Achieving a Sensible Work-Life Balance as a Social Worker

Social Worker

Social workers help individuals and families when the pressures of life get to be too much for them to manage alone. These pressures may be caused or exacerbated by poverty, poor housing, lack of access to opportunities or amenities, abuse, addiction, or any number of other factors. However, social workers are human too, and can also find themselves in difficulties when they don’t take the time to attend properly to their personal life and their own mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing.

Looking after yourself

The nature of social work means that it’s very hard not to take the job home with you. Although all social workers know that they need to set clear boundaries between themselves and their clients, often they can’t help but have an emotional response to the circumstances they’re faced with. Simply repressing these emotions in order to maintain a professional demeanor may result in the emotional trauma reappearing in other forms, including physical or mental illness.

Social work is also time-intensive. Everyone needs to be able to spend time with family and friends, eat well, sleep well, and relax. However, with a job that is in many ways a vocation, where you are trying to help others in difficult situations, it can be difficult to clock off and dedicate time to your own needs without feeling selfish, or at least still having half your mind still at work. The question of time becomes even more pressing if a social worker decides that they want to learn new skills or acquire additional qualifications in order to advance their career.

Avoiding burnout

In any demanding profession, it’s important to find a good work-life balance. Arguably, social work is among the most demanding careers in terms of mental and emotional pressure. Social workers are typically pressed for time, juggling various cases and supporting individuals and families in desperate situations who often have no one else to turn to. It’s little surprise that sometimes social workers are left without the personal resources to properly care for themselves.

Everyone knows that burnout is a real risk and that if you experience it then you won’t be able to function effectively as a social worker until you recover. Nevertheless, many workers continue to push themselves to their limits and beyond, believing that they can handle the pressure and that they just need to apply themselves and work harder.

It’s sometimes difficult to know if you’re pushing yourself too hard until it’s too late. Like anyone else, social workers need to maintain quality family and personal relationships, eat healthily and regularly, and get enough sleep, in addition to doing their job. Time out and recreational interests that are unrelated to work, exercise, and educational opportunities are also essential to a balanced life, not luxuries that can be skipped over. Stressed social workers may use caffeine, alcohol, junk food, or drugs in order to keep going, which will only make the problem worse.

A duty of self-care

Stress at work can weaken the immune system and raise blood pressure, increasing the risk of a stroke or a heart attack. Although social workers are often inclined to put their clients first, noting that their situations are so much worse than their own, the first duty of any social worker is to look after their own physical and mental health. A social worker must stay in good shape in order to help their clients. Setting boundaries also includes knowing when to step back to practice self-care.

Warning signs that you may be heading for burnout may include not getting enough sleep or suffering from broken or unsatisfactory sleep. A short temper and feelings of irritability, depression, or anxiety, especially if these seem to have no obvious cause, or to be out of proportion to the apparent trigger, are also common symptoms. If you find that you’re eating poorly, suffering from recurrent minor illnesses, getting behind on paperwork, or neglecting to take your allotted breaks, then these could all be signals that you’re pushing too hard.

Pay attention to complaints from family or friends that you’re not spending enough time with them. These may be legitimate signs that you’re spending too much time at work and shouldn’t be shrugged off. Mindfulness and self-reflection can help you to heed these warnings and take action.

Professional development

Finding the time for professional development is also important. Learning new skills, advancing to a higher salary taking on a new specialty, and being able to meet the growing demands of a changing world, are all legitimate reasons why a social worker might want to carve out space in their busy schedule to study for a higher qualification. But how can you become better at your job and advance your career when you’re already struggling to balance work with personal obligations?

One of the best ways to move forward is to build on your bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) by taking a master’s degree in the same subject (MSW). Keuka College offers an online MSW degree program that lets you advance from a BSW to an MSW in your own time while working full-time as a social worker.

Studying online lets you fit professional advancement around your personal and family life, and without needing to take a sabbatical from your job. As the course is fully flexible, you can continue working and meet family obligations as well. Earning an MSW will help you learn new skills that you can apply at work and will open the door to earning a higher salary. You should be able to count on your employer and partner to be as accommodating as they can be regarding your study time needs.

Maintaining boundaries

Maintaining clear boundaries between your personal and professional life is widely recognized as essential practice for social workers. However, this is not always easy to achieve. Most social workers realize that it’s not ethical to develop a personal or business relationship with a client or to socialize with them outside of regular appointments. But if a social worker lives and works in a close-knit community, then they may accidentally find themselves in the same social situation or community group as a client.

A social worker’s partner may work alongside or be friends with a relation of the client. The social worker’s children may attend the same school as the client’s children, and they may become friends. It’s easy to imagine any number of hypothetical circumstances where a social worker may find that the boundaries they’ve set have been inadvertently breached.

Clear guidelines

In some cases, this may not be a problem, but in others, obvious conflicts of interest could arise. In each instance, the social worker must look at the situation to see if it presents difficulties regarding their formal relationship with the client. Does it raise boundary issues? Is the ability of the client to talk freely with the social worker, or the social worker’s ability to act impartially, compromised?

Clear guidelines for these kinds of situations are provided by the Code of Ethics as published by the National Association of Social Workers. These state that social workers should not engage in relationships with clients or former clients when there’s a risk of exploitation or potential harm. They acknowledge that relationships may sometimes be unavoidable and that in these circumstances, social workers should take steps to protect clients.

