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Addressing the Health Challenges of Social Workers

As social workers, we are dedicated to supporting vulnerable populations. And this support often comes at the expense of our own mental, emotional, and physical health. Most everyone we serve has a host of problems that we are tasked with assisting them to solve and the unique demands of our profession expose us to a variety of stressors that significantly impact our well-being. It is crucial for us to recognize these challenges and advocate to our colleagues, and ourselves, systemic changes to promote our own health and sustainability in this vital profession. We have to keep our cup full if we expect to be able to assist our clients to the best of our abilities.


Sedentary Nature of the Job


A huge portion of our work involves administrative tasks. Documentation, data entry, case management, and inter-agency communication, intra-agency communication. There’s really not a lot we can do about the prolonged periods of sitting around and sedentary aspects of the job. It’s just part of it. Research has shown that extended sitting can lead to obesity, cardiovascular diseases, and musculoskeletal issues. You may have even heard the saying “Sitting is the new smoking”. Not far off. This lack of physical activity can easily exacerbate mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, and general malaise. To mitigate these risks, it’s essential we incorporate movement into our daily routines and seek workplace environments that support our physical activity. Super simple habits can work to counteract this damage. Standing desks, using an exercise ball as opposed to a chair for all or parts of the day, walking meetings, walking breaks, desk friendly exercises, take phone calls standing or walking when possible. The possibilities are there if we’ll just open our eyes to making the change.


Lower Income


Lower income often correlates with lower health rates. I think it’s safe to say not many of us in the Social Work universe are here because of the money. Accurate? Many of us are employed by government agencies, non-profits, and community organizations with limited budgets. Agencies scraping by on matching government grants, individual donations, and corporate contributions aren’t exactly a good place to get rich. This often translates to lower income, which can lead to significant financial stress. Financial constraints not only affect our mental and emotional well-being but also limit our access to quality healthcare and other essential health and wellness resources. Financial instability can contribute to burnout and exacerbate other mental health issues. We have to be mindful of these facts. That alone will have significant impact on our mental health. One absolutely does not have to be wealthy to take care of their health. The common refrain that healthy food is expensive is just not true. Vegetables are not expensive. Meat can be expensive, but with a minimal amount of homework, it doesn’t have to be. That’s a different post however.


Chronic Stress


The inherent nature of social work involves high stress. Even worse, the nature of our work often involves chronic stress. Chronic stress differs from acute high stress in that it’s consistent and prolonged. We consistently work with individuals and families in crisis. We’re dealing with issues such as abuse, neglect, poverty, addiction, and mental illness. The emotional toll of managing these cases and making critical decisions often leads to chronic stress which often leads to severe health implications including hypertension, heart disease, and a weakened immune system. We have the ability to mitigate these health hazards with some pretty simple (not easy) practices. Obviously diet, exercise, and ample sleep will play a huge role because they play a huge role in quality of life overall. In addition to creating our needed movement, recovery, and nourishment, we can schedule time for meditation and/or breathing practices. We should make time to meet with others to discuss our challenges as opposed to isolating ourselves. Avoiding procrastination is another chink in the armor of chronic stress. It’s much easier to relax when we don’t have what feels like an insurmountable amount of tasks hanging over our heads. These are just a few ways we can fight chronic stress and the poor health outcomes that come along with it.


Emotional Drain


Social work is emotionally demanding. Constant engagement with clients’ painful experiences and witnessing their struggles can lead to compassion fatigue. This specific form of burnout can result in feelings of hopelessness, cynicism, decreased job satisfaction, and overall declines in emotional well-being. It’s important to engage in regular self-care as described above to combat this. It can also be a good idea to seek professional support when needed. We need help too. We can also be sure we’re working to a create a supportive work environment that acknowledges the emotional demands of our labor and profession. If you have the opportunity to see a therapist on the regular, do it. Regularly talking things out is cathartic and healthy. We’ve already talked about the money aspect of being a Social Worker. We may not be able to afford regular therapy. If that’s the case, find books on the subject and journal on what you read. It can only help.


Additional Challenges


In addition to the primary stressors already discussed, we often face under-resourced and understaffed work environments. These factors can increase our workload AND our feeling of inadequacy. Social work is a thankless job the majority of the time. The lack of support and recognition can be an additional factor that leads to job dissatisfaction and burnout. Systemic barriers and bureaucratic hurdles can hinder our ability to provide effective care, leading to frustration and helplessness. All the more reason to take self care very, very seriously.


All of the above. The combination of sedentary work with low income and high stress. The emotionally taxing responsibilities. The long hours. They all gang up to create significant health risks for us as social workers. To address these challenges it has to be a priority we make opportunities for physical activity, sleep, and healthy food. We have to promote our own mental and emotional well-being. No one is coming to save us. It’s on us. By acknowledging and addressing these factors, we will improve our own health and well-being, enabling us to continue our crucial work effectively and sustainably. As social workers let us unite to support one another to make the necessary changes ensuring our profession is one where we can thrive as we help others. Self care is not selfish. Keep your cup full, your clients need you at your best.


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