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Reflective practice as self-care: cultivating professional resilience and preventing burnout in social workers 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone has become more aware of the importance of mental health— not only of those who seek therapeutic services but also those who provide them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 40 percent of adults in the United States have been struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues, and rates of depression and anxiety have risen since 2019[1]. Social work practitioners have been inundated with persons seeking help, and serving their clients’ needs as well as their own can cause professional burnout or compassion fatigue.

Burnout can impair a social worker’s ability to fulfill their ethical responsibility to their clients. It is characterized by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment. Social work practitioners experiencing burnout can be less-attuned and less-sensitive to themselves and others.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) recognizes that a social worker’s well-being directly impacts their work, and in 2021, the NASW instituted a new emphasis on self-care as an element of ethical practice.

Professional self-care is paramount for competent and ethical social work practice. Professional demands, challenging workplace climates, and exposure to trauma warrant that social workers maintain personal and professional health, safety, and integrity… Social workers should take measures to care for themselves professionally and personally.[2]

So how does a social work practitioner thrive amid professional overwhelm and challenges to their own mental health? What does self-care look like for the social worker?

In the last ten years, the public has been inundated with blogs, articles and memes about self-care practices which range from Friday nights-in with wine and chocolate, spa visits to scheduling an appointment with a therapist. Although these practices are important, are they sufficient in preventing compassion fatigue and burnout? How can self-care be integrated into the professional context?

Professional self-care can include activities at the organizational and personal level. This might include setting boundaries with clients, attending professional development workshops, advocating for one’s needs within the organization, ensuring work does not interfere with time dedicated to family and friends, seeking support from peers and supervisors, and regular reflective supervision[3].

Glassburn, Lay and McGuire argue that at the heart of professional self-care is reflective practice. Borrowing from Fook, they define reflective practice in social work as “an intentional, critical examination of our practice experiences for the purpose of obtaining insight, self-awareness, direction, and competence.”[4] Social workers are asked to critically examine what they do, why they do it, how their practice both reflects and affects who they are, and what they believe about people’s struggles and change process.

Findings from a recent study by Curry& Epley[5] suggest that reflective practice is a developmental process that is multi-dimensional and inherently emotional and relational. In fact, being in relationships with important others in a reflective practice context is an essential component to gaining increased awareness of self; self in relation to others; multiple perspectives; culture; and context, systems, and policies. With increased self-awareness, the social worker can activate strategies that range from setting boundaries to seeking additional training and support. These strategies can be described as active coping, which evidence has shown is associated with less burnout[6].

CEU Opportunity:

What are your intentional habits of professional self-care? This workshop at Erikson Institute  satisfies the 3 CEU requirement for ethics training, emphasizing the connection between ethical social work practice and self-care; reflective practice; and tools that support professional resilience and mitigate burnout.

[1] Caron, C. (2021, September 14). Nobody has openings: Mental health providers struggle to meet demand. New York Times

[2] NASW (2021, February 19). Highlighted revisions to the NASW Code of Ethics. NASW.

[3] Glassburn, S., Lay, K. & McGuire, L. (2019) “Reflection as self-care: models for facilitative supervision”: Reflective Practice, DOI: 10.1080/14623943.2019.1674271

[4] Glassburn, Lay & McGuire, 2019

[5] Curry, A. & Epley, P. (2020) “It Makes You a Healthier Professional”: The Impact of Reflective Practice on Emerging Clinicians’ Self-Care, Journal of Social Work Education, DOI: 10.1080/10437797.2020.18178250)

[6] Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W. B., & Leiter, M. P. (2001). Job burnout. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 397–422.


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