eat food, preferably healthy food. You need plenty of water. You also want to participate in regular exercise. This means moving your body for 30 minutes or more each day, not just 30 minutes of walking around at work. 

You also want restful sleep. Some folks will say you need eight or more hours, and that is accurate. It is also important to recognize if you cannot get eight hours or more, it is not the end of the world. Restful sleep is more important than the hours. For example, 10 hours of sleep that is not restful is not helpful. Regarding naps, they can be helpful if your workday is hectic. You can take a half-hour nap in the afternoon and still have a restful sleep at night. 

It is important to have connections with others. This connection does not have to include another person. I highlight this because we may get sick of people after our work. You can have connections with pets. Animals are wonderful with helping us self-regulate. 

Also, I want to mention the word “hangry.” It means being so hungry that you get angry. You want to recognize when you have not eaten, slept, or had anything to drink. This is important because we can get dysregulated easily. Anyone who has raised a child from birth knows that the first years of trying to get them to sleep are exhausting. When you have not gotten a good night's sleep, we can feel like zombies. If we have not eaten, we can get irritable. 

Deep/Contemplative Self-Care

Deep and contemplative self-care is about pulling into spiritual connections. This could be religious connections or your own personal connections. For example, you can connect to folks who have passed away by pulling in a mindfulness practice. You want to remain aware in the present moment without judgment about what is happening. An example of this is being mindful when we are in meetings with our clients or other colleagues. We also want to be mindful when we are making challenging decisions with families. 

This mindfulness practice is good self-care because it also helps us depersonalize our work. When we are sitting with a client, this will help us focus on what their needs are and pay attention to any of our own issues that may be trying to intervene. This can also prevent our own biases, traumas, and frustrations from entering a conversation.

Meditation and breathwork, stillness, and moving are also important. Seated meditation can be a helpful activity. If you are not a regular meditator, I recommend starting with 1 to 5 minutes of silence and allowing your mind to open up. I have a timer that I use with the young people that I serve. I can ask my students when they come into my office, “How long do you want to breathe?” Afterwards, that student can have an easier time telling me what is going on. A calm nervous system can allow them to make solutions. Walking, yoga, tai chi, and qi gong are some other deep-care practices. 

There are also connections to a bigger purpose. Again, this does not have to be religious. This is about feeling your own connections to this deeper work that we are doing. I truly believe that social workers are changing the world. We change families’ lives and communities. However, it is important for us to be connected to that macro-level. This is for those times when we get upset or want to drop everything and run. Recognize that there is a bigger purpose. My goal is not just to help these individual students, but also help shift the culture in education.

Radical Self-Care

There is also my own concept of radical self-care. This idea is a product of my 20 years in this work and of three major burnouts. I often notice that we all get sick when we have vacation time. Another issue could be having a week off, but it takes three days for us to come down from our work and enjoy the vacation. Be aware of when this happens. I got sick on our Christmas break and on the morning of my birthday, I got shingles. It was painful and unflattering. 

Through those moments I have come to this concept of radical self-care. This is the concept of remembering why we come to social work. Nobody accidentally falls into this work. It is important for us to recognize why we come into this work. It could be because we had an amazing childhood and we want everyone to experience that, or we did not have the best childhood and we do not want anyone to experience that. Regardless of the cause, we have to remember why we do the work. We then want to reconnect with that passion. Once we do this, that excitement that brought us into the work can act as a self-care practice. 

Another point here is about regulating our nervous system. There are ways that we can take control of our regulation, even if other systems are trying to pull us out of that. Once we are regulated, it is important that we then rebalance our boundaries. 

Again, we talked about personal and professional aspects that overlap. Recognize that it is important for us to know when we are burnt out from caregiving. We will also want to pull in our boundaries around our energy and our time. 

