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Professional Self-Care and Social Work Practice

2/6/2013 8:00:00 AM
Written By:
Lee Phillips, MSW, LCSW, CSAC

Professional self-care is an essential underpinning to best practice in the profession of social work. The need for professional self-care has relevance to all social workers and other mental health professionals in the setting in which they practice. The practice of self-care is critical to the survival and growth of the profession. Yet research has shown that professional self-care has not been fully examined or addressed within the profession.

The profession of social work offers unique challenges that are both rewarding and potentially overwhelming. It is not often that social workers engage in thoughtful discourse of the unique challenges of the profession and ways of addressing and managing the effect of these challenges. Whitaker, Weismiller, & Clark (2006) note numerous stressors are prevalent in the social work arena such as:

  • Long hours
  • Time constraints and deadlines
  • Large and professionally challenging client caseloads
  • Limited or inadequate resources
  • Crisis and emergencies
  • Low pay
  • Safety concerns
  • Lack of resources and autonomy

The earliest explorations of the effect of helping in social work practice recognized the risk of stress and burnout. Many authors connected with the work of Maslach (1993, 2003) who defined burnout as "a syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment that can occur among individuals who do "people-work" of some kind." Later definitions included a loss of a sense of commitment to the profession, and disengagement and distancing from clients (Conrad & Joseph, 2003; Joseph, 1988).

The critical key to prevention and management of adverse conditions such as stress, burnout, and compassion fatigue is to practice self-care. Barker (2003) conceptualized self-care as the combination of three processes:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-regulation
  • Balancing connections between self, others, and larger community

Professional self-care in social work can be defined as a core essential component to social work practice and reflects a choice and commitment to become actively involved in maintaining one's effectiveness as a social worker. Furthermore, in promoting the practice of self-care, a repertoire of self-care strategies is essential to support the social worker and other mental health professionals in preventing, addressing, and coping with the natural, yet unwanted, consequences of helping (Lopez, 2007).

Professional self-care is vital to the profession of social work for several reasons:

  • Professional self-care is an essential component in competent, compassionate, and ethical social work practice, requiring time, energy, and commitment.
  • Promoting the practice of professional self-care in social work explicitly acknowledges the challenging and often overwhelming nature of the work.
  • Professional self-care places emphasis on primary prevention of these unwanted conditions and implies the tools and strategies should be part of one's overall professional self-care plan. Actively preparing social workers and other mental health professionals with knowledge and skill for overcoming these experiences is key.
  • Professional self-care in social work is critical in maintaining ethical and professional behavior and providing competent services to clients across diverse settings.
  • Although the practice of professional self-care applies to all social workers and other mental health professionals, it is especially critical when providing care to traumatized populations.

A repertoire of self-care strategies is essential to support the social worker and other mental health professionals. These self-care strategies include:

  • Healthy eating
  • Physical fitness and immunity
  • Reducing stressTime management
  • Relaxation and deep breathing
  • Mindfulness
  • Avoiding compassion fatigue
  • Assertiveness

To learn more about these self-care activities, go to: http://www.socialwork.buffalo.edu/students/self-care/exercises.asp

Acknowledging professional self-care in social work is an important first step in preserving the integrity of social workers and retaining valued professionals in the profession. Actively preparing social workers to effectively face these conditions will support social workers in maintaining their commitment to the profession.


  1. Barker E. (2003). Caring for ourselves as psychologists. Retrieved January 21 2012 from http://www.google.com
  2. Conrad, A. P., & Joseph, M.V. (2003). Spirituality and burnout prevention. In Solid Practice III. Hong Kong: Cosmos Books.
  3. Joseph, M. V. (1988). The roots of burnout: Implications of church ministries. Church Personal Issues, pp. 1-6.
  4. Lopez, S.A. (2007, July20). Professional self-care & social work. Opening keynote Address- NASW Texas Chapter Sandra A. Lopez Leadership Institute, Austin.
  5. Maslach, C. (1993). Burnout: A multidimensional perspective. In W. B. Schaufeli, C. Maslach, & T. Marek (Eds.), Professional burnout: Recent developments in theory and research (pp.19-32). Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis.
  6. Maslach, C. (2003). The burnout: The cost of caring. Cambridge, MA: Malor Book.
  7. Whitaker, T., Weismiller, T., & Clark, E. (2006). Assuring the sufficiency of a frontline workforce:
  8. A national study of licensed social workers [Executive Summary]. Washington, DC: National Association of Social Workers.

Lee Phillips is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a Certified Substance Abuse Counselor in the state of Virginia. Lee holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication from Old Dominion University and a Master of Social Work degree from Norfolk State University. Lee is currently pursuing his Doctor of Education degree in Organizational Leadership with an Emphasis in Behavioral Health from Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, AZ. Lee is employed full time as a Licensed Therapist with Child & Adolescent Services at Colonial Behavioral Health. Lee is employed part time in private practice in Williamsburg, VA. Lee has over 8 years of experience in treating mood, anxiety, and substance use disorders using a client-centered, strength based, and cognitive behavioral approach.

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