Stress and experiencing a client’s trauma: why self-care for social workers is so important

A social worker reflects on the experiences of sharing trauma with client's and how social workers can let their own stress go if they aren't more careful

Photo: Gajus/Fotolia

by Nigella Howarth

Mushrooms are created by spores in the ground. They do not germinate but are fed by the environment around them. They grow because they absorb water and food from their environment. The stalk grows deep down into the earth and its only as they mature that they break through the ground for all to see.

The resemblance to stress for social workers is uncanny. You go through your day, absorbing bits of all the cases you work on, your to-do list grows, the demands on your time increase, the amount of trauma you see and hear only gets added too but you carry on. By the time you are aware of the accumulation of events, the internal stalk has grown, and the physical signs of stress are on display.

The people we work with suffer from daily stresses too, it’s not uncommon for social care staff to be at the receiving end of a client’s trauma. Daily occurrences such as carers being late, agency staff instead of the usual worker, having to retell their life story and needs to each person that visits them, are all triggers for frustration and anger.

One client I worked with would email me 10 or more times a day and leave multiple answer phone messages. Shouting, making demands on everything she felt I had to do, constant lists of dissatisfaction and annoyed with how she perceived she was being treated.

On one occasion, another client phones and cries. No words, just sobbing and then when you see them they complain they haven’t been heard or supported.

There is a perception from family members and other professionals on how we should do our job and criticism of what they feel we should be doing or have the power to do. The expectations of other professionals also give to families on how social workers can help can also lead to us having to constantly explain ourselves and our actions or inaction.

If we are to carry on offering our clients the best service we have to start caring for ourselves. Self and peer caring is essential. Looking after yourself and those around you can reduce the rate at which stress grows and can stop feeding the problem. Be honest to yourself about how you feel, share your thoughts with supervisors and managers.

A few easy steps to looking after you:

  • Take a few minutes in a morning to think about your priorities.
  • List what is essential to achieve and park other items.
  • Be realistic about what you can accomplish in one day.
  • Speak to colleagues, a two-minute chat can reduce your isolation and help you think more clearly.
  • Be honest to those supporting you, people can’t see what is growing inside you.
  • Don’t leave it until cracks appear, use your environment and those around you to become the best version of you.
  • Most importantly, you are important too, look after yourself so you can continue to care for others.

Nigella Howarth is a pseudonym. She is an adults’ social worker. 

One Response to Stress and experiencing a client’s trauma: why self-care for social workers is so important

  1. Kez J June 4, 2018 at 7:52 pm #

    I agree ! As a newly qualified Social worker, i greatly worry about burnout and how i am going to balance work/home life. Self care is so important for our emotional well-being, physical and mental health. Not to forget our productivity at work would be deeply impacted. Furthermore, accountability needs to put on employers to provide safe and containing supervision and move away from purely case management!

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