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Self-Care in the Social Service Workforce

Heather Modlin's picture

by Heather Modlin, PhD, Provincial Director, Key Assets Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada

Self-care is a hot topic these days, particularly for those of us in a helping profession. We know that working closely with people who are struggling makes us vulnerable to struggling ourselves. As we interface with the pain of others we are susceptible to experiencing vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue and burnout. Add to this the long hours, isolation and shortage of resources with which many in the social service workforce are familiar and the risks multiply. It is important to acknowledge the toll that working in this sector can have on practitioners and openly discuss ways in which the risks can be mediated. 

I am not a fan of the traditional self-care rhetoric. While there is nothing wrong with taking care of ourselves, I am concerned that sometimes the discourse on self-care crosses over into self-indulgence. Self-care is really about monitoring and knowing ourselves, taking responsibility for ourselves and making sure that we are the best we can be in every functional domain. Self-care is about continuous growth and development. 

The most useful self-care framework I have come across, from the Child Welfare League of Canada, that focuses on helping people recognize what gives them energy and what depletes their energy across various functional domains. Download in pdf format.   

Self care framework

The premise of this framework is that we can’t – nor do we need to – stop doing the things that deplete our energy. We just need to ensure that as we use up energy, we concurrently create energy. We also need to recognize that this must be individualized – generalized self-care platitudes can be harmful when we assume that they apply to everyone in the same way. Let me provide an example. 

Several years ago I was teaching a group of child and youth care students in their last semester of a two year diploma program.  These bright and committed students, who until this semester had been showing up for class enthusiastic and eager to participate in the learning process, were now dragging themselves through the door, looking tired and demoralized, muttering under their breath about how burnt out they were. I was concerned about them and also curious about how they had gotten to this place, and I decided to spend a day exploring self-care. We did the exercise above. One of the students was a single parent. In addition to attending school full-time and raising her three children, she had worked a part-time job in the retail sector. Bowing to pressure from her family and friends that she was going to “burn herself out” she quit her job. When she completed her self-care table, she identified that the things that depleted her energy were her children and school. Being at work, in a job she loved, gave her energy. In a misguided effort to prevent herself from becoming stressed out, this student gave up the part of her life that was keeping her energized. Even worse, some of the activities she had engaged in with her children, that gave her energy, were no longer affordable since she had lost the income from her job. After doing this exercise, the student went back to work and her symptoms of “burn out” immediately disappeared. 

This example is not representative of all situations, and it does not reflect scenarios in which employees are negatively impacted by the stress of the job. This example is also not intended to imply that burn out is not a real thing – it is. Sometimes, however, when we think we are burnt out we may be just tired. We may need to get our energy back up. To do this, we need to know ourselves and we need to recognize what we have the capacity to control. We may not be able to control our work hours, our organizational environment, the challenges of the work itself, or even what consumes our time outside of work, but we can control our mindset. This is where self-care starts.

Related Resources 

As we wrap up Social Service Workforce Week with this focus on the importance of self-care for the social service workforce, some suggested further reading: