Youth work practitioners play an instrumental role in helping youths cope and overcome their challenges. But how do practitioners take care of themselves so they may extend the same high-quality care to others? Two social service professionals share their perspectives.
On any given day, social work practitioners may see themselves supporting clients with emotionally-demanding issues such as trauma or abuse. This, in turn, can be difficult for anyone to contend with on a daily, long-term basis—even for trained, qualified professionals.
According to several studies, 21—67% of practitioners who provide psycho-emotional support in their fields have experienced high levels of burnout. This is because the nature of the work is one where “there’s a lot of use of self, which means that our emotional state comes into play in our connection and relationship with our client,” explains Amos Ng, who heads the Outreach & Intervention Services at Trybe.
Nathan Parreno, a counsellor at Trybe with over five years of experience, attests to this: “During sessions when I see clients break down, something in me shifts every time. I can show my emotions, but I can’t break down with them. This can be mentally tiring because I need to be grounded.”
This emotional toll is just one of many factors that contribute to burnout, defined by WHO as “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” But what does burnout look like exactly?
Its characteristics include exhaustion, feeling negative towards one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy. “When it’s prolonged, you might lose sight of everything and say: ‘social work is not for me anymore’,” Nathan . This alludes to compassion fatigue, which is another common affliction in social work where practitioners feel detached, disenchanted and unable to empathise with their work or clients.
Burnout has also been linked to physical ailments, such as headaches, respiratory problems and sleep disorders. In more severe cases, workers have been shown to develop heart disease and diabetes.
So how do practitioners nurture their mental, emotional and physical well-being so they may continue those in need? Here are several ways.
Cultivate Awareness of Self
It’s easy to get lost in one’s work, and this couldn’t be truer for those in the social service profession. However, “It’s helpful for staff to be aware of, and consciously regulate and manage their emotions,” says Amos.
This is especially pivotal if practitioners find their emotional, mental and physical health going awry. The symptoms of burnout manifest in different ways, with loss of appetite, constantly feeling angry or hopeless, and chronic fatigue or insomnia being some of them.
“Be attuned to yourself and reflect on what’s causing the burnout. What’s the disturbance or dissonance? Is it performance anxiety? Are you being affected by the people you’ve met? Or even a personal issue that wasn’t addressed? Those are things you can work on internally as a practitioner,” Nathan suggests.
Once there’s a recognition that one is heading (or already in the throes) of burnout, practitioners may then plot steps to address it.
Raise Work-Related Issues
Some social service agencies may hold sessions where practitioners review their cases with a more experienced practitioner. These sessions are known as clinical supervision*, and they allow seasoned practitioners to guide their colleagues through the cases. On top of being a sort of mentorship, these sessions also serve as an opportunity for the newer practitioner to raise work-related issues that may be causing an emotional toll.
“If practitioners are experiencing burnout, it’s important to speak to their supervisors so that [moving forward], their workload may be adjusted. Or, they may need to plan a break for themselves to recover,” says Amos.
Seek Professional Help
Amos notes that clinical supervision does not replace professional therapy, and practitioners are encouraged to seek external help should they need additional support.
“There was a point in time when work became too exhausting,” Nathan recalls. “[Currently], I have my own counsellor. One is my clinical supervisor, and the other is an actual counsellor to make this work, because it’s not easy. Seeking external counselling was recommended by my clinical supervisor because at the rate I was working, I needed help to process all that was happening inside me. And I have found it very helpful.”
Draw Boundaries at Work
Another key to avoiding burnout is being mindful of one’s locus of control. “One of the reasons practitioners may feel stressed or overwhelmed is when they see that everything they’re doing isn’t resulting in a positive outcome for the client,” Amos shares.
While feelings of guilt and inadequacy may surface in the course of social work, it’s may be helpful to remember Amos’ advice: “At the end of the day, there are some things that are beyond us, and there are some things within our scope that we can achieve.”
Focusing on one’s progress (as opposed to their shortcomings) can also be helpful for practitioners going through a particularly difficult time.
Finally, with all professions, and especially so for those in social work, practitioners need to set aside time to engage in activities that bring them joy.
Self-care can take the form of many activities and practices that meet the needs of one’s body, mind or spirit. “Take a break. Take a lot of breaks!” Nathan suggests enthusiastically. “Engage in exercise. Find new hobbies. Make the time. If you [have a partner], go on a date with them.”
Regularly disengaging from work to rest and focus on oneself has been shown to increase productivity, boost creativity and improve mental well-being, enabling practitioners to continue providing meaningful care and support for their clients.
Nathan leaves us with the best nugget of wisdom: “Not everything has to be about helping others. You have to help yourself first. You need to love yourself.”
*Clinical supervision pertains to a session between a practitioner and his or her supervisor. It ensures that a practitioner is able to handle a client caseload, while being mentored by a more experienced practitioner. It does not provide counselling nor therapy for supervisees.
About our Volunteer Writer
I’m Wahidah, freelance writer and full-time cat person. In my spare time, I like to tumble on a mat to find calm through yoga, and more recently, Muay Thai. Volunteering’s always given me new perspectives, and I hope that in contributing, I’d be able to help others get the support they need.