From Burnout to Balance: Self-Care Strategies for School Social Workers

Social Work
School Social Worker
Mental Health
For Clinicians
5 minute read

Understanding Burnout in School Social Workers: Roles, Risks, and Strategies for Managing Stress

School social workers hold immense responsibility within the education system. As frontline advocates for students and their families, school social workers are the primary points of contact for addressing any social, emotional, or behavioral issues that may occur. Because of the varying roles often played by school social workers, as well as their unique positioning within the education system, school social workers are at increased risk of experiencing what has been defined as workplace burnout. Below, we will explore burnout as it relates to school social workers, along with strategies for managing job-related stress and the emotional challenges that arise within the social work profession.

What Exactly is Workplace Burnout?

Career or job burnout is a state of feeling mentally and/or physically exhausted by the demands of your occupation. This burnout primarily stems from experiencing chronic workplace stress that has not been addressed or properly managed over time. 

Workplace burnout, according to the American Psychological Association, has three major features:

  1. Feeling emotionally or energetically exhausted
  2. Persistently negative feelings toward an individual’s place of work, role, or responsibilities
  3. Feeling undervalued or continually unsuccessful at one’s job

Additionally, there are other common symptoms that may be clues that you are experiencing or are on your way to burnout, including:

Emotional/Psychological

  • Feeling disconnected from coworkers
  • Not wanting to go to work
  • Ongoing feelings of isolation and/or loneliness
  • Repeated agitation, irritation, or anger toward your coworkers or place of work

Cognitive

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Trouble remembering things you normally wouldn’t have difficulty with
  • Problems with attention and processing of information

Physical

  • Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep when previously you had no problems associated with sleep
  • Changes in your eating habits
  • New or increased substance use
  • New and unexplained physical ailments such as headaches or high blood pressure

Burnout is not simply feeling dissatisfied with one’s job or having a difficult week and needing to reset over the weekend for a fresh start. Burnout is a chronic, nonmedical condition that can have a lasting impact on an individual’s career, life, and future.

Consequences of Workplace Burnout

Not only is workplace burnout detrimental to the individual experiencing it, but it can also cause a wide range of serious consequences for the wider organization. Some significant consequences of workplace burnout include:

  • Chronic absenteeism
  • Lack of productivity
  • Ongoing discontentment
  • Development of a mental health condition such as a major depressive disorder or anxiety
  • Cognitive difficulties related to attention, memory, and/or processing
  • Physical health issues such as increased risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease

Burnout in School Social Work

School social workers are uniquely positioned to provide essential and unmatched support to the student population, their families, and other members of the education team. They are imperative to the health and well-being of the school they work within. However, because of the depth of their roles and responsibilities, they are also at an increased risk of experiencing workplace burnout. 

In their jobs, school social workers are often required to be flexible, fill multiple roles, and demonstrate versatility in a system that, at times, may only be able to provide limited resources and support. Some of the many responsibilities of a school social worker include:

  • Providing individual counseling
  • Facilitating group counseling
  • Collaborating with teachers and other members of the educational team
  • Carrying out psychosocial assessments
  • Participating in the development and execution of Individual Education Plans (IEPs)
  • Disseminating information regarding resources to school staff, students, and their families
  • Crisis response and emergency intervention
  • Providing general mental health support to the school population by creating and executing topically relevant social-emotional campaigns
  • Collaborating with school administration to improve the educational environment by addressing policy, intervention, and discipline procedures
  • Connecting with community partners as a means of creating a more supportive environment for students, their families, and school staff members

While helping professions are generally known for having higher rates of burnout among employees, school social workers, in particular, report higher levels of stress and overwhelm in their daily jobs and are at an increased risk for experiencing burnout due to a number of different reasons discussed in detail in the next section. Based on this study, it is estimated that around 75% of social workers experience burnout at some point during their careers, and school social workers report similar rates of workplace burnout.

