Social workers are constantly on the go, dealing with a whirlwind of mentally and emotionally demanding situations. While social work professionals may receive praise and appreciation for all of their hard work, dedicating too much time to work without balancing their personal lives isn’t sustainable and can lead to burnout. People who have chosen this career path are dedicated to helping and caring for others, but social workers need to learn how to balance work and life.
Finding work-life balance starts with recognizing the importance of taking care of oneself. Attempting to manage relationships, professional duties and family responsibilities — while making time for yourself — can be stressful when juggling such a heavy workload. As if feeling stressed wasn’t enough, too much mental pressure can weaken the immune system and raise blood pressure. Managing and mitigating stress means engaging in self-care and ultimately progressing toward a better work-life balance.
We spoke with one of our School of Social Work faculty members, Ashley Hanna, Ph.D., about her experience managing stress as a social worker and tips for achieving work-life balance for professionals and students who are getting ready to expand their careers by pursuing a master’s in social work.
The Importance of Finding Work-Life Balance
While burnout can happen in any industry, Hanna believes the environment social workers operate in can be extremely stressful, often causing them to lack work-life balance.
“Historically, disenfranchised populations are those that social workers are serving due to structural suppression, etc. They are communities that oftentimes lack access to food and healthy drinking water, (experience) difficulties with transportation, poor education systems, and more,” she says. “We are trying to be a support system to those who are not supported by society — which can be exhausting.”
Hanna compared work-life balance and burnout to flying on an airplane during an emergency. You are instructed by the flight attendant to place the oxygen mask on your own face before helping someone else with theirs, which is much like operating as a social worker.
“If you don’t take care of yourself first, then you can’t effectively help someone else,” she says. “If we are not able to make sure as social workers 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.”
A Day in the Life of a Social Worker
Social workers are professionals who work with a range of populations — including individuals, families, and/or entire communities — to connect people to economic, emotional, and social services that can help them meet their needs. The details of a typical day in the life of a social worker may vary, but one thing remains constant: Social workers do everything in their power to support vulnerable groups.
A school social worker helps foster students’ improved academic performance and emotional well-being. A geriatric social worker connects older adults with services that can empower them to live independent, dignified lives. Whatever their specialty, all social workers share a commitment to do right by the populations they support.
Often, social workers will start each day by reviewing their cases before meeting with clients. Caseloads can vary depending on the particular client population and the settings in which social worker applies their skills. For example, a school social worker may support students struggling with their academic performance as well as students who face economic instability at home — a caseload volume that may change from year to year.
As part of their daily or weekly routine, social workers may meet with other social workers to discuss their cases and collaborate on how to improve the lives of the people they work with.
In addition to clerical work, social workers often interact directly with the people they support. That may entail home visits, remote meetings, and in-person meetings with individuals, families, and administrative staff to understand a client’s situation and advocate on their behalf with institutional leaders.
Warning Signs of Poor Work-Life Balance
Many social workers who are experiencing poor work-life balance may not even realize it’s happening because they’re too overwhelmed by their day-to-day duties. While it’s normal to feel stressed every once in a while, someone living with the following warning signs may be on the verge of poor balance.
- Overeating, or not eating enough
- Not getting enough sleep
- Having nightmares about work
- Feeling more anxious, depressed or uneasy than usual
- Being highly reactive
- Falling behind on paperwork
- Being told you’re never around by your family members
- Getting sick more often than usual
- Neglecting to take a lunch break during the day
- Drinking more than five cups of coffee in a day
- Forgetting to drink plenty of water
- Refusing to take a break at work
It’s common to not know how to balance work and life all the time. It’s when these issues and signs occur consistently and simultaneously that you need to reconsider your mental health and start prioritizing better balance.
Tips for How to Balance Work and Life
Social workers need to remember to prioritize their health. To help others, you need to focus on bettering yourself before you can best serve your clients. If you’re a social worker who’s currently struggling to find work-life balance, consider the following tips.
1. Learn to Self-Reflect
Hanna suggests practicing self-reflection and awareness often so you can recognize whether you’re in balance or not in a timely manner.
“What are the causes and potential solutions, and finally take action and implement the potential solutions in a way that works for you,” she says. “If your 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.”
2. Set Attainable Goals Every Day
As a social worker, your daily tasks will likely be different based on your client’s situation. Write down a list of priorities and check each task off throughout the day. This can help you feel a sense of control and accomplishment when things get hectic — just remember to be realistic with workloads and deadlines.
3. Take a Break
It might not seem like you have 15 minutes to spare some days, but there’s always time to take a break. Walking away from work can help clear your mind and improve your ability to handle tasks and make better decisions when you return to work, according to the nonprofit Mental Health America.
4. Make Time for Yourself
You take your job very seriously, but that doesn’t mean it defines you. Making time for yourself improves mental health and overall satisfaction with life. Whether you enjoy taking a stroll in the park, exercising with friends or treating yourself to a spa day, it’s critical to prioritize “me time.”
5. Ask for Flexibility
Once you’ve recognized that your workload has become impractical, don’t be afraid to ask your employer for flexibility. Taking time off can offer the mental clarity you need to properly assist and care for your clients in the future.
6. Reach Out for Support
Social workers need support just like everyone else — and the challenging nature of their jobs may require some social workers to establish and expand their social support networks.
Meeting with a colleague over coffee or tea to blow off steam, reconnect or prepare yourself for an upcoming busy period can provide some stress relief, and so can catching up with friends and family.
Social workers who find their regular social networks alone can’t meet their need for work-life balance can seek out professional counselors. Mental health counselors can help with emotional processing and developing strategies for building resilience.
7. Get Creative
Social work professionals give a great deal of personal attention and care to others, and that means they may allow themselves less room for their own personal self-expression. Creative outlets, such as listening to music, drawing and dancing, can release stress and provide some cathartic reorientation to help you recharge and reconnect with your own emotions and values.
How the University of Nevada, Reno, Helps Students Achieve Work-Life Balance
Understanding how to balance work and life can help prepare you for the future. The University of Nevada, Reno, has a number of resources students studying social work can use to find work-life balance while enrolled in classes. Joining student affinity groups, connecting with classmates, utilizing counseling services and reaching out to Master of Social Work and Bachelor of Social Work coordinators and teachers are a few ways to prioritize mental health. Another helpful resource is visiting the Center, according to Hanna.
“We have a place called the Center where we have a social service coordinator who is able to provide resources and referrals to students,” she says. “Sometimes, friends and 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.”
It’s normal for social workers to occasionally get lost in their work and lose their professional and personal balance. Remember, support is out there. Reach out when you need help finding work-life balance.