“Burnout” and “compassion fatigue” are phrases you’ve heard before, and maybe they’re forces you’ve dealt with. If not, you will. Clinical social work can really take it out of you: once you’ve spun up a treatment plan with certain clients, you need to make a second one for yourself!

As a practitioner with a busy practice and many clients with PTSD and substance use disorders, I found the following helped a lot.

Set limits in the workplace – It’s okay to take on “easier” clients. Do not feel guilty about this, especially if you have a high caseload. It’s a fact that some clients are needier than others, and that some you’ll feel better equipped to handle. Always confer with your colleagues and get supervision when needed–you are not meant to be in this alone. Notice the “social” in our name? We must utilize our supervisors, mentors, and colleagues, all of whom have experienced feelings similar to yours or had clients like yours. Venting is cool—sometimes it’s all we need to do to recover! How do you set limits in the workplace?

Set boundaries – emotional and physical. Clinical social workers, and others in the helping professions, were once called “sin eaters” – we take on a lot of other peoples’ issues, and it’s not the same give-and-take as with a personal relationship. Clinicians must set emotional boundaries: know what your triggers are, note their occurrence, and manage them appropriately.

And do set physical boundaries—don’t take your work home with you! Give yourself time and space to process the countertransference you may feel, but do your best to keep yourself engaged in non-clinical pastimes when away from the practice setting. Don’t overdo it! Clinical social workers tend to be empathic, but there’s only so much we can absorb. How do you set emotional and physical boundaries?

Practice Self-care – It’s a buzz phrase, yes, but you MUST create a balance in your life, with time for you. “I don’t have time for myself” doesn’t work; it’s the same as “I’m not a priority for me”. You see where the issue lies? We impart great advice but ignore it ourselves. We give a lot to our clients, and we should; but we have to hold enough in reserve that we can keep on giving, week by week. What do you do to take care of yourself? How can you make it a priority?

Be positive; flip the script – My therapist, a clinical social worker and role model, often reminds me to imagine that I am my own best friend and to imagine the advice I would give to that person. Since it’s incredibly easy to send ourselves negative messages, the ability to flip the script can be very helpful. What negative messages are you sending yourself? How can you turn that around?

Socialize with a mix of people! It may be tempting to keep your social circle full of fellow clinicians, but it’s much more important to share your life with others who offer an array of perspectives, experiences, and notions of fun! With whom do you spend your non-working time? How does it benefit you?

Be passionate! You’re passionate about helping others – but what else makes you the special person that you are? There are endless adventures to be had in art, music, performance, fitness, nature, food, blogging (blog for this website!), etc. What are you passionate about?

Laugh and let go – Some things we can’t control, and shouldn’t try. The Serenity Prayer is timeless advice. Let go of what you can’t change, change what you are able to, and be wise enough to tell the difference. Our profession can take us into darkness, but that can’t define you or your life. Some clinical social workers use humor in their practice; it works in your personal life too – laughter counts for a lot. The last time you had a good laugh, what brought it on?


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