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  • Steve Burghardt

Ouch! How Social Work’s Emphasis on Personal Self-Care is Implicitly Racist & Sexist

A resolute social worker and activist, Stuart Kaufer, rightly challenged me on placing too much emphasis on nostrums of self-care when the underlying structural conditions leading to poor pay and miserable working conditions are far more impactful on the hardships so many social workers confront today. I certainly don’t disagree and in future blogs will discuss such systemic issues—but not yet!

Because so much attention is given to self-care—the NASW Code of Ethics even was revised to add it as an aspiration (!)—I want to peel it back a little more to show how its’ focus in journals, newsletters and professional web pages stymies people from looking more deeply at the structural difficulties they do indeed confront.

I’ll start with a story when I was fortunate enough to work as an executive coach with an assistant commissioner for child welfare protective services in Brooklyn. I arrived one day at her office only to have the meeting cancelled because her borough office manager had just dropped dead.

Two weeks later, another meeting was canceled. The assistant commissioner's deputy director, a woman I had watched effortlessly give a presentation a month earlier, had been hospitalized.

Only in her 40s, she was expected to pull through and be back at work in two weeks. Until then the office staff had to increase their work loads. She didn't pull through. Suffering from a rare blood disease, she died a month later. Her doctor told the assistant commissioner that her immune system was so worn down from stress that she did not have the strength to combat what an average 40-year-old should have.

Given such losses, I pushed for a meeting to discuss staff well-being. The assistant commissioner arrived late. It turned out that two of her staff had had car accidents the previous day.

Two car accidents among a senior staff of 20? I asked her to check with her five office directors for a quick tally. The results: In a three-month period, from among 250 or so employees, nine staff members had been hospitalized and 14 had had car accidents or broken arms or sprained ankles due to falls.

Social workers are not inherently bad drivers or overly clumsy: they’re exhausted, but not simply because of “secondary trauma” or because “they signed up for this.” Part of their exhaustion stems from having to fill in for workers out ill or to cover for positions unfilled—as well as carry their own caseload or community work-- and few leaders, whether politicians or executives-- see anything profoundly wrong with this to do a damn thing about it.

Here’s where the implicit racism and sexism comes in. All those workers over in Brooklyn were African American or Latinix; the vast majorities in any social work agency that serves the poor, marginalized and oppressed are definitely likely to be women as well. No matter where you work, almost all your clients are women, disproportionately people of color. Hmm… put together an overly female, increasingly Black and brown work force with a similar clientele and what do you get?: nothing! If they’re exhausted and ill, there’s nothing we can do… so go out and find those essential oils and take a bubble bath!

When systemic issues of under-funding, staff shortages, and overwork are conflated as the responsibilities of the worker or the worker-client ( you know—the client is the sole reason for ‘secondary trauma’) then eventual blame for any service problems will end up blaming individual workers. Performance failures came about because she/they didn’t care enough; a drop in quality interventions is to be expected…after all, what can you expect of those people?

Proponents of self-care primarily focused on the individual abet longstanding forms of systemic racism and sexism by hiding, once again, the reality that systemic indifference to groups long marginalized in our history is causing harm—and that includes to social workers as well.

If we are to truly make a stand against systemic inequities, we need to propose collective answers to what can appear at first blush to be individual problems. If you’re a social worker reading this, ask yourself: how often have you been ill over the last couple of years? Was it your fault?

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