Most master’s of social work (MSW) graduates report that they entered the field because of their desire to care for others and make the world a better place. However, the work is emotionally challenging. In some cases it may cause heartache and disappointment. Many social workers say this is not something you can fully understand until you are out in the field experiencing the work for yourself.

On top of the day-to-day demands of the job, the very desire to be in service to others – sometimes for low pay – may trigger criticism of those who enter the field. Friends may question your wish to enter a profession where you could be overworked and underpaid. This may make you feel bad about your career choice. MSWs are everyday heroes, but they may also be unsung ones.

Despite the fact that MSWs are more in demand than ever, and the projected job growth for social workers is close to 20 percent for the next several years, there are unique stressors inherent in the profession.

In the academic realm, MSW students often report that they struggle to meet the demands of a full-time academic schedule along with their fieldwork responsibilities, while still managing whatever their home life requires. After completing school, working professionals may also report difficulty balancing all of their job responsibilities with the pressure to make a difference.

Social Work Self-Care

It’s undeniable: social work is a job that requires working with vulnerable and troubled populations day in and day out. The result can often be burnout. It is common for MSWs to report that their clients’ problems deeply affect them, and stay with them well after they’ve left work.

With this in mind, the concept of self-care has become an essential tool in maintaining a healthy work/life balance as a social worker. Taking care of oneself is critical to preserving one’s sense of optimism, remaining effective, and preventing job burnout in the face of what can be daunting work.

The goals of a self-care plan should involve trying to find a balance in three key areas: your mental, physical and professional health.

Here is what you should consider important:

  • Understanding what gets to you, and recognizing your own personal triggers and vulnerabilities in the work you do.

  • Establishing a strong support system of friends, colleagues and family.

  • Meeting regularly with a supervisor or colleague to assess your cases and your work, and to engage in self-reflection.

  • Taking care of your physical health by participating in regular exercise, meditation, yoga and or/sports, and eating well.

  • Scheduling regular breaks or a vacation, even if it is just a stay-cation.

  • Creating your own stress-busters; whether it’s practicing mindfulness or signing up for a cooking class, learn how to hit the reset button.

  • Scheduling some fun into your week – this could be dinner out, a movie, or an evening walk. Consider this a date night with yourself.

  • Taking help from others – balance the selflessness you practice every day by learning to accept help, and importantly, to ask for it.

The world needs more passionate and dedicated social workers like you — but that does not mean you have to work yourself to a point of exhaustion. Create a healthy work-life balance for yourself, and ensure that you can keep doing this important work for many years to come.

Nedda Gilbert

Ms. Gilbert is a certified social worker and 30 year educational consultant with an interest in helping college-bound and graduate school students manage the process and stress of admissions effectively. She is one of the senior founding managers of the Princeton Review Test Preparation Company, and the author of The Princeton Review Guide to the Best Business Schools and another book, Business School Essays that Made a Difference (Random House). She is a guest contributor to Forbes Magazine on college and college life. Ms. Gilbert is also certified as a collaborative family law professional in New Jersey. She received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and MS from Columbia University.