Common Causes of Burnout in School Social Work

Unique characteristics and stressors within the education system have been found to contribute to the high rates of burnout among teachers, staff, and school social workers. The following is a brief discussion of these environmental qualities and how they contribute to workplace burnout among school social workers.

Administrative relationship

School social workers report that there are a number of aspects of the social worker-administration relationship dynamic that affect their experience of stress and burnout within their jobs. Lack of support from the school administration is the most frequently noted characteristic contributing to burnout. Other administration-related variables contributing to increased risk of burnout include unrealistic expectations of what the social worker can feasibly accomplish and lack of knowledge surrounding the social worker’s role within the school. School social workers report that this often leads to feeling isolated from the rest of the school staff and the inability to successfully render therapeutic services because their function is under-utilized.

School climate

The general school climate is often reported as a variable affecting school social worker burnout. School social workers report that discontentment in the workplace grows when their role within the educational system is perceived as being unnecessary or peripheral to student success and/or school culture. They also note that a general sense of negativity from teachers, other staff members, and the families of students they work with can lead them to feel undervalued and unproductive in the school setting.

Population serviced

An emerging theme described by school social workers as contributing to their burnout is the landscape of the needs of their clientele. While school social workers frequently describe feeling continually challenged by the everchanging issues they treat within the school system, they also report that this can leave them feeling like they are constantly trying to play catch-up. School social workers also point to the attitude of the population they serve as being a potential contributing factor to burnout; they describe indifference within the population they treat as being a major hurdle to feeling satisfied and accomplished within their jobs.

Role conflict

General workplace burnout has strong roots in role ambiguity and blurred job responsibilities. When one does not fully understand or agree with one's presumed job duties, it can lead to the employee feeling misaligned with the organization's needs and goals and discontent with their position within the setting. Additionally, school social workers who feel overloaded by their caseload and extraneous responsibilities are at higher risk for burnout. 

Strategies for Managing Burnout

Make self-care a centerpiece of your practice

Prioritizing self-care within the educational system can often feel difficult, if not impossible. More and more, school staff are invited to do more with fewer resources, and it can be challenging to find the time and energy to engage in practices that tend to improve your own well-being as a practitioner. Despite these obstacles, it is imperative that school social workers take care of themselves in order to be at their best to help take care of others.

While individuals can differ on what self-care practices are most effective at preventing burnout, the following are some strategies to consider implementing in order to help prevent and/or manage workplace burnout:

  • Mindfulness as a means of stress reduction: Mindfulness has a wealth of evidence backing up its consistent effectiveness in reducing stress. The basis of mindfulness is rooted in bringing attention to your present; this could mean taking a few moments to do some deep breathing exercises, finding awareness in your current physical state and bodily sensations, and identifying any feelings coming up for you in that moment. A key component of mindfulness is finding acceptance, not judgment, of whatever you are experiencing in the present.
  • Stay active: Exercise is associated with better overall physical and mental health. In particular to workplace burnout, physical activity is an effective stress-reliever and mood enhancer because it promotes greater blood circulation to the brain, stimulates the release of endorphins, and improves the overall functioning of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.
  • Set clear boundaries: As caseloads increase, it’s important to fulfill obligations within your role as a school social worker while also setting boundaries. This may include not engaging in work-related tasks during your off time, turning off digital devices that have your work email or messages on them when you are not “on the clock,” and communicating with other educational team members about when you are, or aren’t, available. These boundaries will help you maintain a better overall work-life balance, providing you with the time needed to rest, recharge, and return to your job each day refreshed and ready to jump in.
  • Keep in mind the importance of personal fulfillment: Make time to connect with loved ones, keep up with hobbies, and take time for yourself. These are all restorative practices that help you maintain a sense of self while giving so much to others.

