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7 Ways Boundaries Prevent Burnout for Sensitive Social Workers

Updated: Jan 9

After supporting countless Highly Sensitive Social Workers in navigating the field of Social Work and addressing signs of burnout, I'm revealing why establishing healthy boundaries must be a part of your burnout prevention plan. By the end of this blog post, you'll know what boundaries are and how they can support you in your career as a Social Worker.

Social Worker stands in her place of work, smiling, looking at the camera with her arms crossed.  She is feeling confident and content at work due to her healthy boundaries. You can see her colleagues chatting in a group behind her.

Before writing this blog, I visited the website Answer The Public to see what folks have been typing into their Google search bar regarding Social Work. If you're unfamiliar with Answer The Public, it’s a keyword tool that outlines suggested searches from Bing and Google based on what people commonly search. While many of the results were typical of any profession (e.g. What can a social worker do? Why is Social Work important? Will social workers be needed in the future?), others were, frankly, shocking. Here are a few statements that Social Workers have been typing into their google search bar… “Social Work is toxic.” “Social Work is stressful.”

“Social Work is making me depressed.”

“Social Work is making me ill.”

“Social Work is killing me.

These were listed alongside several questions about how to avoid, prevent or recover from Social Work burnout. While I’ve been aware that burnout is way too common in the Social Work profession, seeing these statements typed out in this way and imagining the Social Workers Googling these statements in desperation illuminated the importance of having open conversations about why burnout occurs and how to prevent it.

The fact that kind-hearted, social justice-oriented folks are entering this field and leaving because they are suffering so profoundly makes my heart ache and fuels my desire to create a different culture in the field of Social Work.

There are many ways to prevent burnout and stay well in the work. Most employers preach the importance of self-care (on your own time of course). While I'm a strong proponent of Social Workers practicing deep self-care, I wanted to focus on burnout prevention strategies that employers don’t usually mention… Specifically, BOUNDARIES.

A Social Worker sits in front of her computer in her office, smiling and gazing across the room.

What Are Healthy Social Work Boundaries?

When I say boundaries, I'm referring to the limits and rules we set for ourselves or within relationships that distinguish what is safe and appropriate. We have many types of boundaries, including physical, intellectual, emotional, sexual, material, and time boundaries.

While each individual's boundaries may look different, healthy boundaries have enough flexibility to allow for connection with others while keeping us safe. The purpose of setting boundaries is to protect your dignity and ensure your own safety.

For Social Workers working in agency settings or in private practice, examples of boundaries might include:

  • Physical boundaries regarding what type of physical contact is appropriate between you and your clients and you and your co-workers

  • Time boundaries regarding when you take breaks, eat lunch, and start and end work

  • Emotional boundaries, such as not taking your clients’ emotions on as your own

  • Intellectual boundaries, such as single-tasking and not being accessible by phone or email while doing certain tasks

  • Scheduling boundaries, such as setting aside specific times for specific tasks or booking time between sessions to process, transition, and practice self-care

  • Caseload boundaries, such as having a maximum number of clients on your caseload that you see in a day or limiting the number of high-risk clients on your caseload

Knowing your ideal boundaries (the ones that allow you to show up and connect with your clients while protecting your well-being and energy levels) is essential to burnout prevention. This is true for all Social Workers, but especially Highly Sensitive ones!

7 Ways Boundaries Prevent Burnout

1. Boundaries Reduce Overstimulation

­ Overstimulation occurs when we're exposed to and take in so much stimulus that we become fatigued trying to process it all. Overstimulation is more common in Highly Sensitive People who pick up on more subtleties in their environment and process things more deeply.

Overstimulation generally results in overarousal, a physiological nervous system response that can look or feel like anxiety, stress, frustration, collapse, exhaustion, or shutdown. Chronic overarousal can result in burnout.

Having clear boundaries in place limits the amount of stimulation you're exposed to in a day and can significantly reduce overarousal and the strain on your nervous system. Scheduling boundaries and single-tasking can give you the time to process everything you’re absorbing throughout the day and better manage your energy levels.

2. Boundaries Make Sure Your Needs Get Met

Every Social Worker I know has entered the field because they care about others and creating a more just society. While this is admirable and an essential aspect of Social Work, giving everything you have to others and ignoring your own needs is a recipe for burnout.

Setting boundaries is about connecting with what you need to stay well and protecting that – whether it's your energy, time for the things that bring you joy or keep you grounded, or space to process. Imagine what it would feel like to head into work feeling well rested, well-fed, grounded and nourished. Boundaries help you get there.

3. Boundaries Help Diminish Feelings Of Resentment

In her book, The Atlas of the Heart, Brene Brown defines resentment as "the feeling of frustration, judgment, anger, "better than," and/or hidden envy related to perceived unfairness or injustice." You may have noticed this emotion pop up when your colleague doesn't work as hard as you do (or stay at work as late or take on as many tasks).

While resentment is a human emotion we all feel, but spending too much time in this emotional state can contribute to burnout. Feeling resentful is usually a sign that your needs are going unmet, and you need to establish a boundary.

Rather than giving all you have, you can put limits in place so that your needs are met as well. You might be surprised how those feelings of resentment dissipate when your needs are met.

4. Boundaries Increase Your Sense Of Compassion

When our needs are met we actually feel a deeper sense of compassion for others.

Imagine saying "yes" to things you don't want to do, giving up your lunch break (being hangry), and then letting someone walk all over you and treat you poorly. How are you feeling? Loving and compassionate? Probably not. My guess is that you’d be feeling frustrated and annoyed.

When we set boundaries that outline what is okay and what is not okay, that leave us feeling respected with our dignity intact, it's a lot easier to feel caring towards others.

Brene Brown has done extensive research on the topic of compassion and has said that the most shocking part of her research was actually finding that the people with the strongest boundaries, were also the most compassionate and loving people

A smiling Social Worker facilitates a group. She sits with a book in one hand, and a pen in another. She conversing with the group of people sitting around.

5. Boundaries Build Your Confidence

Each time you set a boundary, you're giving yourself the message that you have your own back. While setting boundaries is uncomfortable at first, it grows easier over time. Knowing you are there for yourself can significantly increase your sense of confidence in handling challenging situations.

6. Boundaries Ensure Time For Deep Self-Care

When we honour and value our own time by creating boundaries around how much time we give to others, we are able to prioritize time for the things that fill us up and nourish our souls. Deep-self care is an essential aspect of burnout prevention and building a sustainable career.

7. Boundaries Preserve Your Energy For Things That Bring You Joy

For Highly Sensitive People, boundaries regarding our energy are just as important as boundaries regarding our time. Putting boundaries in place that limit energy drains and prioritize what’s most important to you helps you ensure that at the end of the workday you have energy left for the things that bring you joy (whether that is time with your children, a walk in nature, creating music, or something else entirely).

Build Your Own Boundaries

If your work is leaving you feeling depleted, drained, and frazzled, chances are you could benefit from establishing some new boundaries! That’s where Boundaries for Burnout Prevention: Essential Skills for Highly Sensitive Social Workers comes in!

Boundaries for Burnout Prevention: Essential Skills for Highly Sensitive Social Workers. Online course taught by Amy Pinnell.

This 9-week program will help you go from feeling emotionally drained and overwhelmed in your career as a Social Worker to feeling confident in your ability to set the boundaries you need in order to honour your sensitivity and maintain your overall well-being.

Enrollment will be opening again in 2024. Get on the waitlist here


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