Early in my social work career I had a client who loved to tell me I was ‘burnt up’, a colloquialism indicating disbelief or disagreement. Each time I spoke to this man about the inappropriate behavior he exhibited or declined his generous offers (to borrow my car, to accompany me home, to marry me), astonishment raged in his eyes. “Ya burnt up girl,” he’d say through a thick smirk. “You do not even mean all that.”
Of course he knew that I did mean all that and after a while he began to tell me I was burnt up when I did something helpful. Each time I gave the man bus tokens, connected him with a resource or assisted him with a housing application, appreciation flickered in his eyes. “Ya burnt up girl,” he’d say. “You so good at this that you on fire, like damn!”
I have never forgotten this client, and not only because he was a character fit for a best-selling novel. I have never forgotten this client because ‘burnt up’ was a perfect description for the motivation, passion and devotion I felt for social work.
Only lately I feel more burned out than burnt up.
This is a sentiment I could not fully admit to myself until just yesterday, though I am certain its singe has been present for some time.
This past weekend I traveled to visit an old and dear friend of mine to see the salon she opened after fifteen years of work as a hair stylist. Wine made most things from the weekend fuzzy, but her vibrant and infectious passion was quite clear. Efforts to develop this business from a place of value, with strong and intentional purpose, and to maintain a cohesive and empowered team reflected in every detail of the salon.
My friend knows precisely why she does what she does. Why she stands behind the chair. Why she opened her own salon. Why she chose the product line and design elements she did.
I left the salon with my first haircut in seventeen months and a beautiful new color. I gazed in the mirror. A detached reflection stared back at me. The red in my hair blazed with inspiration, and I realized just how engulfed in exhaustion my own passion for social work has been.
Lately when I think about why I do what I do, my answer only partially forms. Why am I a social worker? Why do I work for the agency that I do? Why am I in mental health and homeless services?
There was a time when the answers to these questions felt as natural to me as sleep, as breath, as gratitude. As distressing as this is to admit, that time is not this time. Upon acknowledgement of my burnout I felt shame. I felt inadequacy and questioned my ability to safely and effectively serve the vulnerable populations with whom I work. I felt fear of judgement from my colleagues. I still do.
In graduate school, we are taught that proper self-care prevents burnout. We are told that if we just follow a few guidelines, set solid boundaries and do not take things personally, we can avoid burnout, promote our personal and professional growth and live happily ever after.
Social work burnout is not preventable. It is inevitable.
Conventional “wisdom” on social service burnout and how to ‘prevent’ it does not account for the reality of this profession. I would love to ensure a balance between high acuity and low needs clients on my caseload, but chronic homelessness does not afford such a luxury in the same way that eating well and sleeping enough do not erase vicarious trauma.
The conversation about preventing, avoiding, fighting and combating social work burnout is stigmatizing. It suggests that most social workers are not ever burned out when in fact the opposite is true. It brands burned out social workers as flawed, incapable and damaged. It implies that ownership of burnout necessitates a population, job or career change.
The acknowledgement of burnout as an unavoidable and necessary part of any social work career is empowering and realistic. Even social workers that are emotionally exhausted, compassion fatigued and struggling to remember why they do what they do are still skillful, resourceful and capable of empowering and enacting positive change within others.
The efficacy of social work is built on rapport so meaningful that clients share the most intimate details of themselves and their narratives with us, so it is a disservice for social workers to not share feelings of burnout with each other.
No social worker can stay burnt up forever and no social worker will stay burned out forever, either.