The importance of self-care is undeniable, especially for social workers. Self-care is looking after our health and mental well-being so that we can do our job in caring for others. Social workers deal with the hurts of others. As much as we guard against uncontrolled emotional involvement, we do get affected by the trauma encountered by the ones who are most vulnerable.
While the emotional strain may come in occasional doses, the heavy workload, the piling case recordings and reports, the long hours when dealing with crises, the intermittent weekend deployments; all exert their accumulative toll on the physical health and mental wellbeing of the social workers.
Many of us may have made promises to take better care of our 'selves' to keep burnout at bay. We made plans to go to the gym, to spend time with family and friends, to take long walks, to catch up on our reading, to pick up our craftworks that have been gathering dust or even to sleep in a little longer than usual. Yet, these well-made plans would often come to nought when other priorities creep in, demanding our time and attention.
Too often, the sense of empathy we have sharpened in our social work career becomes the Achilles' heel that prevents us from exercising compassion on our 'selves'. We feel guilty to indulge in a private 'me time' because of others who, we think, deserve more of us than ourselves.
That is the very reason that we must learn to incorporate self-care into our daily work. A little morsel of time, set aside for self-compassion might be less guilt-inducing than to carve a few hours of the day. Of course, the latter is still the ideal, but having pockets of self-care moments daily will help serve as reminders that our well-being matters too.
Self-Care at Work
Throughout my career, I have picked up practices that helped me remained centred and balanced. These are useful to help me last the work-week; sufficient respite until my next full-fledged self-care activity.
Here are my three tips:
1. Know yourself
Our social work training has taught us the importance of self-awareness when working with clients. We are concerned about having judgmental tendencies and imposing our values. We practice reflexivity to continually assess if our clients' adversities have triggered memories of our own past hurts that may impact on our worker-client relationship and the work we do with them.
Yet, another part of self-awareness that is as important is knowing your 'personhood'. What stresses you? What helps to calm you down? What zaps your energy? What keeps you going? What do you do to focus? What distracts you? Are you an introvert or do you enjoy company? These questions are important for self-care.
For example, being an introvert, I find speaking to strangers ( read: new clients ) or being in situations that require me to hold long conversations to be very draining. I need quiet time to recover from doing something beyond my comfort zone. Hence, I have made it a point not to have back-to-back client sessions or not having one event, like networking meetings, following another. When these are unavoidable, I engaged in 'tuning-out' activities to break the two events. Having pockets of quiet time help me regain my energy.
2. Engage in quick 'self-care' practices
What are 'tuning out' activities? These are things I would do to clear my thoughts and re-centre myself to prepare for the next activity in my schedule. These are my 'self-care' activities that I incorporated at work, in-between sessions as well. They include:
i. a short 3 to 5 minutes walk around the neighbourhood.
ii. making a hot drink and slowly sipping it at one corner of the office.
iii. a short power nap (10 minutes) during lunch hour.
iv. having a nutritious lunch, alone ( extroverts would likely prefer with friends - do what energises you).
v. breathing/stretching exercises.
vi. nurturing someone with affirmations and simple kind acts ( make a hot cuppa for your colleague! )
vii. writing a page in the reflection journal.
viii. doing mundane things - like shredding paper, cleaning the workspace, organising the casefiles, etc.
ix. reading a page from a book.
x. any other actvities that break your work into manageable parts.
Quick self-care practices are activities that help you to wind down, refocus and re-energise. Our responsibility to our client demands us to give them our full attention and best efforts. Self-care is like maintenance of your self as the tool in the helping relationship.
3. Practice self-compassion reminders
The work we do is often connected to people in crises, facing trauma and life challenges. The very nature of our work; that we are perceived to be in a position of power to assist; puts a strain on our emotional well-being - to deliver compassion to our clients no matter how spent we are, because we keep telling ourselves that no matter how difficult our lives are, it is better than what our clients are going through.
We have bought into the myth of social workers as superheroes of empathy that we regularly put ourselves in a dilemma of not wanting to walk away at the end of the workday, yet, needing to recoup our energies to be of benefit to others tomorrow.
Supervisors may remind social workers to take the time to practice self-care; but they too can be guilty of modelling self-sacrifice by foregoing their own self-care in the midst of 'important work' which gives a conflicting message to their junior workers.
All of us need to recognise that we are also 'wounded healers' in need of self-compassion to survive for another day in our strive for social justice.