We want to pull in some rituals and routines that keep us intentional in our work. It is important for us to create routines in order to have a sense of the flow of our day. For example, it is often that I am on autopilot when I make my coffee in the morning. Lately I have been trying to bring intention to making my coffee. It still only takes me about 5 to 10 minutes, but I am fully present when I am doing it. This means listening to the beans as I scoop them and smelling the coffee when I transfer it into my cup. This gives my whole body the ability to rest and be regulated. This also helps me focus. You can also do this for other drinks or meals you have when starting your day. You can then be intentional about resting because that is the antidote to the stress response.

There is a woman I follow on social media and her concept is the nap ministry. She talks about how rest is radical. In our work, we are constantly doing things for others and ourselves. Even though my day ends at 3 p.m., the crises keep going into the evening. Even now with social media, I have some teenage students who contact me at all hours of the night. They are allowed to call me and talk to me whenever, but my response will be within the workday due to the boundaries I have set. However, it is important to prioritize. You want to be able to turn off your laptop and your phone and get away from work. Turn your weekends into opportunities to do something different from what you do during the week. This can be spending time with family, going out into nature, or anything that pulls you into the rest and digest state. 

We do these self-care practices in order to embody them. The trick is when we are in a staff or team decision-making meeting, we can then pull back and embody the practices that we have done in other times. This is helpful because I know what rest feels like in my body when I am not at work. I want to be able to bring my body back into that rest state, even if I am not in a restful environment. 

Again, the whole purpose of this is making self-care a lifestyle. It helps us show up for the world in a way that we are happy with. This way, we do not fall apart or stress out when crises arise. That is where our confidence and self-efficacy come in. 

Professional Self-Care

Professional self-care is important as well. It is often that when we talk about self-care we make it individualized. However, it is also important that we talk about how the organizations we serve have an impact on whether or not we are able to do self-care. Recognize that professional self-care includes our relationship with the organization. It also includes our shared values and beliefs when we have those with colleagues and the organization. We are often drawn to the mission and vision of the organization, but when we get there, is that mission still being held up? 

You also want to consider mission alignment with your administration and their actions. This also includes areas of fit or mismatch. I have heard this when people are being fired: “they were not a good fit.” I always question if they were not a good fit or the organization just did not make room for them. 

Also, recognize the disconnection between administration and line staff. This is disheartening for me as someone who has been on both ends. When I am in line staff, I feel like the administration does not hear us. I have also been on the administration side where I feel like some folks ask for so much and do not understand all the things we have to pay attention to. In order to make change, it is important that we all work together, especially in social work. 

Organizational Self-Care

When we talk about organizational self-care, it is important to pay attention to its potential barriers. I have a quote that says, “It is increasingly clear that to support diversity, we must have inclusive environments that ensure that differences can thrive.” This is very important, especially right now. There are conversations going on around police brutality against Black folks, and one is about shifting funds away from police and bringing in more social workers. However, progress towards anti-racism can only be made if the social workers that we bring in are not just duplicating oppression and white supremacy. That is why social workers need to pay attention to personal biases because we all have them. Many of them are unconscious. It is important that we are self-aware and always investigating ourselves. Why did I have that response to that person? Was it because of their skin color, gender, or ability?

An important factor in this is cultural competency. Diversity is important, but not if we are not doing anything inclusive. Having different folks who do not feel like they are part of the organization does not help; it is actually tokenization. An example of this could be when an organization hires one Black social worker and thinks their work is done. However, do they feel included? 

Another factor of cultural competency is being compassionate with ourselves because the only culture we are fully competent in is our own. It is incumbent upon us to learn something. I was raised a Christian, but when I went to a Catholic church, it was a whole different culture that I was not competent in. We should all ask questions about cultures in order to be competent. Another example is that I am a cisgendered, heterosexual woman. I have to recognize that I do not know the experiences of my queer brothers and sisters and transgender folks. Additionally, we need to consistently check ourselves and our biases because they tend to be unconscious. It is our job to make sure that they are not impacting how we interact with our colleagues or serve others. 

