How to find work-life balance as a social worker

Social workers are constantly on the go, dealing with a whirlwind of 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 can lead to burnout and is not sustainable. People who have chosen this career path are dedicated to helping and caring for others, but social workers must recognize the importance of taking care of themselves first.

Attempting to manage relationships and family responsibilities, while making time for yourself, can be stressful when juggling such a heavy workload. As if feeling stressed out wasn’t enough, too much mental pressure can weaken your immune system and raise your blood pressure. Managing such stress means taking better care of yourself and ultimately progressing towards better work-life balance.

We spoke with one of our School of Social Work faculty members, Ashley Hanna, Ph.D., about her experience with managing stress as a social worker and tips for achieving work-life balance for professionals and current students 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 that 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, difficulties with transportation, poor education systems and more,” she said. “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 said. “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.”

Warning signs of poor balance
Unfortunately, many social workers experiencing poor work-life balance may not even realize it’s happening, because they are too overwhelmed by the tasks presented in their daily roles. While it’s normal to feel stressed out 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.
  • Experiencing lack of sleep.
  • Having nightmares about work or certain situations with clients.
  • 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.

As stated earlier, it’s normal to feel stressed out every so often, having a hectic day during the week happens to everyone. It’s when you notice these issues and signs occurring consistently and simultaneously that you need to reconsider your mental health and start prioritizing better balance in your life.

Tips for finding balance
It’s critical for social workers to remember that their health should be a top priority. In order to help others, you must focus on bettering yourself before you can best serve your clients. If you are a social worker who is currently struggling to find work-life balance, consider the following tips:

1. Learn to self-reflect
Hanna suggested 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 said. “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
Your daily tasks will likely be different, based on your client situations. Write down a list of priorities and check each task off throughout the work 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 helps to clear your mind and can even improve your ability to handle tasks and make better decisions when you return to work, according to 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.

Even if you’re not experiencing poor balance now, keeping these tips in mind can prepare you for the future and resolve an issue before it occurs.

How can Nevada help students achieve work-life balance?
Understanding how to prioritize work-life balance can properly prepare you for the future. At the University of Nevada, Reno, there are 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 MSW and BSW 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 said. “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.”

Remember: It’s normal for social workers to get lost in their work and stray off the path to healthy mental clarity. Don’t forget that there is support out there, as it happens to many professionals. Always be willing to ask for help when you find it difficult to find work/life balance on your own.

Recommended Readings:
Rural Students Can Earn An Online MSW Degree from University of Nevada, Reno
Faculty embrace tech as university brings social work curriculum online

Sources:
Ashley Hanna interview
Work Life Balance
6 Ways to improve your work life balance today
Finding Work Life Balance