In all cases, it is the social worker who is responsible for setting “clear, appropriate and culturally sensitive boundaries”. The Code of Ethics also states that “social workers should not permit their private conduct to interfere with their ability to fulfill their professional responsibilities”. In other words, the job comes first.

With a role as important and sensitive as social work, sometimes you may need to forego personal experiences that might compromise your ability to work effectively with a client or community. However, as previously stated, each instance must be judged on its own merits.

Time management

A good work-life balance lets you do your job and meet all your professional obligations without generating undue levels of stress. However, it also means having enough time to eat, sleep, and exercise properly, and to see friends and family. You should have time for recreation, such as the weekend or equivalent days, without having to think about work or being “on call”. You should also have ample vacation time every year.

This will partially be dictated by the terms of your employment, but it can also be determined by your attitude. Working long hours can be detrimental in terms of the quality of your work. You can end up taking more time to get less done, this assumes that you don’t become ill and end up having to take more time off as a result.

Achieving a healthy work-life balance is a question of working out your priorities. Social workers can’t afford to treat their work as “just a job”, but they should realize that their personal life is important too. By working too hard, you may miss out on important life events such as seeing your children grow up or spending quality time with those closest to you.

Tips for a healthier life

If possible, completely unplug from work when you get home. This isn’t always possible if you’re a social worker, as you may have clients who need to be able to contact you at all hours in case of an emergency. Even so, you shouldn’t be catching up on admin tasks during your free time, sending work-related emails, or checking your phone for texts from your supervisor.

Yoga, meditation, and low-impact exercise can help to reduce stress and increase the release of natural endorphins that will elevate your mood. The same can be said for getting out in nature and the fresh air, even if it’s just a stroll in your local park. Being in nature, surrounded by trees, sky, wildlife, and greenery, adds to our sense of well-being and makes us feel more connected to the world. If you can combine exercise with being out in nature, then you’re really onto a winner.

Making time         

Make time in your life for positive activities by eliminating those that are negative or wasteful. This might mean not spending time with people who are just a drain on your energy without giving anything back. It might mean giving up social media or other leisure activities that actually leave you feeling less relaxed than before you engaged in them.

This doesn’t mean that you should quit recreational activities that you enjoy just because they aren’t productive in the conventional sense. If watching generic TV or escapist films helps you to turn off from work and forget your problems for a while, then this activity serves a useful and beneficial function. Find what works for you and make the most of your time. Even just 15 minutes spent reading a good book or playing with your son or daughter rather than scrolling through Facebook can make a difference.

Eating well

We all try to eat healthily in order to look after our bodies, and often check our success by looking in the mirror. However, food and nutrition also impact our mental health. What and how we eat can determine the clarity of our thoughts, our ability to concentrate, our alertness, and our attention span. Eating poorly can leave us feeling tired and sluggish and can lead to us making poor decisions at work or elsewhere.

Processed foods that are high in salt and sugar are addictive, giving us a short-lived ‘feelgood’ hit by stimulating the dopamine-generating pleasure centers in our brains. Unfortunately, when this is a substitute for real nutritional value, it is usually followed by a crash in which our mood and energy levels drop dramatically.

Leveling out

Processed foods and sugar can also cause or worsen anxiety, stress, and depression through inflammation of the brain. Ironically, these are the very things we often reach for as ‘sweet treats’ to pick us up when we’re feeling low. Cutting refined sugar and carbohydrates from your diet can alter the physiology of your brain so that you no longer crave unhealthy foods and feel calmer, more level and energized throughout the day.

Eating fruit in moderation and plenty of vegetables, especially green, leafy ones, is a very good way to improve your mental health. Fresh oily fish that’s high in Omega-3 is good for the brain, as are beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds. Eat well to feel well and improve your work-life balance.

The benefits of a good night’s sleep

As a social worker, it’s essential that you get a good night’s sleep, and as with most things, quality counts just as much as quantity. Try to switch off electronic devices and disengage from work or stimulating entertainment such as TV at least an hour before going to bed. Make sure that your bedroom is as quiet and dark as possible. Consider meditating for a while before actually going to bed, just to clear your mind.

Energy is a basic need and is replenished by sleep. Sleep also improves concentration and our attention span. How well you’ve slept can affect your judgment in matters such as risk assessment and strategic thinking. Sleep also helps us to process information by converting our short-term memories into long-term ones. Additionally, a proper night’s sleep helps to reduce stress, improves your mood, and boosts your immune system.


Social work has a number of emotional and occupational hazards. These include compassion fatigue, frustration, anger, depression, and anxiety. It’s essential to adopt effective strategies to help you avoid these, or at least minimize their effects. One of the most important qualities a social worker can develop is resiliency. However, you should be able to ask for outside help in order to process grief, trauma, and other natural emotional responses to your work.

Not every case you take on will be successful, despite your best efforts. It can be hard not to take it personally when you aren’t able to help an individual or family achieve their aims. Dealing with a sense of failure, or the idea that you didn’t work hard enough or make the right choices, can be very difficult.

Often though, the answer is not to throw yourself more fully into work but to ensure that you have clear boundaries between your private life and your work. These are both for your benefit and the benefit of your clients. Boundaries help you to maintain a healthier work-life balance, and to help ensure that legal and ethical principles are adhered to.

Finding time for personal obligations and professional development, besides your day-to-day caseload, is essential for a social worker. It is part of your duty of self-care. Without this, you will not be able to do your job properly. At the end of the day, social workers are human beings who are better at their jobs when they make sure their own needs are properly taken care of.