After a year shaped by the global pandemic, demonstrations prompted by racial injustice and a contentious national election, social workers practicing in 2020 were met with increased demands for their services, as well as a higher risk for burnout.
As a result, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) adopted new language in 2021 that addresses self-care in its code of ethics for the first time since it was founded in 1955:
“Professional self-care is paramount for competent and ethical social work practice. Professional demands, challenging workplace climates and exposure to trauma warrant that social workers maintain personal and professional health, safety and integrity,” according to the NASW Code of Ethics.
Increased difficulties connecting with clients during lockdowns, heightened distress among clients and fears about catching or spreading the coronavirus took an emotional toll on social workers, according to a report by the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW). Among the concerns highlighted by IFSW: fatigue and the need for self-care.
Professional organizations and their leaders recognized that action was needed. The NASW code of ethics update emphasizes that self-care is not an add-on to social work practice but is integral to practice, enabling social workers to serve clients in a competent manner, and insulating themselves from the effects of burnout.
Why Is Self-Care Important for Social Workers?
Self-care is a subject that social workers discuss within their jobs, professional development courses and conferences, according to the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). Social work students feel the stress as well, which means many people who want to help others in need are the most at risk of compassion fatigue, secondary trauma and burnout, CSWE stated.
Social workers aren’t alone. Psychologists, nurses and others in helping professions benefit from practicing self-care. The American Psychological Association encourages its practitioners to take care of themselves so that they do not become stressed or let stress reach a level of distress or impairment.
The wellbeing of social workers and social work students is critical to meet demands. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that between 2020 and 2030, about 78,300 openings for social workers are projected each year. In order to effectively support communities that have been hit the hardest by racial injustice, economic precarity and the ongoing pandemic, it is paramount for social workers to practice self-care.
Social Work License Map has compiled resources for social workers and social work students to maintain mental health and practice self-care as they navigate their profession.
45 Self-Care Resources for Social Workers and Social Work Students
Use the links below to navigate resources to help maintain mental health and learn about self-care strategies for social workers and other helpers:
Self-Care Apps for Social Workers
Self-Care Articles, Tools and Toolkits for Social Workers
Caring for Your Mental Health, National Institute of Mental Health: hub of information about self-care, when to seek professional help and what to do in times of crisis.
Coping With Stress, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: healthy ways to cope with stress and its effects on physical and mental wellbeing.
Did You Know Burnout Is Real? NASW: lists of signs, actions and prevention tips for burnout.
Distress, Therapist Burnout, Self-Care and the Promotion of Wellness for Psychotherapists and Trainees, Society for the Advancement of Psychotherapy: how to assess warning signs of risk of burnout, checklist for positive coping behaviors and more.
Find Three Good Things Each Day, Action for Happiness: video and article on strategies to help find gratitude and use exercises to practice it daily to improve perspective and happiness.
How to Create Your Own Self-Care Plan, Mental Health First Aid: questions and domains to consider when creating a plan to protect yourself so you are able to support others.
Health Care Professionals, National Alliance on Mental Illness: warning signs, resiliency tools and other helpful information for those in health care and the helping professions.
Introduction to Self-Care, University at Buffalo School of Social Work: toolkit with assessments, suggested activities and steps to develop a plan for social work students and professionals.
Mental Health and Resiliency Tools for Health Care Workers: COVID-19, Minnesota Dept. of Health: strategies and suggestions for dealing with common mental, emotional and psychological concerns prompted by the pandemic.
Managing Fatigue During Times of Crisis: Guidance for Nurses, Managers and Other Healthcare Workers, CDC: tips to help health care and social service workers manage fatigue risks.
Mindfulness: 10 Lessons in Self-Care for Social Workers, The New Social Worker: techniques to implement mindfulness to reduce stress and improve your capacity to cope.
Practical Guide to Self-Care for Helping Professionals, Children’s Mental Health Network: ways to increase professional self-care through supportive supervision, self-monitoring and structuring the work environment to value and encourage strong self-care.
Provider Self-Care Toolkit – PTSD, National Center for PTSD: self-assessment, strategies and more for people working with those exposed to traumatic events, to help reduce stress, burnout and secondary traumatic stress.
Quick Coherence Technique for Adults, HeartMath Institute: technique to help release stress and stop draining emotions such as frustration, irritation, anxiety and anger in about 60 seconds.
