Written by Anna Shull

The first time I heard about self-care in depth was in the Introduction to Social Work class I took as a freshman brand new to college. I remember being blown away that I was being assigned to do activities that felt fun. School was encouraging me to tone down the productivity and amp up the relaxation? Say less! 

At the time, I did not understand the importance of true self-care nor did I understand just how crucial it would become to me as I continued through college, then graduate school, then even into the start of my career. Since my first introduction to this concept, I have come to prioritize self-care to a high degree in my own life as well as promote the mindset for those around me. 

This article will explain what self-care is, convince you of the importance of self-care for social workers, give you tips for how to begin truly taking care of yourself (including examples of what to actually do), and ultimately equip you with one of the best ways to prevent burnout.

1. What is Self-Care?

If I were to ask you to name three ways to engage in self-care, I bet you could rattle them off easily. Face masks, baths, outdoor walks, reading a book, and “taking time for yourself,” just to name a few. If you’re a social worker (or aspiring social worker), the words “self-care” may also feel loaded: a small burden of guilt that creeps up on you because you’ve been reminded once again of another thing you are supposed to be doing. Defining self-care should be easy; it’s just taking care of yourself, right? But the truth is that self-care is not meant to be something you need to add into your life, rather it is a way to live your life. 

If your only view of self-care is that of activities that let you relax when you’ve already reached your wits end, you will always be playing on the defensive. However, if you begin to see self-care as a mindset through which you make everyday decisions, you may not have to work so exhaustingly hard in trying to keep up with your well-being. In short, self-care is taking an active role in protecting and promoting one’s own well-being and health.

“I hope you love yourself enough to recognize the things you don’t like about your life and I hope you find the courage to change them.”

2. Importance of Self-Care for Social Workers

To put it short and sweet, burnout, compassion fatigue, moral injury, and secondary trauma are all common in social work, and self-care is one of the most accessible ways to combat the symptoms of each. In social work, you will regularly be exposed to some of the toughest areas of the world, no matter which area of the field you’re working in and no matter which level of social work you most regularly engage in.

  • Burnout – Chronic workplace stress characterized by feeling energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job, or feeling negativism or cynicism related to one’s job.
  • Compassion fatigue – Indifference to charitable appeals on behalf of those who are suffering, experienced as a result of the frequency of exposure to such appeals.
  • Moral injury – Distressing psychological, behavioral, social, and sometimes spiritual aftermath of exposure to events or behaviors that go against an individual’s values and moral beliefs.
  • Secondary trauma – Emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another.

As social workers, it is important to be knowledgeable on these subjects in order to be self-aware when you need to make changes in your routine to protect and promote your well-being. That being said, it’s never your own fault if you are feeling symptoms of any of the above social work side effects, and self-care is not a cure-all for well-being. Mental health professionals are not exempt from benefiting from professional mental health help. If you find that you are struggling with mental health in a way that is negatively affecting your quality of life, I would encourage you to seek support. Self-care is a protective factor, but it is not clinical support.

3. Self-Care Tips for Social Workers

Before adjusting any of your life, I want you to start noticing the habits you already have in place that are promoting your well-being. These can be habits as small as rolling down the windows on your commute because you love the fresh air or petting your dogs when you get home from work because it brings you joy. Though anyone at any time can engage in self-care more actively and more purposefully, give yourself credit for what you have already put in place that is protecting your own well-being.

Now, moving into tips for creating the changes that you would like to make, you will find the most meaningful ways to engage in self-care if you can find the areas in which you need to most care. For me, my favorite way to do this is around the structure of the seven types of rest:

  • Physical rest: ensuring your body can recharge by allowing it to slow down and repair.
  • Mental rest: ensuring your mind has moments of calmness.
  • Emotional rest: finding safe spaces to offload emotional baggage.
  • Social rest: restoring yourself through connecting with the people who matter the most to you.
  • Creative rest: re-energizing resources and gaining inspiration through taking breaks from creativity.
  • Sensory rest: retreating from sensory overload by taking moments of peace.
  • Spiritual rest: anchoring and realigning with your sense of purpose and place in the world.

Below, you’ll find a guide for reflection as well as a template to plan the self-care you would like to implement.