Effectively Manage Your Time and Caseload

While you might have little control over how many or what clients you are assigned, you can organize your job responsibilities in a way that will help to mitigate the stress in the midst of a challenging work environment. Some strategies include:

  • Organizing your workload efficiently: Prioritize tasks that must be completed and limit your time spent on each one. A great way to do this is by blocking off time on your schedule and assigning these blocks to specific things that must get done. Consider implementing the Pomodoro Technique, in which you allocate 25-minute blocks to each task you need to complete and take a 5-minute break after each one. After a block of 4 tasks, you take a longer break. This encourages mindfulness about your needs and allows your brain and body time to rest in between blocks of tasks.
  • Take the time to reflect on your time management: If you’re having a difficult time managing your caseload and job responsibilities within your work hours, reach out to colleagues and supervisors for advice and to see if there are any tips and tricks you might not already be implementing.

Seek support

Whatever support you find beneficial, don’t hesitate to reach out for it! As a member of a helping profession, you know how important it is to connect with others during difficult times. Consider seeking support from:

  • Colleagues: Talk to other school social workers about the challenges and successes they experience in their roles. Connect with the varying members of your school’s staff. Consider engaging with online forums created for like-minded professionals.
  • Friends and family: Share about your work with your loved ones. They might not be able to fully understand the intricacies of your job, but sometimes, just voicing out loud your thoughts and feelings surrounding an experience can help mitigate some of the negativity and isolation school social workers often report.
  • Mental health professionals: Just because you are a social worker does not mean you are immune to struggling. In fact, because you are in a helping profession, you are at increased risk for depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges. Don’t be afraid to reach out for support.

Final Thoughts

Self-care is not just a luxury to be engaged in whenever time permits. It is a practice that is essential to school social workers and should be encouraged by all levels of administration and within the educational team. Due to the nature of the work and the settings within which school social workers operate, there will always be challenges and stressors. However, there are evidence-based, effective strategies available to manage stress levels and improve your emotional health so that you can avoid burnout and remain committed to serving the populations that need you.

Share this post
Social Work
School Social Worker
Mental Health

From Burnout to Balance: Self-Care Strategies for School Social Workers

Social Work
School Social Worker
Mental Health
For Clinicians
5 minute read

Understanding Burnout in School Social Workers: Roles, Risks, and Strategies for Managing Stress

School social workers hold immense responsibility within the education system. As frontline advocates for students and their families, school social workers are the primary points of contact for addressing any social, emotional, or behavioral issues that may occur. Because of the varying roles often played by school social workers, as well as their unique positioning within the education system, school social workers are at increased risk of experiencing what has been defined as workplace burnout. Below, we will explore burnout as it relates to school social workers, along with strategies for managing job-related stress and the emotional challenges that arise within the social work profession.

What Exactly is Workplace Burnout?

Career or job burnout is a state of feeling mentally and/or physically exhausted by the demands of your occupation. This burnout primarily stems from experiencing chronic workplace stress that has not been addressed or properly managed over time. 

Workplace burnout, according to the American Psychological Association, has three major features:

  1. Feeling emotionally or energetically exhausted
  2. Persistently negative feelings toward an individual’s place of work, role, or responsibilities
  3. Feeling undervalued or continually unsuccessful at one’s job

Additionally, there are other common symptoms that may be clues that you are experiencing or are on your way to burnout, including:

Emotional/Psychological

  • Feeling disconnected from coworkers
  • Not wanting to go to work
  • Ongoing feelings of isolation and/or loneliness
  • Repeated agitation, irritation, or anger toward your coworkers or place of work

Cognitive

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Trouble remembering things you normally wouldn’t have difficulty with
  • Problems with attention and processing of information

Physical

  • Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep when previously you had no problems associated with sleep
  • Changes in your eating habits
  • New or increased substance use
  • New and unexplained physical ailments such as headaches or high blood pressure

Burnout is not simply feeling dissatisfied with one’s job or having a difficult week and needing to reset over the weekend for a fresh start. Burnout is a chronic, nonmedical condition that can have a lasting impact on an individual’s career, life, and future.

