I’ve been a social worker for the last 20 years or so. In all the various hats that I’ve worn as a social worker, the recurring theme that seems to play out among my colleagues and myself are the high rates of burnout and the stress level that exists within this field. It is ironic isn’t it? We choose a career to provide advocacy, education, therapy and community resources for individuals who are under served or in a state of trauma and in turn, we begin to feel the after-effects of engaging in that sort of work.
As someone who has been a victim of burnout in my past jobs, I made it a mission within my role as I moved up to supervisory roles that wellness and burnout prevention would be my key priority for staff. I’m of the firm belief that the key to burnout prevention rests with the executive leadership and those in supervisory positions. Practices and policies need to be incorporated into agency guidelines that promote wellness, staff recognition, as well as support in performing their day-to-day tasks.
Reasons for burnout among social workers
There are multiple demands when working with social service agencies and some of that could be systemic obstacles, reporting deadlines and the constant search for funding. Sustainability is big in social service agencies and often those in a leadership capacity, in their desperate search for funding opportunities, will offer unrealistic numbers to their prospective funding sources. They will “say yes” to everything their funder asks them to do and in turn this will trickle down in the form of burnout within the staff. So there has to be a constant dialogue between executive leadership and direct service staff so that executive staff can be in tune with the needs, but more so steer the organization in the right direction—one that’s based on mindfulness, empathy and compassion.
Supervision is key to avoiding burnout. As social workers, therapists, advocates, we hear horrid stories every day—stories of pain, torture, violence, trauma, death, suicide and so much of these stories are beyond our control. Our role is to provide options, provide resources, educate. We cannot change a person, but we can plant seeds of hope in the person to begin the change. We can help people discover tools within themselves that can create change. And that happens one step at a time.
Yet the stories have an impact on our emotional well-being and therefore it’s so important that those in a supervisory position provide support to their staff. Support so that we can continue to be effective in our work, and also so that we don’t begin resenting our work. Those who chose this profession made a choice to do it because it was a passion, not for the money. It’s one of those professions that’s severely underpaid, yet we continue to do it. Our offices are oftentimes in inner city neighbourhoods that are dangerous, drug and gang infested. Violence is the norm on the streets. Yet we continue to work in these areas to rehabilitate and to help women, youth, children, men.
What has worked for me as a supervisor
What are some key factors as a supervisor that has worked for me? There has to be compassion and empathy on the part of the supervisor, and acknowledgment about the positive work that their staff is performing. There has to be a constant check-in on the well-being of their staff because the one day that you don’t check in could have been a very difficult day for that staff person. There has to be grounding on the part of the supervisor. If the supervisor is grounded, the staff will be grounded.
The supervisor must be authentic and real. The supervisor has to create room for the staff to breathe. Our breath is our very centre. It’s our power source and as we allow ourselves to breathe, we regain new energy—the new energy can bring about creativity and more productivity. But if we’re constantly “on the go” without a moment to breathe because of meeting quotas, meeting reporting deadlines, the energy is sapped out. So as a supervisor, we must make the time to breathe with our staff. The supervisor must also be a teacher—not a lecturer.
Sometimes we can learn from our staff and it’s OK to do so. Our staff can come from various backgrounds, bringing a range of expertise to the table. We must be willing to learn and also to teach. The supervisor must be able to set boundaries and expectations for themselves. Just like a child learns from their parent, staff will look to their supervisor and may emulate behaviours of their supervisors. “Saying no” is a very difficult thing to do, and we may be looked at as non-compliant, not part of a team, lacking compassion, but in fact often “saying no” could be the one thing that could prevent burnout. If we’re teaching our clients to advocate for ourselves, we must be able to do the same for ourselves—like Gandhi, says, “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.”
I left a prior job this past year because of a change in philosophy and leadership. It was a difficult decision, yet I made that choice because I didn’t want to be put in a situation where as a supervisor I wasn’t provided the freedom to be supportive to staff and allow their creativity to flourish. My prior supervisor encouraged that and provided that for me, and now that my leadership was gone, it was time for me to go.
I currently work in an organization where executive leadership realizes how important support is for direct service staff. Having that kind of leadership is important and I’m grateful for that. But more than anything I’m grateful for having had the opportunity of being under the supervision of one of the most “authentic” supervisors—her guidance and leadership was what brought me to where I am today. She continued to remind me of who I was, what I stood for and my purpose. She also allowed me to breathe and taught me to take care of myself. And for that I am eternally grateful.