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Self-Care in Social Work
A Guide for Practitioners, Supervisors, and Administrators
Kathleen Cox and Sue Steiner
ISBN: 978-0-87101-444-3. 2013. Item #4443. 198 pages.
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Social workers encounter a number of unique forms of occupational stress on a daily basis. The more thoroughly they understand the stressors they face, the better-prepared social workers will be to manage them successfully. Self-Care in Social Work is a guide to promote effective self-care tailored to the needs of social workers, including both individual and organizational approaches. On a personal level, it goes beyond the typical prescriptions to exercise, eat well, sleep more, and get a massage or meditate. In fact, the book is based on the premise that self-care should not be an add-on activity only happening in the rare instance there is some free time. Instead, it is conceptualized as a state of mind and considered an integral part of a social worker's training.

In Self-Care in Social Work, the reader is taught how to approach individually oriented self-care through the development of self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-efficacy. At the organizational level, readers are guided through a process of learning about areas of match and mismatch between themselves and their agency structure and culture. The book is timely in that the economic downturn has put pressure on agencies to do more with less, which ultimately leads to stress.

Burnout, compassion fatigue, and vicarious trauma are topics that students, instructors, practitioners, and administrators are concerned about. A practical guide to stress management and approaches to self-care, this book includes narratives gathered from both students and practitioners in the field. It is an excellent resource for social workers, counselors, and mental health professionals in education.

Editorial Note

This book contains information and true accounts that may stir strong emotions in the reader. Stories shared and illustrations provided are sometimes graphic and disturbing. Our intent is to provide an honest portrayal of the traumatizing and stressful circumstances that professional helpers frequently face. It may be important for readers to pace themselves as they absorb this material. Our overall aim, however, is to reveal the coping ability of social workers and strategies for self-care that have proven to be effective. We include many examples of the ways in which practitioners, supervisors, and agencies manage the stress involved with a highly challenging yet rewarding occupation.


About the Authors
Editorial Note

Part I: Understanding Stress and Self-Care

Chapter 1: Making Sense of Stress

Chapter 2: Self-Care as a Solution

Part II: Personal Strategies for Self-Care

Chapter 3: Self-Awareness

Chapter 4: Self-Regulation

Chapter 5: Self-Efficacy

Part III: Organizational Strategies for Self-Care

Chapter 6: Understanding Organizations and Our Fit within Them written with Bob Steiner

Chapter 7: Social Work Supervision

Chapter 8: Workplace Wellness

Final Thoughts
Our study of self-care in the helping professions has just begun. It started with a desire to support our undergraduate and graduate students in social work who lamented the lack of time for self-care and a limited understanding of what is really meant by the term. We had heard comments such as, "You guys are always telling us that self-care is important but you load us up with so much work that we have no time for it! What is self-care anyway?" Such questions and concerns sparked our interest in developing a thorough understanding of self-care and the ways in which it can be embedded in all that we do as social workers. We were of the opinion that it should not be an afterthought or an add-on to other more important responsibilities. To learn more, we went to the experts: workers in the human services field who have insight into not only the stress of social work, but also what constitutes effective workplace coping. We recruited over sixty of them to participate in workshops and focus groups to explore this issue in depth. In addition, we asked colleagues and students to send us stories that reflect their experiences with various workplace challenges and reviewed the literature across disciplines that address biological, psychological, social, cultural, spiritual, and organizational aspects of stress and coping.

Our work in this area continues. To further understanding of self-care, we invite reader participation. We ask that you reflect on the material presented here and share your reactions with us. We would appreciate hearing about your first-hand experiences with the various forms of trauma, distress, and difficulty discussed in the chapters to follow, as well as your approaches to self-care. We have constructed a Web site that offers a mechanism for sharing your story, anonymously if you prefer. Our hope is that the Web site will facilitate information sharing, support, and communication within the social work community as it concerns this important topic.
Kathleen (Kathy) Cox, PhD, LCSW, is an associate professor at the School of Social Work at California State University, Chico. She earned her MSW from San Diego State University and her doctorate from the University of Southern California. She previously worked as a licensed practitioner, clinical supervisor, and administrator in the field of children’s mental health. Kathy currently teaches a variety of courses in social work practice, practicum, and research. The focus of her scholarship is strength-based assessment and intervention with high-risk families, traumatic stress, and self-care for helping professionals.

Sue Steiner, PhD, MSW, is a professor at the school of Social Work at California State University, Chico. Over the years, she has taught community practice, program development, grant-writing, research, social welfare policy, and field practicum courses. Sue has worked in community organization, social welfare policy, and organizational development. She is the coauthor of An Introduction to the Profession of Social Work (3rd ed.) (Brooks Cole, 2009), and her current scholarship focuses on effective teaching methods.
It was an easy read, and full of accurate and thought-provoking information.

As a practicing social worker for about 40 years, I have worked with all age groups and a full range of populations. I have always loved the work, but I do remember the emotional exhaustion that accompanied a huge commitment to do good work without effective or appropriate personal boundaries. Social work is not for everyone. Thank goodness for those wise people who can provide guidance along the way.

As a recently retired leader in a nonprofit agency, I especially appreciated the chapters about organizational culture and the question of "fit." Just as each of us is different in terms of our needs and preferences, organizations are just the same. There is a lot to think about in terms of training supervisors and even more that is relevant to strategic planning for the whole organization. This book is a worthwhile read.

Lyn Farr, LCSW
Former COO of EMQ Families First


This well-written and comprehensive volume, filled with vivid real-life experiences, is a guide that all those in the helping professions can use to improve the quality of their lives. The personal strategies for self-care are grounded in the most recent science. The exercises at the end of each chapter can serve as a self-care regimen for anyone whose job or life involves levels of service and stress that can be physically and emotionally exhausting. Self-Care in Social Work is a valuable tool for any reader who faces the classic problem of burnout.

Karen Gerdes
Associate Professor School of Social Work
Arizona State University


Cox and Steiner provide us with a well-articulated, accessible, and welcome resource on a topic that is all too often minimized in our field. Replete with compelling and sometimes disturbing case examples of the impact of cumulative stressors on the daily health and functioning of social workers in all areas of the profession – including, unfortunately, the stress we cause each other – the authors argue persuasively for the ethical responsibility of all of us to pursue and find our own ways to support ourselves and our colleagues in the often "emotionally trying occupation" of social work. This book is a welcome new addition to the growing literature on the impact of stress, burnout, compassion fatigue, and vicarious trauma on social workers’ lives. It is an important reminder to all of us that if we cannot care for ourselves we cannot truly help those we are committed to serve.

Jennifer Goldenberg, PhD, LCSW
Senior Researcher, Transcending Trauma Project
Coauthor of Transcending Trauma: Survival, Resilience and Clinical Implications in Survivor Families (Routledge Press, 2012)
Part-time Faculty, School of Social Work, University of Maine
Earn 4.0 CEUs for reading this title! For more information, visit the Social Work Online CE Institute.