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Self-Care for Social Workers to Minimize Burnout

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Published on: 02/21/2024
Last Updated: 02/21/2024
6 minute read

Burnout is a very real possibility for social workers due to their high levels of responsibility and the nature of their duties. A recent study of social workers published by The National Library of Medicine found they experience:1

  • Alarmingly high levels of emotional exhaustion (70.1%)
  • Rampant depersonalization (48.5%)
  • Low levels of personal accomplishment (36.6%)

Burnout can both cause and stem from these negative emotions and can be difficult to control. Self-awareness in social work is important to identify these signs and take action. Employing effective self-care strategies can help individuals prevent or overcome social worker burnout before it becomes too severe.

In this guide, we’ll discuss self-care for social workers and explain what they can do to maintain balance in a demanding field.

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Understanding the Importance of Self-Care in Social Work

Self-care means reserving time for activities that improve your physical and mental health while increasing your overall quality of life.2 Self-care practices can be different for everyone, but typically involve relaxing or stress-relieving activities such as:

  • Meditation
  • Reading
  • Exercise
  • Resting

A self-care practice can be almost anything that heals your body and mind—which can vary greatly from person to person. 

While not all social workers may use the same self-care tips and methods, they should all set aside the time to practice self-care. Those in the social work practice face a variety of factors that make them especially prone to burnout, including:3

  • Inadequate staffing
  • Excessive workloads
  • A lack of support
  • Poor leadership
  • Limited opportunities for skill development
  • A negative public perception

In order to resist the potential burnout these issues can cause, social workers should recognize its signs before they become too severe and establish an effective professional self-care plan to help combat them. 

Recognizing the Signs of Burnout

Burnout can manifest differently in everyone. Some are open and honest about how their workload weighs down on them, while others bottle it up and repress their feelings. Regardless of individual variation, some of the most common signs of professional burnout include:4

  • Questioning the value of your work
  • Finding it difficult to motivate yourself to do your job
  • Losing patience with colleagues and clients
  • Feeling disconnected from your profession
  • Self-doubt
  • Low energy
  • Abusing alcohol, drugs, food, or other outlets to unwind from workplace stresses
  • Physical symptoms, such as headaches or stomach pains

If you feel these or similar symptoms creeping on or becoming more severe, it may be time to step back and examine your self-care habits. Finding the right self-care tips and strategies can make the difference between overcoming burnout and letting it overtake you, even if workplace stresses become difficult.

Practical Self-Care Strategies

As mentioned, each individual has their own ways of expressing self-care and dealing with burnout. If you’re looking for a solid place to start, however, you may want to consider trying:

  • Exercise – Exercise is a classic stress-management technique that works wonders for millions. In one study, nearly 80% of men and an even greater percentage of women reported using exercise as a stress management strategy.5
  • Nutrition – Both undereating and overeating can make you weak and lethargic. Instead, try maintaining a balanced diet rich in mental health-friendly, brain-boosting foods such as berries, leafy greens, and fatty fish.6
  • Mindfulness – Mindfulness is one of the most well-known meditation practices and that’s for one simple reason: it works. High-stress workers who practice daily meditation can significantly reduce feelings of anxiety, insomnia, and burnout and foster an overall better state of mental health.7

In addition to these practices, maintaining a healthy work-life balance is key to preventing burnout. That means understanding when to say ‘No’ to additional duties and ensuring that you build time into your schedule to what makes you happy—whatever that may be. 

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Creating a Sustainable Self-Care Routine

Self-care doesn’t have to be grandiose lifestyle changes—it can simply mean making slight adjustments to your daily routine that help you feel better. Some tips to incorporate self-care into your regular schedule include:

  • Identifying colleagues or duties that cause you stress and finding healthy ways of dealing with them
  • Waking up early to get in a quick exercise session before work
  • Packing a healthy lunch and taking the time to enjoy it, rather than rushing through eating to get back to work
  • Maintaining a positive attitude in your workplace and addressing any interpersonal issues swiftly and calmly
  • Knowing when work is becoming too much and taking time off for personal relaxation

There's no magical formula for a professional self-care plan—everyone enacts and experiences it differently. Keep making small, meaningful improvements to your daily routine and, soon enough, you’ll find out what self-care practices work best with your lifestyle.

Support Systems and Professional Resources

Strong personal support can make a huge difference in preventing or reducing the effects of burnout. Your peers at work are a natural group to look to as they keenly understand your profession's unique struggles and strife.

Beyond this immediate circle, you may want to seek other professional help to deal with work-related stress and maintain personal balance. Hence, you may want to consider:

  • Utilizing any professional counseling services your employer offers
  • Learning more about self-care by studying or contacting agencies like the International Self-Care Foundation 
  • Seeking out professional development opportunities to make your work more fulfilling or move up to a position you find more personally rewarding

Alliant’s Commitment to Student Well-Being

If you’re considering pursuing opportunities for personal development and are learning how to become a social worker in California and other states, an excellent place to begin looking is Alliant International University. 

Alliant offers an online master’s of social work (MSW) program that can help equip you with the skills to deal with job-related burnout. Whether it’s by gaining the knowledge you need to pursue future aspirations or getting a more robust picture of burnout and self-care, students in our school of psychology often leave with a firmer understanding of their own mental health and work-life balance. 

And, while you’re here, you’ll have support from both your professors and your peers. From advisors to student groups, there are myriad student services you can take advantage of to prevent student burnout and maintain a healthy study-life balance during your degree. 


  1. “Predictors of Burnout in Social Workers: The COVID-19 Pandemic as a Scenario for Analysis.” National Library of Medicine. May 19, 2021. Accessed January 8, 2024. 
  2. “Caring for Your Mental Health.” National Institute of Mental Health. December 2022. Accessed January 8, 2024. 
  3. “Work Engagement, Burnout and Personal Accomplishments Among Social Workers: A Comparison Between Those Working in Children and Adults’ Services in England.” National Library of Medicine. April 26, 2018. Accessed January 8, 2024. 
  4. “Job burnout: How to spot it and take action.” Mayo Clinic. November 30, 2023.…. Accessed January 8, 2024. 
  5. “Using Exercise as a Stress Management Technique During the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Differences Between Men and Women in College.” National Library of Medicine. October 1, 2021. Accessed January 8, 2024. 
  6. “Foods linked to better brainpower.” Harvard Health. March 6, 2021.…. Accessed January 8, 2024.
  7. “Study Identifies Meditation as Potential Strategy for Reducing Healthcare Worker Burnout.” Duke University School of Medicine. October 11, 2022.…. Accessed January 8, 2024. 

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