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Burnout and Self-Care in Social Work
A Guidebook for Students and Those in Mental Health and Related Professions
SaraKay Smullens
ISBN: 978-0-87101-462-7. 2015. Item #4627. 152 pages.
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Are you exhausted, stressed, overwhelmed? Or do you feel that these reactions are very close, waiting in the wings? If so, Burnout and Self-Care in Social Work is the book for you. Burnout, one of the primary reasons why committed social workers leave the profession, is a grave and pervasive problem with glaring impact. Those entering social work and all related fields, as well as those already deeply involved, must be educated about its toll and prepared to address and prevent the depletion it causes. This book provides valuable insights for all who carry complex and divergent responsibilities. SaraKay Smullens addresses both burnout and self-care from a professional, personal, social, and physical perspective. She integrates research, case studies, questionnaire responses, and her seasoned experience to identify three major root causes of burnout – compassion fatigue, countertransference, and vicarious trauma – and defines creative strategies for individual self-care opportunities. This resourceful guide offers clarification, direction, and opportunity for reflection to help students and professionals in social work, related fields, and beyond find balance in their personal and professional lives as well as ease work-related stress to better serve clients – and, in this way, achieve professional equilibrium, success, and personal fulfillment.

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About the Author
Foreword by Linda May Grobman
Acknowledgments & Reflections
Introduction: What I Wish I Had Known

Part 1: Burnout

Chapter 1: What Is Burnout?

Chapter 2: Arenas of Burnout

Chapter 3: From Compassion Fatigue to Compassion Satisfaction

Part 2: Self-Care

Chapter 4: Introducing Self-Care

Chapter 5: Professional Self-Care

Chapter 6: Self-Care in the Personal, Social, and Physical Arenas

Conclusion: Boundaries and Self-Care
The training to become a social worker is arduous, demanding, and complex. My concentration was clinical social work, which, during my graduate education, was known as casework. I well remember studying my basic curriculum; taking more electives than were required; receiving excellent supervision of my clinical work with individuals, couples, families, and groups; and, before it was required, taking many continuing education classes.

I learned a great deal, but what it seemed that no one shared with me during these years, or seemed to discuss among themselves, was the sheer exhaustion experienced in every concentration of social work as we do our very best to meet our clients’ needs day after day, year after year. When one of my deeply trusted supervisors died, and I met his wife for the first time, she told me that sometimes he would return home too exhausted to even speak and that a frequent statement she heard from a man who obviously treasured his clinical work, teaching, and writing was: "They feel better, but I surely do not." How well I understood this feeling, I thought. How well so many in our field must understand this feeling. And yet many of us lack the attendant knowledge that can assess and direct this feeling, which is called "burnout" in the literature – or knowledge of the necessary practices to heal and soothe ourselves, which are collectively known as "self-care." What I have learned over the years is the necessity of addressing this complicated exhaustion before the feeling of depletion leads to dysfunction or more serious disintegration. With this in mind, I share the precise information that I wish I had known about burnout and self-care in the early years of my work.

The term "burnout" was first applied by Freudenberger (1974) to describe what happens when a practitioner becomes increasingly "inoperative." According to Freudenberger (1975), this progressive state of inoperability can take many different forms, from simple rigidity, in which "the person becomes 'closed' to any input" (p. 79) to an increased resignation, irritability, and quickness to anger. As burnout worsens, however, its effects turn more serious. An individual may become paranoid or self-medicate with legal or illegal substances. Eventually, a social worker afflicted with burnout may leave a promising career that he or she has worked very hard to attain or be removed from a position by a forced resignation or firing.

Various studies have reported figures of moderate burnout on the part of social workers ranging from 47 percent (Maslach, Jackson, & Leiter, 1996) to as high as 71 percent (Martin & Schinke, 1998). The research accompanying these studies points to a direct correlation between burnout and the desire to leave one’s job (Lloyd, King, & Chenoweth, 2002). Gibson, McGrath, and Reid (1989) found that 73 percent of respondents had thought of leaving social work at some point. Yet even with the signs of burnout all around us, social workers may still not pay full attention to the reality of that possibility until suddenly everything seems overwhelming. At such times, we may lack the knowledge of what is transpiring or the critical faculties to assess our experience objectively that will enable us to take proper measures to restore balance to our lives. To explore and understand the phenomenon of burnout before it is too late, researchers have found it useful to introduce several components of the term or attendant syndromes; in this work, I have made use of three of them specifically: compassion fatigue, countertransference, and vicarious trauma.

Just as burnout is associated with personal and professional factors, adjustment to those factors prevents future or further burnout from occurring. Further, it can reverse burnout that has occurred. In other words, there is a cure for burnout; not a permanent cure, or a cure-all, but a process that can restore balance in our personal and professional lives. That cure is self-care, a practice that can be actively committed to in four arenas: the professional, including organizational, supervisory, and peer strategies; the personal, including the psychological, emotional, and religious/spiritual dimensions; the social, including one’s partner, immediate family, and circle of friends and acquaintances; and the physical, the care of one’s own body.

