MSW Faculty Interview: Ashley-Marie Hanna, Ph.D.

We are trained to go, go, go – and praised for how much we are doing. The sense of people needing me can be a draw, but it is not sustainable – recognize that and take a step back. Long-term it is not good for your clients or yourself to burn-out.

As social workers, we deal with such heavy topics. It’s necessary to figure out how to balance that out. With my value system I can’t afford to get off the path. My goal is to be true to myself and have integrity. In order to do it, I need to take care of myself. I mess up, but I am willing to reflect and address how I am not doing well and take better care of myself.

1. How important is a work-life balance for social workers?
Extremely important – as you are probably aware – similar to other helping professions there is a high-turnover for social workers particularly for those serving the most marginalized populations. If you take a look at our Code of Ethics one of our values is social justice. They say “vulnerable populations” but I don’t like to use that term. Historically, disenfranchised populations are those that social workers are serving due to structural suppression, etc. They are communities that are oftentimes in food deserts (lack of access to food), healthy drinking water, difficulties with transportation, poor education systems, etc. With social workers we are trying to be a support to those who are not supported by society – which can be exhausting. My job is to serve and work with an individual in this context of greater oppression. It is a lot to carry on your back. No matter how hard I try, I see a person within an environment and to realize that these environmental factors are constantly oppressing our clients is overwhelming and can lead to burnout.

Social workers can be overworked and underpaid which can be very stressful. Work-life balance enables a social worker to stay in the field longer and that ultimately serves our communities and the organizations that hire us. Less money has to go into training to accommodate turnover and the social workers employed are more skilled because they have been in the field longer and are able to better serve their clients.

Work-life balance and burnout is comparable to an example you hear whenever you fly on an airplane. You are told, by flight attendants, if you are in an emergency to take the oxygen mask and put it on your face before helping someone else (a child or person sitting next to you). If you don’t take care of yourself first then you can’t effectively help someone else. If social workers are not able to make sure that we are leading a healthy and balanced life, then we are not going to be able to sustain the rhythm we need to best serve our clients.

2. How would you define work-life balance for social workers? For example, is it a simple X hours at work and X at home equation, or a more complex metric?

I wish it was as easy as a metric or to do X, Y, Z and you will have a balance between your work and personal life but that is not the case.

The reality is there is no equation. We are all unique and multifaceted individuals. What works for one individual may not work for someone else. It depends on where you are in your life. If things are running smoothly in my personal life (everyone in my circle is happy and healthy), then I may be able to dedicate more time to work and handle difficult situations more easily. It looks different for everybody. For some people it is focusing on eating well, exercise, reading or taking time to laugh and spend time with friends. If you are an introvert vs. an extrovert; being social may be what charges your batteries but for someone else curling up with a book will be helpful to maintain balance. Balance is a goal that we all strive for based on different factors affecting us at any one point in time.

3. What advice would you give social workers on how to attain work-life balance?
It’s important for social workers to remember the oxygen mask metaphor. So many times people want to help and do for others, but recognize that in doing so and not keeping the balance you are not serving your clients best. There are studies that show therapists who meditate have better outcomes with their clients. Why is that? That tells me that these therapists are able to be in a calm space and be present with their clients. In training social workers it is important to remind them of that and teaching them to self-reflect and be aware in their own lives.

Practice self-reflection and awareness so you can recognize a problem – recognize when you are no longer in balance. Identify the causes and potential solutions and take action to implement the potential solutions in a way that works for you to avoid burnout. If the first solution doesn’t work, then start over and try again. Always having a cyclical outlook and implementing and reflecting in the pursuit of the goal of work-life balance. Ask yourself frequently, am I feeling in-balance or am I not?

I was in a position and was promoted and taking on a supervisory role and the person who I was working with (other supervisor) who had been my supervisor had issues and was no longer present and I became responsible for much more of the shared workload. I was feeling anxious and having dreams about work. That was a self-reflection and awareness point that told me that I was not in balance. How I was working was not sustainable. I then could recognize what the feelings were about and I knew that it was because my colleague was not able to be as present as he should have been.