We also want to remember that our duty to challenge social injustice is in our Code of Ethics. It is our job to challenge social injustice. There is a video of an older white man tearing down Black Lives Matter signs from a neighborhood. The woman who was filming said, “Black Lives Matter” and the man said, “not to me, they do not.” He then continued to rip signs down and curse at the woman. We soon learned that that man is actually a family court judge in Philadelphia. This is significant because being a family court judge in Philadelphia, he makes judgments about Black families. This is the organizational racism and oppression that we as social workers want to work against. It is our duty to challenge injustice when we see it, and this family judge is only one example of that injustice.

Workplace Wellness

Workplace wellness includes the following aspects: 

  • Employee involvement in decision-making
    • Asking for input from those impacted by the decision
  • Supported work-life balance
    • Flexible work schedules/leave options
    • Assistance with child/elder care
  • Employee growth & development
    • Quality supervision
    • Professional development as self-care
  • Employee health & safety
    • Interpersonal safety to speak up & seek support
  • Employee recognition

Employees’ involvement in decision-making is essential. This is about bridging the gap between administration and line staff or field workers. What are you experiencing in the field? What policies would help you stay safe or be more productive? How can we do that? You can then take that input and put it in action. 

You also want to help support a work-life balance for staff. We talk about our individual self-care practices and life-work balances, but then our organizations are requiring 14-hour days, ridiculous caseloads, and no childcare. This can restrict our own self-care. That is where personal and professional self-care meet. Our organizations have to support the work-life balance if we are going to be asked to do self-care. 

Employee growth and development are also part of workplace wellness. Do you feel stuck where you are? Can you expand or work up? Is there any room for improvement? Quality supervision is important as well. Additionally, professional development is self-care. Does your organization invest in you? Do they think that you are competent? 

Employee health and safety is certainly an aspect of workplace wellness. This includes physical safety. Can you get to your workplace without getting injured? However, this is also about interpersonal safety. Can I seek support or will I be told that I am not competent enough? I once had a job that I was asked to do. There was a ridiculous amount of work and when I asked for support, I was given an evaluation that said I blamed others when I could not get the work done. After that, I did not feel safe at that job because I knew that I could not ask for support. 

Finally, there is employee recognition. If we are doing challenging work, it is especially important to be appreciated. I do not just mean telling someone that they are doing a good job. Appreciation can mean bonuses, extra time off, more flexibility in our time, or monetary compensation. When we are doing hard work, it is easier to continue that hard work if we are being recognized.  

Also, you might want to take note if these exist in your workplace. If you are in an emergency department or are a supervisor, think about the ways that your workplace is either encouraging these things or not. Supporting work-life balance is key here. You cannot ask social workers to do self-care if the organization is not supporting the work-life balance. You want to allow people to take sick time or mental health days without it being a stigma. 

Professional Development as Self-Care

Consider professional development as self-care. Hopefully, you are being supported by your workplace to do this professional development because it can be empowering. It is a long-term investment that builds us as social workers. It is also a connection to others who are doing similar work. I offer professional development, and the validation that other social workers get is a beautiful connection that we can make to each other and to others doing the work. 

It can also change how we see our own work, as well as the profession as a whole. We all recognize that there are always changes in our work. There are always new policies to pull into. Even our awareness of trauma and how it impacts folks has changed in the last 15 years. That professional development allows us to continue the amazing work that we do. 

Self-Care for Social Workers

To summarize, self-care for social workers is a critical foundation of an effective, ethical practice. We have that in our code of ethics from NASW. It is also important to remember that self-care is understood in two dimensions of personal self-care and professional self-care. Recognize that those two sections are dynamically and implicitly interconnected. Self-care is most effective when engaged in proactive and intentional self-awareness, self-regulation, and advocacy. 