Lately, increased attention has been given to the concept of self-care, the balancing activities in which social workers can engage to preserve personal longevity and happiness, their relationships, and their careers. These activities span a wide range and can include receiving support from mentors or a peer group, the importance of relaxation (including vacations), the pursuit of personal hobbies and interests, and the need to balance wellness with one’s professional life. By engaging in self-care, we can assert our right to be well and reintroduce our own needs into the equation. Self-care is not merely one of those "nice-to-haves": Among the many consequences of burnout is poor-quality client care. Organizations thus must take note: We cannot simply give lip service to self-care and then get social workers back on a demanding treadmill without compromising client care and staff well-being.

In this book, you will find the examination of burnout and self-care communicated through four distinct dimensions. First, there is the research; since the concept of burnout was first introduced by Freudenberger, there have been scores of important thinkers engaged in an intensive qualitative and quantitative discussion of the aspects of burnout and self-care. The second dimension comes from a qualitative case study I have conducted over the past two years: Drawing from over 200 prospective candidates, 40 social workers were selected to complete an anonymous, extensive questionnaire. Their responses pointed to the exact problems of burnout and blessings of self-care in a unique way, and because of their efforts, we are able to hear authentic voices of those on the front lines of social work and mental health practice. In addition, there are the case studies of individuals (with identifying features altered) whose stories I have known intimately through my 30-plus years of practice and who aptly represent the tremendous challenges of burnout and the very real possibilities of self-care. Finally, there are questions at the conclusion of most chapters, designed for personal examination and understanding. It may be that these opportunities for reflection will also have value to those important to you, either in social work and related professions or not. Hopefully, new areas of self-awareness can lead to clearer individualized direction as well as more meaningful and fulfilling sharing and communication with others. Authentic, trusting contact is a gift synonymous with self-care.

In social work and related mental health professions, although we are surrounded by people all day long, there is not a balanced give and take. The concentration is on clients, not ourselves. In the truest sense, we are alone: We are the givers, and our professional fulfillment comes from seeing the growth, hope, and new direction in those with whom we are privileged to work. The fulfillment of our professional commitment demands that we do our best and give as much as possible in the ethical ways that are the underpinnings of our social work profession. With this awareness, common sense predicts that burnout is a potential threat waiting for us in the wings. However, as we all know, common sense and clear thinking can be eroded when our own "unfinished emotional business" (Scarf, 1995) propels us.

My life and work have taught me that the strongest lesson in avoiding burnout through self-care is to accept that we are human, and in that, we are each limited and, yes, flawed. Despite best intentions and very hard work, we will each experience failure, and our losses and the losses of those dear to us will bring the most unbearable pain imaginable.

Yet, with all of the pain and loss of life, we can, if we will it, grow, learn, and move forward in our life journey. If we hold on to this, we can understand how important self-care is. It will give us the strength to claim the joys of living and endure what we must. And it will help us to ensure that our clients are able, whenever possible, to do the same.

SaraKay Smullens, LCSW, ACSW, BCD, CGP, CFLE, whose private and pro bono clinical social work practice is in Philadelphia, is a certified group psychotherapist and family life educator. She is a recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from NASW-PA, which recognized her long-standing community organization, advocacy, and activism, as well as the codification of patterns of emotional abuse and the development of a therapeutic model to address it. SaraKay is the founder of the Philadelphia initiative The Sabbath of Domestic Peace, which identified clergy as a "missing link" in addressing domestic violence, devoting itself to clergy involvement and education that prayer alone would not save lives and that couples in distress, due to abuse and violence, could not be seen together. SaraKay has published in peer-reviewed journals, is the best-selling author of Whoever Said Life Is Fair?: A Guide to Growing Through Life’s Injustices and Setting YourSelf Free: Breaking the Cycle of Emotional Abuse in Family, Friendships, Work, and Love, and blogs for The Huffington Post. Her professional papers and memorabilia are divided between the Archives of the University of Pennsylvania, Goucher College, and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. SaraKay’s professional life continues to be devoted to highlighting destructive societal forces through education, advocacy, and activism.

Burnout and Self-Care in Social Work is a vitally important and timely book by an extraordinary individual who has been on the frontlines of this issue for decades and writes with deep insight, clarity, and unparalleled empathy for all concerned. I was pleased to be president of Scribner when SaraKay published her first book.

Franklyn Rodgers, BS
University of Pennsylvania


Burnout and Self-Care in Social Work is an engrossing and comprehensive treatment of a most critical and complex topic in social work today. Service providers will undoubtedly benefit from SaraKay Smullens's insights into recognizing and overcoming burnout and equipping oneself with the tools to build self-care into the heart of one's practice. This fundamental self-actualization is the cornerstone of any truly successful individual within the social work profession and beyond.

