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The New Social Worker is the quarterly magazine for social work students and recent graduates, focusing on social work careers for those new to the profession. This blog is a companion to the free online magazine at http://www.socialworker.com.

Friday, June 10, 2011

A Confession

Last week was the first week since I was asked to begin blogging here that I didn't write. Last Friday, for the first time since I started this 1st post-MSW job 8+ months ago, I took a vacation day. It made me realize that I am not very good at practicing what I preach.

In many industries, vacation time is easy; someone else fills in the paperwork, someone else crunches the numbers, someone else removes a gall bladder, someone else mops the floors. In our field though, we're not so easily interchanged or separated from our clients. Many times, our clients don't want to share their secrets and their stories with anyone except us, the person they have built trust with. Many times, that leads us to work through our personal pain, our desire to relax, or to skip the vacation time with loved ones. We fear leaving our clients, our coworkers, our offices, our paperwork. So we stay. We work during times of divorce, too soon after medical procedures, far past the hours we are paid, and we miss out on making memories with others in our personal lives in order to help clients heal from the painful memories they've made.

It's a bit like being a superhero; putting the world first, saving the universe one client at a time, right? Realistically though, it is perhaps the worst thing we can do for our clients and for the world.

We work in a field with little pay, little public support, often little community support, high crime, high risk, high stress, and with too-heavy workloads. It's not surprising that our burnout rate is so high. But maybe the vaccine for that is to try to be our own advocate when it comes to vacations, meal breaks, and healing time. Maybe we need to step up for ourselves, even when it goes against our initial instinct, and force ourselves to step back, to breathe, and to regroup.

As I said, this isn't something I'm by any means an expert about, but I'm going to try harder and I hope, by writing about it here, and with this new awareness, that I'll get better at it as I go along.


  1. I was actually just having this discussion with a coworker. We have students who come into their placement and do this exact thing and we really struggle helping them set appropriate boundaries. When we say boundaries, they think we're talking about with clients, but we're more talking about themselves. It is not appropriate to skip taking care of ourselves, working past our appropriate hours, skipping vacations or anything like that just for clients. This is a disservice to not only ourselves, but our profession...and in all honesty, to our clients. It not only gives the system an idea that this it's okay to lean on workers with loose boundaries and not increase funding, but it gives our clients the idea that they HAVE to rely on us and can't deal with life themselves. They will survive. They have for this long and they generally will into the future. Or someone else can help them.

    Good on you for having the epiphany, and I hope it'll help you with making changes. I think not only can we be great advocates for our clients but we can also be good advocates for our profession and ourselves. Take your breaks, take your lunches, don't work past your paid hours without compensation, take sick days and take vacations. 


  2. Shanniel ShakespeareJune 21, 2011 at 1:55 PM

    That's pretty good advice!! I have one more year as a social work student and I am just gaining an appropriate understanding of what boundaries entail. I realize now that to take care of ourselves as social workers is not a heinous crime punishable by the dislike of my clients and their family members. As antiSWer mentioned, it is a good way of letting our clients know that they have the capablities to do things for themselves. Well I have never been on practicum and hopefully when I'm given the chance I'll remember that I need to cater to myself so I will be better able to serve and offer my best.

  3. Dennis (www.saint-louise.com)June 27, 2011 at 1:21 PM

    What a great reminder!  I am especially prodded by your observation that "We fear leaving our clients, our coworkers, our offices, our paperwork."  I serve in child welfare where the fear of stepping away from our work is heightened by the extreme vulnerability of our clients.  Yet, as you've noted, if we don't care for ourselves, our bodies, our souls, our work is undermined in the end.  I am trying to take time each day to reorient my work around faith instead of fear.  I will keep you in my thoughts and prayers as we try to grow in this aspect of our professional and personal lives.