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  • Steve Burghardt

Most Social Worker Self-Care Is a Threat to Your Well-Being!

Yahoo! In 2021, NASW added to its Code of Ethics the following: “(the profession)

encourages all social workers to engage in self-care, ongoing education, and other activities to ensure their commitment to those same core features of the profession.” If you don’t read this too closely, it’s a new day in a new way: social workers matter at last!

But read it again: As. Allan Barsky astutely wrote recently in The New Social Worker, NASW intends the self-care language as “supportive and aspirational, rather than mandatory.” As he goes on to say, “self-care is important but in a pinch other obligations take precedence.” Social workers are to keep commitments to their clients and communities as fundamental standards of practice yet, Barsky asks, “Why are our responsibilities to all these other commitments framed as definitive; but, our responsibilities to our selves framed as aspirational?”

It’s time to address the pinch, not the person! If our Code of Ethics places self-care as aspirational, it’s an add-on to the day, not built into the day. It also remains the responsibility of the social worker, not the social work agency, profession, or its funding arms. Popular writing does little to lessen the guilt-inducing responsibility on you: The authors of Self-Care and Social Work wrote “ (social workers) fail to practice self-care because they become wrapped up in a state of mind that suggests that they need to work nonstop” (Cox & Steiner, 2013) Such analysis places the pinch inside your head, not where it belongs—underfunding, unrealistic grant outcomes, cultural ‘Agency Social Darwinist’ norms that too many executives use to make workers feel guilty for not doing more—all the time.

If you work 45 hours a week and are paid for 35, that’s a pinch; if you have as much data input every day as client contact, that’s a pinch; if you have to take a part-time job on the weekends or in the evening to pay off your student debt from social work school, that’s a pinch. Three pinches pierce the idea that a lack of self-care stems from your state of mind.

Recalibrating where the problem of burnout and exhaustion lies is a first step towards actual healing—both for you and the people with whom you work. Why don’t agencies provide genuine respite on the job for the worker when they have to remove a crying child from a home or a terrified older person from their hoarded apartment? Why do fire fighters have a safety officer on the scene when a fire occurs to guarantee their post-incident recovery time but a social worker entering a drug den to find a client is expected to be at work later that day to keep inputting those records ? Why are those who are exhausted from over-work seen as noble in the profession rather than reasons why the profession should fight for structural change that curtail the exhaustion?

For self-care to heal anyone , it must be grounded in a person’s self-worth. Ignoring the lacerating working conditions, financial strain and physical and emotional exhaustion of social workers diminishes their worth while casting blame on those who think otherwise. Until we address the real causes behind the heightened need for social worker self-care, individualized nostrums of self-care are a threat to your well-being!

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