Once I reflected on my anxieties I thought about solutions to better carve out my own time but knew I also needed to address the situation with my superior and reach out for more support. After that, the situation improved but if it hadn’t I would have gone back to that cyclical cycle. Recognizing that I was developing and learning, going through growing pains and doing the best that I could to normalize those growing pains I realized that I was going to get through it and be a better social worker because of that. It is part of getting better and actually a good thing.

4. Are there any warning signs that a social worker has poor balance, or is devoting too much time to either work or home life?

Potential signs:
● Overeating or undereating
● Not sleeping well
● Experiencing nightmares about work or situations with clients
● Anxiety or feelings of depression or uneasiness
● Short-term memory lapses
● Being highly reactive (not present or able to respond)
● Falling behind on paperwork
● Hearing you are never around from your partner or kids
● Working too much
● Getting sick more often
● Drinking 10 cups of coffee instead of two
● Running from place to place
● Not taking a lunch break (clear sign you are headed to unbalanced life)
● Not drinking enough water

It’s not just one day that you are hectic but if you are noting consistently these issues or indicaitons, then go back to the advice to reflect, etc.

5. How do you personally ensure you maintain a healthy work-life balance?
It has changed over the years. I am an outdoorsy person and lived in Colorado over a decade and now in Reno, so getting outside is important for me. A walk or jog on a regular basis works for me. Practicing mindfulness meditation or breathing is important for me. A huge thing is being able to say ‘no’ so the stuff I do engage with I can give my 100%, be my best self and set those healthy boundaries. Whether it be to personal obligations or professional to make sure I have time and space for myself when I need it.

Healthy food is also important and another way that helps me feel good. I need to have the appropriate nutrition to be able to power through my today.

There are different apps and things for people that are at a computers all day. An app can remind you to look away from your computer because it is bad for your eyes. Set reminders for yourself to breathe for two minutes – to take a breath. That oxygen helps us to think more clearly, respond and feel better too. You can put reminders in your outlook calendar to pop up and take two minutes to breathe, find something that works for you and is realistic in your daily life.

6. Are there any resources in the social work or University of Nevada, Reno spaces that could help social workers with work-life balance? For example, peer groups, organizations, websites, etc.

For students, taking a look at student affinity groups (GSA), connecting with your classmates, counseling services, reaching out to MSW and BSW coordinators, and your teachers. I teach about difficult topics like oppression and knowing that students can come to me after to process.

Nevada has a place called the Center where we have a social service coordinator who is able to provide resources and referrals to students. I tell all of my students about this resource because Nevada is so small it can be difficult finding a cohort and seeking out supervision especially after graduation. Once students get out into the real-world it is vital to stay connected to your resources. Clinical supervision is important and even as a professor I continue to do supervision. It is a key way for me to provide that support to my colleagues and stay tuned in. Sometimes friends/family find it difficult to talk about the subject matter and type of work that social workers do. It’s better to have people who are in the field to provide that support. The topics or work discussion can be traumatizing for family members so the social worker stops discussing it at home because the subject matter is too heavy.

7. What are the benefits of a healthy work-life balance?

Peace and feeling grounded. Being more present in your personal and professional life can lead to having deeper connections with friends, family, loved ones and can improve your relationships with clients and colleagues as well. I prefer to be able to speak to someone who is not multi-tasking and I want to give that experience as well. Work-life balance allows us to be present so we are able to really feel successful when we are in a personal or professional space. Being balanced, I’m sure, makes a person healthier physically by lowering blood pressure or other metabolic statistics but it’s all about physical, emotional and spiritual health.

8. Do you have anything you’d like to add that you feel we haven’t mentioned?
We all strive to be compassionate and non-judgmental people but it’s especially true in social work. Simply reminding aspiring social workers to have that same compassion and practice non-judgment with themselves as well. Let them know that it is normal to get off that path but noticing when you are off that path to recognize and address it as best you can and keep practicing self-awareness. Losing your course or becoming off balance is part of the job and it does happen – you are not alone; there is support out there.