Consequences of Workplace Burnout

Not only is workplace burnout detrimental to the individual experiencing it, but it can also cause a wide range of serious consequences for the wider organization. Some significant consequences of workplace burnout include:

  • Chronic absenteeism
  • Lack of productivity
  • Ongoing discontentment
  • Development of a mental health condition such as a major depressive disorder or anxiety
  • Cognitive difficulties related to attention, memory, and/or processing
  • Physical health issues such as increased risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease

Burnout in School Social Work

School social workers are uniquely positioned to provide essential and unmatched support to the student population, their families, and other members of the education team. They are imperative to the health and well-being of the school they work within. However, because of the depth of their roles and responsibilities, they are also at an increased risk of experiencing workplace burnout. 

In their jobs, school social workers are often required to be flexible, fill multiple roles, and demonstrate versatility in a system that, at times, may only be able to provide limited resources and support. Some of the many responsibilities of a school social worker include:

  • Providing individual counseling
  • Facilitating group counseling
  • Collaborating with teachers and other members of the educational team
  • Carrying out psychosocial assessments
  • Participating in the development and execution of Individual Education Plans (IEPs)
  • Disseminating information regarding resources to school staff, students, and their families
  • Crisis response and emergency intervention
  • Providing general mental health support to the school population by creating and executing topically relevant social-emotional campaigns
  • Collaborating with school administration to improve the educational environment by addressing policy, intervention, and discipline procedures
  • Connecting with community partners as a means of creating a more supportive environment for students, their families, and school staff members

While helping professions are generally known for having higher rates of burnout among employees, school social workers, in particular, report higher levels of stress and overwhelm in their daily jobs and are at an increased risk for experiencing burnout due to a number of different reasons discussed in detail in the next section. Based on this study, it is estimated that around 75% of social workers experience burnout at some point during their careers, and school social workers report similar rates of workplace burnout.

Common Causes of Burnout in School Social Work

Unique characteristics and stressors within the education system have been found to contribute to the high rates of burnout among teachers, staff, and school social workers. The following is a brief discussion of these environmental qualities and how they contribute to workplace burnout among school social workers.

Administrative relationship

School social workers report that there are a number of aspects of the social worker-administration relationship dynamic that affect their experience of stress and burnout within their jobs. Lack of support from the school administration is the most frequently noted characteristic contributing to burnout. Other administration-related variables contributing to increased risk of burnout include unrealistic expectations of what the social worker can feasibly accomplish and lack of knowledge surrounding the social worker’s role within the school. School social workers report that this often leads to feeling isolated from the rest of the school staff and the inability to successfully render therapeutic services because their function is under-utilized.

School climate

The general school climate is often reported as a variable affecting school social worker burnout. School social workers report that discontentment in the workplace grows when their role within the educational system is perceived as being unnecessary or peripheral to student success and/or school culture. They also note that a general sense of negativity from teachers, other staff members, and the families of students they work with can lead them to feel undervalued and unproductive in the school setting.

Population serviced

An emerging theme described by school social workers as contributing to their burnout is the landscape of the needs of their clientele. While school social workers frequently describe feeling continually challenged by the everchanging issues they treat within the school system, they also report that this can leave them feeling like they are constantly trying to play catch-up. School social workers also point to the attitude of the population they serve as being a potential contributing factor to burnout; they describe indifference within the population they treat as being a major hurdle to feeling satisfied and accomplished within their jobs.

Role conflict

General workplace burnout has strong roots in role ambiguity and blurred job responsibilities. When one does not fully understand or agree with one's presumed job duties, it can lead to the employee feeling misaligned with the organization's needs and goals and discontent with their position within the setting. Additionally, school social workers who feel overloaded by their caseload and extraneous responsibilities are at higher risk for burnout. 