Remember that secondary traumatic stress is preventable and treatable. The preventable part is when we are pulling in self-care practices all the time. The treatable part is when we are looking to those self-care practices when we are in a state of crisis. Self-regulation promotes self-awareness and mindful responsiveness rather than reactiveness. It also allows us to engage in and with our environment. Self-care empowers us as practitioners to exert agency over our holistic health and wellbeing. 

Finally, it is important as social workers to know why we do this work. Self-care is a vehicle for change in the professional culture and in social work. Just in our social culture we are noticing that this is an opportunity for us to build self-care for the work that is ahead. 

Change the World with Self-Care

I want to leave you with this quote from Angela Davis: “anyone who wants to make change in the world has to learn how to take care of herself, himself, or themselves.” It is important that we take care of ourselves. This way, we can make change and see the positive outcomes that we want in those we serve. This will allow us to thrive in our work and do it long-term without it debilitating our health and wellness. 

I encourage you to look at the recent research from NASW that was published in January of 2020. The content of the journal is all about self-care. I encourage you to go ahead and grab that book. If you would like more information on cultural competence, you can look at the NASW resource standards and indicators in social work practice.


Refer to the course handout for a complete list of references. 


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nicole steward

Nicole Steward, MSW, RYT

Nicole Steward is a social worker and registered yoga teacher (RYT) with a focus on community engagement, public education, foster youth advocacy, and trauma-informed yoga. With more than a decade of social work practice in non-profits and K-12 education, Nicole has noticed the need for radical self-care to discharge toxic stress we absorb through our work. This awareness drives her to study trauma as well as the ways yoga and mindfulness affect our brains and bodies, keeping us engaged and renewed. Nicole teaches yoga, mindfulness, and offers self-care workshops and retreats. Nicole believes self-care is a way of being we must adopt if we are to sustain ourselves as service providers, educators and human beings.

Related Courses

Self-Care for Social Workers: Personal and Professional Supports for Sustainability
Presented by Nicole Steward, MSW, RYT
Course: #88Level: Introductory1 Hour
Self-Care is essential to the practice of social work and critical to our survival as practitioners. This course will share the need for self-care for social workers by outlining the three domains of personal self-care (self-awareness, regulation & efficacy) and highlighting the need for professional, workplace wellness.

Understanding Trauma Part 1: What It Is and How It Shows Up
Presented by Nicole Steward, MSW, RYT
Course: #15Level: Introductory1 Hour
Trauma is an ever-present reality in today’s world and it’s showing up more and more in the work we do. This is Part 1 of a 2-part presentation and will provide clarity on what trauma is, how trauma impacts the nervous system and how trauma shows up for us in the work we do. Part 2 can be found in our course library, event 16.

Understanding Trauma Part 2: You Are the Intervention
Presented by Nicole Steward, MSW, RYT
Course: #16Level: Introductory1 Hour
Trauma is an ever-present reality in today’s world and it’s showing up more and more in the work we do. Part 2 of this 2-part presentation will provide clarity on how trauma shows up for social workers and how we can show up for the work in a more resilient way. Part 1 can be found in our course library, event 15.

Understanding the McKinney-Vento Act: Identifying and Serving School-Aged Youth Experiencing Homelessness
Presented by Nicole Steward, MSW, RYT
Course: #97Level: Introductory1 Hour
Homelessness is on the rise, impacting students in many ways. This presentation will help social workers understand the McKinney-Vento Act and how to identify and serve school-aged youth experiencing homelessness, including the role of a homeless liaison.

Psychosocial Screening in a Pediatric Hospital Setting
Presented by Michael Hoffman, PhD, MS, LCP
Course: #1042Level: Intermediate1 Hour
This course will present considerations for developing and implementing a psychosocial screening program within a pediatric hospital setting, including reviewing different types of screening, selecting specific measures, and scoring. This course will also cover topics such as a tiered model of psychosocial service, dissemination, and implementation, and briefly touch on research considerations.