Describe a time in your life when you were feeling the least stress.List things you need to do everyday to reduce your stress and keep yourself “feeling great.”Describe things and/or events that tend to cause stress in your life.Describe internal warning signs that you are experiencing stress. Do these happen when you’re feeling low, medium, or high stress?What are some actions you have taken in the past to reduce stress? Have these actions been effective?
Examples:When I was 10 years old and didn’t care what people thought about me. The summer when I was 16 years old and I was outside all the time. When I was 20 years old and focused on spending time with my good friends. When I was 23 years old and had great coworkers at my job who I loved. When I was 25 years old and I was prioritizing my health and exercise felt like second-nature. Examples:I can wake up early enough to not be rushed. I can find a reason to laugh everyday. I can make a to-do list so I know what needs to be accomplished in a day. I can say yes to invitations that allow me to have fun and forget the stress of work. I can say no to invitations when I know I need to rest and to avoid over-committing. I can stay hydrated. I can get to bed at a reasonable time to set myself up for success tomorrow.Examples:Days that are way too busy. Interpersonal conflict Unfinished to-do lists Social events I don’t want to attend When I feel I have let someone down When I’m unprepared for workExamples:I look frazzled. (medium) I get irritated easily. (high) My house becomes a mess. (medium) I cry. (high) I feel tired all the time. (low) I stop calling/texting the people I’m close to. (high)Examples:I go workout. (effective) I call my mom. (effective) I go to bed early. (sometimes effective) I go full-force at my to-do list. (sometimes effective) I waste time doing mindless activities. (not effective)

4. Self-Care Activities for Social Workers

Self-care actions will look different for each person. However, below is a compilation of some of my favorites, in case you’d like a new idea or two.

-Start a journal-Volunteer-Get some fresh air-Cuddle with pets-Appreciate small moments in each of your days-Meditate-Treat yourself to a nice meal-Make a new playlist-Don’t let yourself be judgmental of yourself-Take yourself on a solo date-Get a massage-Have a movie marathon-Join a support group-Revamp your to-do lists-Take time off-Support a small business-Have a warm shower-Light a candle-Try affirmations-Confront your negative self-talk-Create a gratitude list-Take a nap-Play a board game-Lay in the grass-Have an adventure day-Try photography-Read a good book-Pick wildflowers-Draw a picture-Garden/get a houseplant-Wear something that makes you feel great-Organize that area that you’ve been putting off for so long-Sleep in-Put some lotion on-Find a therapist-Listen to music-Design your ideal morning and night routines-Cook something new-Drop everything and dance-Practice yoga-Take a break from electronics-Go for a nature walk-Try a new hobby-Have a game night-Call a friend or family member you’ve been meaning to talk to-Make a donation-Set aside time to be alone-Try a new workout class-Find something that makes you laugh-Drink some water-Take your lunch break-Forget about work

Self-care activities for social workers are whatever is needed for you to feel physically rested, mentally clear, emotionally in-tune, socially connected, creatively energized, sensorily balanced, and spiritually aligned (however that looks for you).

5. Self-Care Plan

My best suggestion to you, social workers, is to create three self-care plans: a daily plan, a fun plan, and an emergency plan. 

Daily Self-Care:

For each of the seven types of rest, write one thing you are currently doing and one thing you would like to begin doing in order to take care of yourself.

What you already do:       
What you want to begin doing daily:       
Other activities you’d like to prioritize:       

Fun Self-Care:

Personally, I attack my fun self-care by the month. In this current month, my goal is to complete five wellness activities, take myself on four solo dates, get outside on a hike three times, try a new skill two times, and spend one day without my phone. I found these goals on TikTok, but you can create whichever monthly goals you have for yourself. The point of fun self-care like this is that I will not be engaging in a wellness activity every single day. Though I would love to, it is not realistic. However, I will make sure that even though I cannot do it daily, I will be incorporating wellness into my life in ways that I get excited for and look forward to. 

Emergency Self-Care: 

I hope your emergency self-care plan is not one that you need to refer to often, but the fact of the matter is that everybody nears a breaking point at some point. In order to create an emergency self-care plan, reflect on these questions:

How Will You Know You Need Your Emergency Self-Care Plan?Who Will You Talk To? What will you do?
 Make sure you have an emergency self-care plan. Have a plan.
Who Will You Avoid? What will you avoid?What Do You Want to Tell Yourself?
 Think of a few things you will avoid. Make notes as you go.

In conclusion, self-care is a process that no one will be perfect at. My hope from this article is that you will feel inspired to play an active role in protecting and promoting your well-being in a different way than you’ve been approaching it so far. Give yourself grace and know that you are doing the best you can in the current situation you are in.