Screeners for Secondary Traumatic Stress, Center on Trauma and Children: assessments for secondary traumatic stress, burnout, moral distress and stress.
Employee Whole Health, Department of Veterans Affairs: quick, virtual self-care tools to help workers who care for veterans, their families and communities.
Self-Care A-Z: Three Tips for Tending a Self-Care Garden, The New Social Worker: comparison that illustrates how self-care requires the same attention to detail needed to grow healthy plants.
Social Worker Success & Self-Care Toolbox, The New Social Worker: considerations to help reduce stress on the job from a medical social worker.
Staying Mentally Healthy During a Pandemic, NASW: strategies to stay calm, manage stress, overcome anxiety and depression during a crisis.
Taking Care of Your Mental Health in the Face of Uncertainty, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: suggestions to help those struggling during periods of uncertainty.
Taking Care of Yourself, The National Child Traumatic Stress Network: list of self-care ideas to help cope after a difficult event.
Vicarious Trauma & Self-Care Toolkit, Toronto Youth Equity Strategy (PDF, 2.1 MB): guide for frontline workers seeking information and tools to lessen the trauma of their work.
Self-Care Books for Social Workers
The A-To-Z Self-Care Handbook for Social Workers and Other Helping Professionals, Erlene Grise-Owens, Justin “Jay” Miller and Mindy Eaves (editors): framework to build a self-care plan with specific goals and guidance on how to achieve them realistically.
Burnout and Self-Care in Social Work, SaraKay Smullens: updated edition of guide for students and those in mental health professions to help find direction and balance to better serve clients.
Disaster Mental Health Counseling, Fourth Edition, Jane M. Webber and J. Barry Mascari (editors): an examination of the emotional and somatic impact of disaster and trauma work on counselors, the type of traumatic stress that mental health responders experience and interventions to reduce compassion fatigue and the potential for PTSD.
Practicing Mindfulness: 75 Essential Meditations to Reduce Stress, Improve Mental Health and Find Peace in the Everyday, Matthew Sockolov: exercises to develop mindfulness practices for different situations or emotions.
The Resilient Practitioner: Burnout and Compassion Fatigue Prevention and Self-Care Strategies for the Helping Professions, Thomas M. Skovholt and Michelle Trotter-Mathison: self-care action plan, self-reflection exercises, resiliency inventory and more for students and practitioners.
Self-Care in Social Work, Kathleen Cox and Sue Steiner: approaches to self-care through the development of self-awareness, self-regulation and self-efficacy as well as understanding how they align with one’s agency structure and culture.
Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, Kristin Neff: exercises and action plans for dealing with emotionally debilitating struggles.
Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others, Laura van Dernoot Lipsky and Connie Burk: strategies to help social workers and others who work with people who experience trauma so that helpers can overcome feelings of fatigue and numbness.
A Year of Self-Care: Daily Practices and Inspiration for Caring for Yourself, Zoe Shaw: exercises and strategies to jump-start self-care habits.
Self-Care Podcast Episodes for Social Workers
Battling Burnout, NASW Social Work Talks Podcast, Episode 68: discussion about reducing stress, enhancing wellness and strengthening workplace culture.
Burnout and Self-Care in Social Work: We Share Our Stories, The Social Work Stories Podcast, Episode 58: personal experiences about the effects of burnout and compassion fatigue and the role of self-care in coping.
Justice and Joy: Self-Care, NASW Social Work Talks Podcast, Episode 61: importance of self-care and community in uncertain times, especially for people of color.
Self-Care and Avoiding Burnout, NASW Social Work Talks Podcast, Episode 17: strategies for preventing and treating burnout.
Self-Care During the Coronavirus Pandemic, NASW Social Works Talks Podcast, Episode 48: tips for coping during crisis.
Self-Compassion and Secondary Traumatic Stress, Center on Trauma and Children Well@Work Podcast, Episode 8: tips for developing resilience by practicing self-compassion.
Self-Care Initiatives and Organizations for Social Workers
The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress: directory of online support groups for emergency responders, health care workers and social service providers.
Anxiety and Depression Association of America: webinars, articles, guides, therapist directory and more related to the prevention, treatment and cure of anxiety, depression, OCD, PTSD and co-occurring disorders.
International Self-Care Foundation: platform by UK-based global charity to share ideas and raise awareness about the importance of self-care.
Therapy Aid Coalition: free and low-fee short-term therapy for essential workers, including social workers.