Social workers need to know a lot about resilience and grit because of the nature of their work. Social work is inherently stressful because social workers work with oppressed and vulnerable individuals whom many in society have written off or vilified. To be one of the lone voices of advocacy for such clients can be isolating. Seeing how they are treated by others also can be painful.
Compassion fatigue, burnout, and secondary traumatic stress
Social workers can develop what is commonly referred to as compassion fatigue or burnout, compassion fatigue is when you become overwhelmed by working with vulnerable and sometimes self-destructive clients. You may lose your sense of empathy for your clients and begin to blame them for their own problems. You may begin to disregard their feelings or point of view. Compassion fatigue is something that is closely related to, and often includes, burnout and secondary traumatic stress.
Burnout may involve feelings of being overwhelmed with the nature of or volume of your work. You may become overwhelmed by working with difficult clients, the amount of paperwork you have to complete, or being around coworkers who are not performing their duties responsibly. It may also involve a struggle to balance work and family life. You may lose interest in your job and begin repeatedly calling in sick. Extreme burnout may lead one to quit a job even if there are aspects of the job that are fulfilling and enjoyable.
Social workers, particularly those who work directly with traumatized clients, are also susceptible to developing secondary traumatic stress (sometimes called vicarious trauma). They may develop symptoms of secondary traumatic stress simply by reading about what people have experienced, such as violence or child abuse. Reading or learning about such experiences could also be a trigger for thinking about or remembering their own traumatic experiences. Those who work directly with traumatized children, families, and individuals may become traumatized from listening to their clients’ stories.
Symptoms of secondary traumatic stress may include sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, fatigue, loss of appetite or overeating, feeling uncomfortable around strangers or in crowds, or developing physical ailments caused by chronic stress. The occurrence and symptoms of burnout, compassion fatigue, and secondary traumatic stress often overlap. Besides developing the above symptoms, a social worker experiencing burnout or compassion fatigue may also isolate themselves, question why others do not have the same level of empathy or dedication they have; or they may encounter a desire to be with people who share their values–this may mean ending some long-term relationships. They may also question their spiritual or religious beliefs, for example including questioning why a loving God would allow people to suffer.
The risks of doing compassionate caring work are clear and prevalent, but social workers and others in the helping professions persist because they believe in their work and making a difference in people’s lives. The other side of compassion fatigue is compassion satisfaction, which has been defined as feeling good about the helping aspects of your work. A higher sense of compassion satisfaction may occur for those who have more personal and professional social support and work in a positive and healthy working environment.
Social workers with a higher degree of compassion satisfaction will be more resilient to the stress of their work. Resilience in human service workers, social workers, and others who care for people has been defined as the ability to adapt to and bounce back from difficult experiences at work and with clients. Resilience is not necessarily an inherent personality trait but can be built up over time.
Building resilience and grit
Some of the key ways social workers can build their resilience and grit are through self-care and developing key relationships in their lives that are nurturing and empowering. Self-care may involve engaging in spiritual or religious practices such as joining a spiritual or religious community or reading spiritual/religious books. It may also involve choosing a time of day or day of the week when you cease all of your professional work and do an activity that is calming, fulfilling, and/or fun. It may involve mental self-care such as engaging in a meditative or mindfulness practice, or physical self-care such as eating right or exercise.
As noted, relationships are also key to building resilience and grit. These relationships may be forged at work with others who believe in social justice and interact with clients in a compassionate and empathetic manner. It is also important for social workers to have strong and positive personal relationships with close friends, spouses, cousins, siblings, parents, children, or other family members. They may also seek out new friendships with people who enjoy similar activities or hobbies. New and older relationships should be positive and not drain more energy from one’s life. Romantic relationships, likewise, should be positive. One’s partner should understand and appreciate why they are engaged in such difficult work and help them be more resilient.
Vicarious posttraumatic growth
A type of resilience that can occur for social workers experiencing secondary trauma is called vicarious posttraumatic growth. Calhoun and Tedeschi coined the term “posttraumatic growth” to describe the broadening of one’s worldview after experiencing a traumatic event. This change can also occur in those who have experienced secondary trauma. Vicarious posttraumatic growth may involve an increase in compassion or greater willingness to listen to others and hear their point of view. It might involve being less materialistic and more attuned to nature. Social workers may come to appreciate what they have and want to spend more time in healthy relationships. They may discard relationships that are negative and make them feel drained or less hopeful. Social workers may even question long-held religious beliefs or develop a new spiritual path.
Social workers who experience vicarious posttraumatic growth may also develop new ways of coping with the stress of treating traumatized, oppressed, and marginalized clients. For example, they may come to realize it is a privilege, rather than a burden, to be able to help others. They may have decreased feelings of powerlessness when they cannot help a client or successfully advocate for a new policy or program and learn to accept their limitations.
Compassion as strength
Social workers will need to be able to develop resilience and grit. Grit involves keeping your head down, staying focused, and working through the stressful and difficult circumstance with determination. Social workers with grit can get the job done proficiently even if they are being pulled in many different directions and are feeling overwhelmed. They develop the coping skills needed to survive and thrive in their profession. They become tough but their empathy always remains.
Having grit and resilience also means not taking everything personally, allowing yourself to fail, allowing others around you to make mistakes, and allowing yourself not to be perfect. As a social worker, you will not be able to help every individual; sometimes you and/or your client will fail, but you will keep going. That is the grit and the power of social workers. They know they have a special calling and that their strength lies in their compassion and willingness not ignoring the suffering of others. Social workers can be great leaders when they recognize they can make a difference. When it seems many or even most don’t care, social workers don’t stop caring and recognize their capacity to do so is indeed a special and powerful gift!
B.A. Political Science| Vassar College
M.A. Urban Affairs | University of Delaware
Social Policy | Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service Doctoral Program