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5 Burnout Prevention Strategies for Sensitive Social Workers

Updated: Jan 13

After helping countless Highly Sensitive Social Workers thrive in their careers, I'm revealing my top strategies for burnout prevention. By the end of this blog post, you'll have tools and resources to reduce chronic stress and support your well-being in the workplace.

5 Burnout Prevention Strategies for Sensitive Social Workers

One of the most common questions I get as a consultant for Highly Sensitive Social Workers is:

How do I prevent burnout without quitting my job?”

Knowing how to identify chronic stress and reduce it before it becomes burnout (and you're too sick to work) is essential for maintaining a career in Social Work.

I don't know about you, but I didn't learn anything about burnout prevention in grad school! So, it's not entirely surprising that I experienced burnout early on in my career.

Since then, I've developed skills and practices that allow me to keep showing up for others, without abandoning myself, and I'm going to share some of them here with you.

Before I do, a quick note on Highly Sensitive People and burnout.

Highly Sensitive People (HSP) and Burnout

Along with questions about how to prevent burnout, I'm often asked...

Does being Highly Sensitive make me more susceptible to burnout?”

While being an HSP doesn’t guarantee that you'll burn out, Highly Sensitive Social Workers do face different challenges than other Social Workers that enhance their risk of burning out. Being an HSP means having a high sense of empathy, a passion for helping others, and a tendency to become overstimulated in high paced, emotionally charged environments.

HSPs make fantastic Social Workers because they pick up on subtleties, process things deeply, make creative connections and empathize easily with others.

But, all of this takes a LOT of energy.

Without healthy boundaries, time to process, scheduled rest, and deep self-care, Highly Sensitive Social Workers can end up chronically over-aroused.

Social Worker Burnout Prevention

This is particularly true in unhealthy or toxic workplaces. HSPs are more impacted than non-HSPs by their environments. This means that if the workplace is healthy and supportive, HSPs often thrive. However, if the workplace is toxic HSPs are at higher risk of burnout.

In general, HSPs do best in slower paced environments with supportive employers and colleagues. HSPs who have come to terms with their sensitive nature and have learned to embrace the strengths of their trait, while tending to the challenges with kindness and care, can thrive in the field of Social Work.

Here are 5 ways you can prevent burnout and ensure your career as a Social Worker is sustainable.

5 Burnout Prevention Strategies for Highly Sensitive Social Workers

1. Make Time for Rest & Play

Rest and play assist your nervous system in moving from the stress response to the rest and relaxation response.

Staying in the stress response for extended periods of time leads to chronic stress and burnout. But when you give yourself permission to do things just for fun or to set down the weight of your work, you're telling your nervous system that it is safe to rest and replenish.

I used to feel guilty when having fun, relaxing, or feeling joyful. I’d think, “how can I be enjoying myself when others are suffering?” Over time, I’ve realized that my joy does not add to the suffering of others.

As a Social Worker, you're likely acutely aware of the suffering in the world. So, you may find it challenging to allow yourself to lean into playfulness and joy.

But I want you to know that, not only do you deserve to rest, play and have fun, creating space for rest and joy is essential for staying well enough to continue the important work that you do!

2. Tend to Your Nervous System While at Work

The field of Social Work can be fast-paced, with unending demands, high expectations, and unreasonable caseloads, not to mention the emotional labour required to be present with people in distress.

Understandably, your nervous system is likely triggered into the stress response at some point during most workdays. This is not necessarily bad, but it can be problematic if you stay there all day, every day.

While it might be easier to return to the rest and relaxation response during your free time, it's important that you also regulate your nervous system while at work.

The best way to do this is to establish grounding and self-soothing practices that you can implement throughout your day. Check out this blog post for some effective grounding strategies you can integrate into your workday!

Self-soothing practices are anything that feels comforting to you! This could mean mindfully sipping your favourite tea, wearing something you find particularly comfortable, or imaging your favourite place.

You can also tend to your nervous system by slowing down the pace at which you move from task to task, taking your breaks, and eating when hungry.

Social Work Burnout Prevention Strategies

3. Prioritize Your To-Do List

Social Workers are in high demand, and I'm guessing that you're bombarded with more things than you can possibly get done in a day, each day.

I want to remind you that you're only one person! You simply can't do it all, no matter how badly you want to. And if you try, eventually you'll experience burnout.

But you CAN, show up, do your best, and still make a difference in people's lives.

I recommend taking a look at what's on your plate each day and using your clinical judgment to determine what's the MOST important. Narrow down your top three tasks, and put the rest aside.

If you complete your top three tasks, you can always revisit the other tasks on your list, but you don't need to overwhelm yourself by holding them all in your mind at once.

Breaking your list down to bite sized chunks and single-tasking is a great way to feel calmer and more focused throughout your workday while preventing burnout.

4. Set Emotional & Energetic Boundaries

For HSPs to thrive in Social Work, they need solid and clear boundaries.

Many HSPs struggle to set and maintain boundaries because they fear letting others down (and can really sense others' disappointment when they do). But without healthy boundaries, HSPs set themselves up for burnout.

Emotional boundaries allow you to distinguish your feelings from the feelings of the people around you. Being the empathetic soul that you are, you can likely sense other peoples' emotions & energy, but that doesn't mean you have to soak these up like a sponge. Establishing emotional boundaries will help you notice others' feelings without taking them on as your own.

Cord-cutting meditations and journaling can be helpful in letting go of others' energy after an emotionally charged session or meeting. You can also check out my free meditation for Transitioning from Work to Life.

Energetic boundaries are essential for HSPs because HSPs process every interaction and situation on such a deep level. Have you ever booked something into your schedule because you had an empty time slot, only to discover you didn't have the energy for the additional task?

If that sounds like you, it might be helpful to consider your energy levels when creating your schedule. Examples of energetic boundaries include: scheduling a break in between sessions, limiting how many clients you see in a day or how many high acuity clients you have on your caseload.

“For HSPs to thrive in Social Work, they need solid and clear boundaries.”

In some cases, the healthiest boundary will be to leave a particular work environment completely. Just keep in mind, that if you head into a new role without emotional and energetic boundaries, you could end up on the path to burnout again.

Determining what specific boundaries you need to remain well takes time and practice. I created Boundaries for Burnout Prevention to help you do just that! Learn more about this intensive program to help you develop steadfast emotional and energetic boundaries that honour your sensitivity at work right here.

5. Realign with Your Values and Your Why

Have you ever noticed that we tend to focus on problems in Social Work?

On the one hand, working towards Social Justice means paying attention to and pointing out the issues that others ignore.

AND focusing solely on whats wrong in the world, can contribute to burnout! Feeling hopeless or disheartened by your work is actually a sign of burnout.

Staying connected to why you do this work, your personal values, and your passion for Social Work, will help you stay healthy in this field.

To reconnect with your values and your why, you can ask yourself the following questions:

  • Why did you go into Social Work in the first place?

  • What led you into this specific role?

  • What are your top 5 values? What is most important to you right now?

  • How does the work you're doing align with these values?

HSPs thrive when their work is meaningful and linked to a greater purpose. So, keep returning to what lights you up about your work! And if your current role no longer feels meaningful, it's okay to change it up!

You Don't Need To Go It Alone

If you read through these 5 burnout prevention strategies and felt overwhelmed about implementing them for yourself, reach out to learn more about my 1:1 coaching packages!

Together we'll develop a concrete and personalized burnout prevention plan so that you can continue to do the work you're passionate about, without abandoning yourself.


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