If you’re working in the child welfare sector, you were likely drawn to this field because you’re compassionate, empathetic, and supportive. To take on a career that makes a real difference in the lives of some of the most vulnerable in society, you likely possess these qualities.
But the skills needed to be an effective child welfare worker are dependent on how you take care of yourself—in other words, your self-care practices. In order to promote healthy interpersonal connection and emotional intelligence, which is the essence of your work, self-care is essential.
Child welfare workers face unique challenges in their work. According to the Children and Youth Services Review, they suffer from higher caseloads, conflict, and are at a higher risk for work-related strain—also called “burnout”—than most other professions. Child welfare workers are also exposed to high levels of vicarious trauma. These factors result in a high turnover rate for child welfare workers, even if they’re very competent in their positions.
The people who stay in this profession despite its known difficulties, may find it hard to maintain clear boundaries between their professional work and personal lives. And without intentional practices geared toward self-care, burnout is a real possibility.
Child welfare workers who begin to feel this burnout may still be able to go through the motions at work at first, but they won’t be as effective over longer periods of time. Even if child welfare work is their calling, they may find themselves missing work more frequently or even losing their temper when they normally wouldn’t.
In general, “burnout” refers to a progressive state of inoperability from work-related strain. It can be expressed in different forms, including appearing “closed off” or cold, increased resignation, and overall irritability.
When someone working in the child welfare field becomes increasingly burnt out, they might experience “compassion fatigue.” Defined as an overall physical and emotional fatigue, social service professionals experience compassion fatigue because of an overexposure to suffering. This fatigue can also be referred to as “vicarious trauma,” which results from a child welfare worker’s direct exposure to victims of trauma. Work-related trauma exposure can include:
Adding to the difficulty of such cases, other factors mentioned above like high caseloads, conflict in work environments, and burdensome paperwork can also contribute to a child welfare worker’s stress and burnout.
Because of the unique challenges that you face as a child welfare worker, self-care is key to your well-being. According to the Center for the Study of Social Policy, child-welfare workers should consider self-care an essential part of their work. The Center suggests four protective strategies that can help you create an effective self-care plan. Consider the following factors toward developing your self-care practice:
One of the first steps toward self-care for child welfare workers is to acknowledge when stress-related symptoms are occurring. This can help you identify triggers for your stress and empower you to address them. If in doubt, take a break to check in with yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally. And in your off-time, it might be worthwhile to reflect on the reasons why you do what you do—make a short list of encouraging phrases and keep them handy for when you need them the most.
Child welfare workers need to have as much compassion for themselves as they do for their clients, and this includes having a support network. Rather than criticizing yourself for getting tired or feeling exhausted, reach out to someone you can trust for an honest word of encouragement. This might include a trusted coworker, family members, spiritual advisors, or caring friends. And if you find yourself needing a more formal support group, join a club, therapy group, or find a therapist that you can have on call when you have a rough day.
Knowledge of Parenting and Child Development
Because of the traumatic and often taxing situations you face as a child welfare worker, it might be difficult not to bring these experiences into your own home life. Make sure to encourage yourself if you’re a parent, and to separate your own children from those you interact with in your professional life. Of course, there are things that you might learn from your work that you can bring into your personal relationships, but make sure they’re not in moments of stress. And if you need a vacation to reconnect with your family, take one.
Concrete Support in Tough Times
Support goes beyond just friends and family resources. Concrete resources might include an emergency savings fund that you can dip into if you hit a tough time. Other resources might include a binder of mental health or domestic violence resources at your desk that you can turn to for yourself or for someone else who’s struggling. Self-care goes beyond just taking care of stress as it arises—it also means preparation and strategizing for any unexpected difficulty that comes up.