“Professional self-care in social work is an essential component to social work practice and reflects the choice and commitment to become actively involved in maintaining one’s effectiveness as a social worker (Lopez, 2007)”.
As a part of the curriculum in M.A in social work, we were taught to take care of self while helping others. My struggle with this concept is ongoing. If one was to ask me why it is important to take care of self in social work, I would simply reply as “Professional self-care is vital to the profession of social work for several reasons:
- Promoting the practice of professional self-care in social work explicitly acknowledges the challenging and often overwhelming nature of our work.
- Preventing BURNOUT and so on and so forth”
These are all the theoretical reasoning you learn as a part of the curriculum, and most of the time theory is very different form practical life or the field of practice in case of Social Work.
As a student I never really understood how working with clients or communities would lead to a burnout of self. (Isn’t that why we choose this profession in the 1st place? -To help people) Marks were deducted for me in my field work (applied component of Social Work) during my both years of MA in Social Work, for being overly engaged in the life of my clients. My professors and supervisor tried to explain me: ‘It is common to find clients who expect much from you as a Social Worker. It is important for you to explain to your clients what your roles are, instead of raising false hopes.’(There is a limit, to what you can do as a social worker)“It is important for you not to take on the personal problems of your clients as your own, as this could cause problems for you.”
After developing a better understanding of my role as a social worker I developed my own theory. Social worker is often falsely perceived as a person who will take away their problems. It becomes essential for us (as Social Workers) to present ourselves as one who can assist them to understand their concerns and manage them. It so ironic that a perfectly able person, during crisis feels that he/she will not be able to resolve their problems on their own and will need support. As professionals in the field, sometimes just supporting the client to see the big picture and help them build their own path to achieve the desired picture is all we need.
While you, your clients, and the general public, may see social work as the embodiment of social services, we as social workers are dependent on other structures to help resolve the issue of our client. Now this is easy said than done, believe me it is not that easy as it looks on this paper.
Senior workers in the field would say, like the books explain, ‘Social work is not about providing solutions to problems, but it provides an arena in which clients can review their concerns, and see how they can manage them best and live an effective life. Naturally when people have a problem, they look for help. Usually, they think they have no capacity to solve their problem unless someone helps them to do so’. And even when help comes, they expect the helper to produce the magic which will solve their problems. Social workers must make the role of their work clear when they are approached by a client. Your role is to assist the client to know why they need help and where they can get it.
Coming back to professional burnout, I felt maybe, I understood my role as a social worker differently as compared to others in the field. They made social work sound so easy (Wear the cap in the field and remove the cap at end of the day, you only think about your clients when you wear the cap not otherwise) and whereas I struggle not taking clients concerns home with me on a daily basis. It is difficult to keep your professional and personal life on separate lines especially when you are dealing in social work which needs you to empathize with your client and give them a solution from your life experience.
I previously chose to ignore the principle completely, because I did not understand that unless you are empathetic towards the client, how you can help them? I did not know how to switch off and switch on my emotions (while at work and outside). Ignoring the concept did not really get me far, I did start feeling the baggage of work at home, forcing me to rethink my decision and ‘Say No’ to my clients- in cases I could not help them. This did make my life a little easy, but I was still not convinced with this approach.
Late last month I was attending a session on ‘Bipolar Disorder’ by Juile Fast, and she spoke about the concept of ‘The Glass Heart’. The Glass Heart,as she explained was about covering your heart with glass, strange right?
Anyway, she further explained that when your client is telling you about their problems, it passes through glass but never reaches your heart, you process what your client is saying, you emphasize with client but you never take their baggage home. Once you are out of office your Glass Heart cover with all the problems of client in it are safely stored in office for the next meeting with client.
My take away from that lecture was each individual has his or her own problems and we do not need to carry our work problems- especially not of our own but of another person. This does not mean I stop being emotional (in fact I believe it is my strength), it simply means I do my best to understand, support and try to solve my clients problems at work and not at home. I am a visually driven person, meaning I understand things and come to the conclusion if I can visualize the big picture and now that my dilemma has a visual picture (possible solution), I think I will give this technique a try.
 Lopez, S. A. (2007, July 20). Professional self-care& social work. Opening keynote Address— NASW Texas Chapter Sandra A. LopezLeadership Institute, Austin.
Module 3: Social Work, Swaziland, Copyright UNESCO- http://www.unesco.org/education/mebam/module_3.pdf