Working in the human services can be very stressful. When your job is to take care of other people who are often at the lowest points in their lives, it can seem like your own health and welfare are less important. However, like they say on airplanes, you have to put the mask on yourself first before you put the mask on others. The notion of ‘self-care’ is really important to being at your best professionally and personally. As a social worker, I have only been asked once in an interview about what I do to take care of myself, and that was 25 years ago. And yet the stresses of our jobs trying to find ever more limited resources for ever more needy people means that we are at as high a risk of burnout as ever. Without humans there is no service and no matter how much or how little money your organization has, the key to your program is your talented and dedicated staff so do not take them for granted. Social workers are at high risk for compassion fatigue and burnout. Compassion fatigue results from caring for too many for too long and leads to less empathy for clients and their suffering. Burnout is a state of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion that is caused by too much stress for too long.
Burned out staff provide poor service and make bad decisions and are not very productive. They may also experience depression, anger, anxiety, irritability, chronic illness, and conflictual relationships with friends, family and colleagues. This not only costs money in terms of health costs, lower productivity and absenteeism but also in terms of poorer client outcomes. Furthermore, the turnover that results from burned out staff is also very costly in terms of quality of service and hiring and retention costs. Nobody comes to social work to make a lot of money so money is not the only way to attract, hire, retain and promote the best staff. Healthier and happier social workers are able to engage with client systems in efficient, effective and productive ways, building client and professional relationships that engender feelings of compassion, collegiality and competence.
We come to this profession because of our passion and care for people and to stay in this profession we need to have passion and care for our own well-being. The business of self-care tends to focus overwhelmingly on individual strategies to reduce stress and improve coping and resilience, but because much of our stress is created by our work environment it is possible to create work cultures that are nurturing and supportive instead of overwhelming and exhausting.
So how can managers in social work create healthier and happier workplaces and workforces that provide the best service to clients by the most engaged and productive staff?
Thanks and Praise
Start with gratitude. Whether you manage one person or fifty, take time to show appreciation for the efforts of your staff to provide the best services they can to clients. Make a ritual out of it. At staff meetings, say a general thank you as well as publicly acknowledge staff who stood out during the past week or month or however often you have your meetings. Research shows that handwritten notes have the most impact on the recipient and the giver so buy a stack of thank you cards and write a personal note to a staff member when they have gone above and beyond. Give clients the opportunity to say thank you to staff who have helped them by providing feedback forms that allow them to give kudos as well as criticism and then share these with staff on a regular basis. Based on client feedback you can select an employee of the month and provide that staff with a small gift like a gift card, or even better a day off.
Rest and Restore
Second, make sure that staff have the ability to re-group and re-energize on a regular basis. Burnout is the number one cause of high turnover in human service agencies so make sure that your staff has enough time to recover from particularly stressful days and have regular holidays. Comp time is one way to prevent feelings of overwork and overwhelm in agencies that do not have an overtime pay policy. I have worked at agencies that give back time right away so that if you had a family visit that went until 8 pm the night before, the next morning you would come in 3 hours later the next day. But that can be challenging to manage if you have a big staff, so perhaps you can make your staff take comp time in one-day increments. Create a log that staff can use to track their comp time. As for vacation time, although the USA does not have legal guarantees for vacation time, having at least 3 weeks vacation time allows your staff to be able to take enough time to clear their mind and come back feeling engaged and ready to make good decisions for your clients. Even if workloads cannot support days off, encourage staff to take regular breaks during the day to stretch, get some fresh air, do some yoga, take a walk or eat a healthy snack.
Flextime and Flexplace
Flexibility in terms of work hours and work places allow staff more control over their worktime. And in a culture of giving and serving where staff is not usually in control, giving back some control fosters goodwill and loyalty. Flextime can mean a later start and later end to the day which often works for clients who have to work or go to school during the day. It also allows your commuting staff to avoid rush hour which reduces their stress levels. Other options include choices like 4 10-hour days with one day off each week or an hour extra every day and every other Friday off. This allows staff to still put in their required hours while giving them regular time off.
Having the choice to work from home (or a co-working space or café of their choice) also gives some autonomy to staff and research has shown that many workers are more productive when they are not in the office. Not everyone does well without regular supervision but in a field full of ‘paperwork’, allowing staff to work from another location reduces some of the stresses – and distractions – of being in the office.
Share and Support
A lot of the stress from human services comes from listening to people’s problems all day and then dealing with our own problems at night. Creating a supportive work environment where staff are able to share with each other and support each other will also lower burnout and turnover. Structure time in your agenda for staff meetings or supervision for problem-solving a particularly difficult case (taking in mind confidentiality of course), and also create time to hear about client successes. It is easy to forget that people do get better and that our work matters when there is not much time between clients to really celebrate and honor the work that we do. People come to social work to be the change they want to see in the world and sometimes it is easy to feel as if we are on a never-ending treadmill of one crisis after another. So any time we can take to acknowledge and appreciate that our personal and agency missions and visions are being realized can fortify us for those moments when it seems like nothing we are doing is making a difference.
Ruth C. White, PhD, MPH, MSW is a Clinical Associate Professor in the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work at the University of Southern California, where she has taught in the Virtual Academic Center (VAC) for almost 5 years. She is the VAC lead for the course on management of human services organizations, which she has taught to hundreds of students. Prior to USC she gained tenure at Seattle University and taught at San Francisco State University for many years. She has worked as a volunteer with human service organizations in the USA, Canada, Belize, the UK, and Uganda. She currently resides in Oakland, CA where she is searching for the right volunteer opportunity.