Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Self-Care and Its Importance for Social Workers and Social Work Students

by Victoria Brewster, MSW

I remember from my own graduate school days, 5 classes a week, 3 hours each, 2 full days of internship, course work, a part-time job, and trying to maintain some semblance of a social life.

Staying and being busy is good, but down time is just as important. What exactly is down time? What does that mean for you? As a graduate student in social work or a newly minted social worker, down time equals self-care.

I cannot stress enough the importance of self-care in the social work profession and instilling the concept and importance of it as a student or new professional. Not practicing self-care can lead to burnout. Many students meet with friends to chat or go to parties for needed and important socialization time, and this is a good thing.

Social workers, by their very nature, are nurturing, caring, helpful, want to make a difference, and often put others before themselves. If one wants to still be in the profession in 5, 10, 25, or 30 years, practicing and implementing self-care is a must.

Self-care promotes relaxation, a needed break from work and work related thoughts. I know many helping professionals who do not practice self-care, who lack the motivation, the inclination, the skills, the knowledge, and/or willingness to seek ways to minimize stress. You see it in their interactions with clients and colleagues and by their body language and facial expressions. 

Examples of self-care are: take your lunch break, visit with colleagues and chat about non-work related things, take a walk at lunch, eat lunch outside of the office, engage in hobbies that interest you (i.e. knitting, scrap booking, reading, painting, listening to music, playing sports), take a vacation every 6 months or so (even if it is just a weekend away), practice meditation, and--probably one of the most important--"unplug" every once in a while. No computer, e-mail, Twitter, LinkedIn, or other social media. Institute a no electronics rule--no TV, no iPod or iPad, turn your cell phone to quiet, or better yet turn it off for a few hours. Relax with family and friends, and when you leave work, leave work. 

This means do not take your work home with you, and leave thoughts of work behind. This is difficult for many, and there are times when you have to take your work home to finish paperwork or to prepare for a workshop or presentation. Perhaps you are "on call" for your job after hours or on a weekend. Add some self-care to the mix, and balance your work and non-work life.

A colleague suggested the term "perpetual social work mode." It has to be left behind. As social workers or social work students, often it is part of our nature to be helpful, to assist, to rescue, to say yes even if we are feeling overwhelmed, overworked, and stressed. It is okay to say no.

Many get bogged down with papers, studying, and group projects while trying to perhaps balance a social life and employment. Be supportive of one another, mentor a fellow student, and remember you will leave graduate school behind and enter the professional world. Instill and carry the self-care concept with you into the work world.

Victoria Brewster, MSW, has 16 years of social work experience, 13 of which have been as a case manager and group facilitator with seniors/older adults. Her areas of interest are aging, healthcare, end-of-life issues, improvements in education for youth, advocacy, and social justice. She is is Coordinator of Member Relations and a staff writer at SocialJusticeSolutions.org.

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