"You don't have to think about doing the right thing. If you're for the right thing, then you do it without thinking."
~ Maya Angelou

April 20, 2012

Burning Out!

Good day to all!  If you've been following Can You Hear Me? on the social media networks: Twitter or Facebook you may have noticed that we have spent some time advocating, sharing, and discussing the importance of  self-care, and the affects and effects of burnout as it pertains to the field of helping professionals.  As with everything that we put out, put down, and give to those that can hear us, there is a purpose.  Today, I wanted to share my story and how it pertains to self-care and burnout.  My goal here is to give you a vicarious experience that will allow for a learning opportunity, moving our audience closer to grasping what has influenced our lens, and in turn what has shaped our desire to help others in the field.  So, clear your mind, grab my hand and let me walk you through some of my learning lessons in the area of self-care and burnout.

Let me begin by giving you a clear definition of what burnout is?  *Burnout  is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. Burnout can reduce your productivity and sap your energy, leaving you feeling increasingly helpless, hopeless, cynical, and resentful (the operative word is "could" it doesn't necessarily mean it gets to that point for all who are effected by the various stages of burnout). Eventually, you may feel like you have nothing more to give.  Now that we are clear on that, there should be no mistaking of why self-care is so vital, and particularly in the field of helping others change for the better. *Melinda Smith, M.A., Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., and Robert Segal, M.A. January 2012   

My story is unique (perhaps similar to many) in that my eventual road towards burnout, and the decrease in my own self-care needs was not the magnitude of my cases, the population(s) I was serving, or the overload of work.  The contributing factors in my case were systemic ones, culture, role identity, and what others role expectations were, let me explain.  My history in the field of social work was working in two non social work systems (Juvenile Justice- Detention/Field Services & Secondary Education) where the lens and school of thought was: Law Enforcement and Education.  Although the systems both had components that were in place to provide support for the psychosocial needs of the populations (i.e. probationers & students) they were serving, the focus was not social work, social service oriented, or from a Bio, Psycho, Social, and Risk perspective.  Therefore, I was always operating against the grain and for the most part (not always there were a few objective and informed colleagues) when I would try to speak to my knowledge base, skill set, advocacy etc., the eyes often went distant, and the defense was on.  In the school system many of my job responsibilities and duties were not empowering me as a social worker, and if anything decreasing my engagement and motivation.  My roles were often looked upon and directed towards me as: punitive, disciplinarian, authoritarian.  Well, those roles are the complete opposite of what a social worker is, and most importantly not the role or identity that I subscribe to.  There were times where I was able to find the balance and use my social work skills effectively and purposefully, but more then not I felt like I was running a race, just about to finish, I could see the the finish line, but someone was always holding me by my waistband, I could never get across that line...

This story is not complete, not yet.  Now you throw in the culture that was front and center at some of the working environments that I was immersed into.  Apathy, contagion, survival mode, systemic stress due to layoffs and cuts, ineffective policy, lack of resources and support (the right kind), and so forth.  So, add these forces to what I shared above and there you have it, my emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion was influenced by heightened levels of stress that I was taking on, it was speaking to me loud and clear!  I had been suppressing for a long time, hoping there would be a better day, it never came.  It was time to make some serious and significant changes in my professional and personal worlds, and I am pleased to inform that I did!  When I speak about the importance of self care, and what can attribute to burnout, and the affects and effects of, I am truly speaking from an experiential place. Therefore, let it be known if not otherwise heard, I only want to help and support my fellow professionals.  I hope this insight is helpful to those that can hear me, please don't hesitate to reach out if and when.  Until then, keep your head up and heart open and you will walk through this world in a much healthier way!

"Change the changeable, accept the unchangeable, and remove yourself from the unacceptable." 
~ Denis Waitley

 About Author

Daniel Jacob, MSW  Email
Founder oCan You Hear Me? External Field Instructor at University of Southern California School of Social Work MSW@USC. Daniel has a Masters in Social Work (Families and Children Practice/School Social Work). He is currently nearing the completion of the LCSW testing process.  More about the man behind the mission ⇢


  1. I would like to know what change you made to your career? Did you find a different setting, different role, or got out entirely? I'm finding myself in the same position, needing to make a change - whether changing population, role, or get out of the profession entirely. I've only been in the profession for 3 years as a medical social worker & I'm already feeling burned-out. The expectations of the institution conflicts with the core values/purpose of the role. Doctors & nurses expect social workers to "fix" their patients. When staff doesn't know what to do about a situation or don't want to deal with it, they tell me to resolve it. Despite my efforts on self-care: vacations, going to the beach, massages - when Monday comes around, I become very stressed & anxious about work.
    I do not think that I can do direct practice for the long-term but I really do not know what other areas of social work I can do that pays well as the healthcare field.

    1. Thank You for your honest and insightful comment, I hear you! I can identify with much of what you shared and spoke to, and I can see that you are experiencing a heavy load of stress that does not, and will not serve you well! The hope and expectation that you carry with you is what drives you as a social worker. However, because this is not met by those you work with, and the setting/system/culture you are immersed in to you are continually let down, challenged, and frustrated. This is exactly what contributes to one becoming burnt out. So, what do you do?

      First, you need to ask yourself why you chose this profession? What is it that you ultimately imagined yourself doing in this role? Why did you go into medical social work? Is it the monetary compensation that is keeping you there, or influencing your next move? (hopefully not because if you are after the $ this can and will create its own challenges). There are several areas one can go into and pursue with a social work degree/background here a few ideas: (http://msw.usc.edu/mswusc-blog/the-five-most-popular-social-work-careers/)

      When you work in a non-social work system like you do you will often face the challenges you have. So, you may want to look into a social work/social services system where you will be more aligned with what your identity and role as a social worker is. I am glad to hear that you have found the time for some self-care activities, but in order to get the necessary support and outlet (letting go/surrendering)you will have to utilize other areas of self-care that will support your physical, emotional, and mental health needs, but require work,effort and comittment. Here is a good resource and support: "Preventing Burnout Signs, Symptoms, Causes, and Coping Strategies" http://www.helpguide.org/mental/burnout_signs_symptoms.htm

      Now, addressing your question. I became a social worker to help others change for the better. I had a population that I was passionate about working with, but the root of it all was being a social worker, a competent and effective one. That role has not changed in my new endeavors as I continue to use all of my social work skills to empower, support, and instruct others so that the populations that I care for will be met with positive, effective, and sustainable services. I am still serving and the opportunities that await are endless.

      It is a big "what if" and risk to make the kind of change that I did, and the one that you are asking yourself? However, what happens if you don't? What happens if you continue down this road? Hopefully, after you read my post you got a sense of what will. The impossible can always be broken down in to possibilities, and the risks we take can lead to wonderful opportunities. I know you have plenty more to give, and your best social work is yet to come! We recently started a facebook page, our way of empowering and supporting all those that can hear us. This page is all about putting out positive resources, tools, and support for your practice, self-care, and overall well-being. We welcome you to "like" our page as we will always strive to help you help yourself! http://www.facebook.com/DJcanUhearme

      Thank You again for reaching out, please feel free to contact us anytime!