John L. Jackson, Jr., PhD
Dean, School of Social Policy & Practice
Richard Perry University Professor
University of Pennsylvania


Burnout and Self-Care in Social Work is an essential read for students and mental health professionals. Smullens delves into the primary factors that can lead to burnout and offers research-backed strategies for self-care. The guidebook taps an unmet need of those who work in mental health, providing a pathway to happiness and a long-lasting career.

Aaron T. Beck, MD
Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry
University of Pennsylvania


This book was born out of the tragedy of a six-year-old child shackled to his bed and starved by his parents. The judge who heard the case ignored the recommendations of a newly minted social worker – the author. How many similar stories can professionals witness before empathy coarsens and compassion dulls? SaraKay Smullens has lived through all of this and has written a book for those working the frontlines. She combines a wealth of personal experience with scholarly analysis. The book is both practical and inspirational, a gift to her profession.

Roger Gould, MD
Psychiatrist and author


SaraKay Smullens has seen far too many committed social workers leave the work they arduously trained for frustrated, exhausted, and burned out, and she is determined to do something about it. Through thorough research on burnout and self-care, a survey of social workers offering real-life observations, excellent case examples, reflective questions, and a sprinkling of her own experiences, she has written a book that clarifies, educates, guides, and uplifts. This book underscores the breadth, depth, commitment, and passion of a much underestimated profession.

Linda May Grobman, MSW, ACSW, LSW
Publisher/editor, The New Social Worker magazine


SaraKay Smullens’s astutely written book is a gift to everyone whose demanding occupations – particularly those involving traumatized and vulnerable men, women, and children – often lead to the emotional and physical inoperability known as burnout. In her two-part examination, SaraKay deftly explores burnout and self-care through professional, personal, social, and physical interactions, illuminating the origin and toll of the three major causes of burnout – compassion fatigue, countertransference, and vicarious trauma (and how vulnerable all are to their impact). She illuminates the road to achieving and maintaining "compassion satisfaction' through introspection, respectful boundaries, and empathy (rather than sympathy or pity) and creatively documents self-care alternatives. As a medical writer and reporter, I applaud this thoroughly researched, evidence-based journey, where obstacles are faced, understood, and removed, resulting in renewal for practitioners and new options and possibilities for their clients.

Gloria Hochman
Bestselling author, with Patty Duke, of A Brilliant Madness: Living with Manic-Depressive Illness


Burnout and Self-Care is an engrossing and comprehensive treatment of a most critical and complex topic in social work today. Service providers will undoubtedly benefit from SaraKay Smullens’s insights into recognizing and overcoming burnout and equipping themselves with the tools to build self-care into the heart of their practice. This fundamental self-actualization is the cornerstone of any truly successful individual within the social work profession and beyond.

John L. Jackson, Jr., PhD
Richard Perry University Professor and Dean
School of Social Policy & Practice
University of Pennsylvania


Finally! A book that nurtures, prepares, and strengthens an internal experience and offers terrific strategies and smiles for a wide audience in a familiar voice we deeply respect. We are so pleased to endorse our mom's, stepmom's, and mom-in-law's book.

Elisabeth Joy LaMotte, LICSW
University of Pennsylvania

Kathyanne Schless, Esq.
University of Pennsylvania

Elizabeth Smullens Brass, MFA
Art Institute of Chicago

Deborah Block, MFA
Temple University


Burnout and Self-Care in Social Work is a vitally important and timely book by an extraordinary individual who has been on the frontlines of this issue for decades and writes with deep insight, clarity, and unparalleled empathy for all concerned. I was pleased to be president of Scribner when SaraKay published her first book.

Franklyn Rodgers, BS
University of Pennsylvania


When social workers choose to help the most vulnerable children and adults, they are exposed to intense demands for compassion, understanding, and love. The ability of the professional to function in the service of others can be compromised by burnout, fatigue, and his or her own need to be valued. No better guide can be found than SaraKay Smullens’s book on how the therapist, educator, and counselor can remain healthy to be helpful. It should become a basic text in this neglected field.

David Sachs, MD
Emeritus Clinical Professor of Psychiatry
Hahnemann University


I have known and admired SaraKay Smullens for over four decades. Her latest work is illustrative of why she is the wisest woman I know. In these draining, complicated times, as burnout seems to wait in the wings for us, this text offers crucial information. If you are not in SaraKay’s field, skim (or skip) the detailed research and read the clear explanations and case studies. Study the three primary causes of burnout, pinpoint where you may be vulnerable, and learn what to do about it. SaraKay describes the potential of the self and how to achieve what she calls "an emotional sense of direction" in illuminating ways. Her exploration of empathy is a guide to mature, compassionate relationships. As you read, your eyes may mist, but you will also smile. This book is about far more than burnout and self-care. This book is about love.

Bonnie Strauss
Journalist and documentary filmmaker