Strategies for Managing Burnout

Make self-care a centerpiece of your practice

Prioritizing self-care within the educational system can often feel difficult, if not impossible. More and more, school staff are invited to do more with fewer resources, and it can be challenging to find the time and energy to engage in practices that tend to improve your own well-being as a practitioner. Despite these obstacles, it is imperative that school social workers take care of themselves in order to be at their best to help take care of others.

While individuals can differ on what self-care practices are most effective at preventing burnout, the following are some strategies to consider implementing in order to help prevent and/or manage workplace burnout:

  • Mindfulness as a means of stress reduction: Mindfulness has a wealth of evidence backing up its consistent effectiveness in reducing stress. The basis of mindfulness is rooted in bringing attention to your present; this could mean taking a few moments to do some deep breathing exercises, finding awareness in your current physical state and bodily sensations, and identifying any feelings coming up for you in that moment. A key component of mindfulness is finding acceptance, not judgment, of whatever you are experiencing in the present.
  • Stay active: Exercise is associated with better overall physical and mental health. In particular to workplace burnout, physical activity is an effective stress-reliever and mood enhancer because it promotes greater blood circulation to the brain, stimulates the release of endorphins, and improves the overall functioning of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.
  • Set clear boundaries: As caseloads increase, it’s important to fulfill obligations within your role as a school social worker while also setting boundaries. This may include not engaging in work-related tasks during your off time, turning off digital devices that have your work email or messages on them when you are not “on the clock,” and communicating with other educational team members about when you are, or aren’t, available. These boundaries will help you maintain a better overall work-life balance, providing you with the time needed to rest, recharge, and return to your job each day refreshed and ready to jump in.
  • Keep in mind the importance of personal fulfillment: Make time to connect with loved ones, keep up with hobbies, and take time for yourself. These are all restorative practices that help you maintain a sense of self while giving so much to others.

Effectively Manage Your Time and Caseload

While you might have little control over how many or what clients you are assigned, you can organize your job responsibilities in a way that will help to mitigate the stress in the midst of a challenging work environment. Some strategies include:

  • Organizing your workload efficiently: Prioritize tasks that must be completed and limit your time spent on each one. A great way to do this is by blocking off time on your schedule and assigning these blocks to specific things that must get done. Consider implementing the Pomodoro Technique, in which you allocate 25-minute blocks to each task you need to complete and take a 5-minute break after each one. After a block of 4 tasks, you take a longer break. This encourages mindfulness about your needs and allows your brain and body time to rest in between blocks of tasks.
  • Take the time to reflect on your time management: If you’re having a difficult time managing your caseload and job responsibilities within your work hours, reach out to colleagues and supervisors for advice and to see if there are any tips and tricks you might not already be implementing.

Seek support

Whatever support you find beneficial, don’t hesitate to reach out for it! As a member of a helping profession, you know how important it is to connect with others during difficult times. Consider seeking support from:

  • Colleagues: Talk to other school social workers about the challenges and successes they experience in their roles. Connect with the varying members of your school’s staff. Consider engaging with online forums created for like-minded professionals.
  • Friends and family: Share about your work with your loved ones. They might not be able to fully understand the intricacies of your job, but sometimes, just voicing out loud your thoughts and feelings surrounding an experience can help mitigate some of the negativity and isolation school social workers often report.
  • Mental health professionals: Just because you are a social worker does not mean you are immune to struggling. In fact, because you are in a helping profession, you are at increased risk for depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges. Don’t be afraid to reach out for support.

Final Thoughts

Self-care is not just a luxury to be engaged in whenever time permits. It is a practice that is essential to school social workers and should be encouraged by all levels of administration and within the educational team. Due to the nature of the work and the settings within which school social workers operate, there will always be challenges and stressors. However, there are evidence-based, effective strategies available to manage stress levels and improve your emotional health so that you can avoid burnout and remain committed to serving the populations that need you.

Share this post
Social Work
School Social Worker
Mental Health

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