So we have been experiencing quite the winter weather this year, what with the polar vortex and all, making a day like today (19ºF, what?) feel like springtime. In my personal life, things have been pretty normal (that means great) and academically I’ve been making substantial important progress on my dissertation and am where I need to be for right now. Work wise, I continue to enjoy the work I do. So why the doldrums? Is it more than an endless winter?

Lately it seems that a fair number of people I know have been more than a little frustrated by life on a systemic, more than personal, level; in the academy (for academics and/or graduate students) or in the profession (for social workers) and in the adoption community. I am definitely no Pollyanna to begin with, so all the news I read easily makes me feel a little more pessimistic about the state of our world and my fellow humans. I inherently believe in the strengths and empathic capacities of people, but wow, do our institutions often just wear us down until it feels we are all playing a more polite, yet just as ruthless version, of the office-place hunger games. I admit I sometimes need to skip through my facebook and twitter feeds because of all the dismal and wretched news about the academic landscape. Since this is what I hope(d) to be someday when I grew up, it’s disheartening. In addition to the dismal academic stuff, there is all the frustrating news I read, hear about or witness regarding the way the system chews up and spits out social workers and clients alike – and particularly in child welfare and adoption, my areas of professional and academic interest.

Yesterday at a department meeting, a colleague I respect a lot talked about changing the paradigm of “preventing burnout” to “sustainability” and that clicked something in me. Several of my women of color friends in academia and I have discussed Audre Lorde’s “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of warfare” and read bell hook’s “Sisters of the Yam” as preventative measures against burnout.

In every social work class I teach, I bring up the concepts of burnout, secondary trauma, and vicarious trauma, all related but slightly different concepts (at least in the way I have conceptualized them). Because social workers are often working with clients that are or have experienced trauma (both crisis and sustained), they are susceptible over time of experiencing burnout, secondary trauma and/or vicarious trauma themselves.  It seems to me that once upon a time we talked in hushed whispers about “burn out” typically when referring to someone we knew who was crabby, mean,  sometimes overtly hostile to clients, or maybe generally unprofessional. When the shift toward viewing burnout as a symptom of vicarious and secondary trauma came, it felt more strengths based in that at least we could recognize the behaviors as being symptomatic of a larger issues and could see our colleagues as more than their symptoms (novel idea – we often forget this).

I like thinking about this in terms of sustainability. Sustainability is even more strengths focused. Social work in general, despite it’s value in strengths based perspectives, still tends to focus on symptoms to be managed instead of people and communities to grow and thrive.

sus·tain·able  (according to Merriam Webster) is:
– able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed
– involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources
– able to last or continue for a long time

How do we support each other in our personal and collective self-care, in a profession that often not just expects, but requires, us to go over and above on a regular basis? How can we look at each other’s self-care activities and think of them as being integral to long-term sustainability in the profession, rather than being selfish or disengaged?


2 thoughts on “February doldrums

  1. I just came across your blog and it interests me (partly as an adoptee and as a fellow MSW social worker). I think that it is one of social work’s dirty secrets (that is a secret to no one, really) that social workers tend to be people who are especially sensitive and came to the profession out of a personal value of empathy and compassion, that in a sense, is a way of coping with the way they/we were treated in our families of origin and the way we experienced life. If this is not totally obvious, we social workers quite frequently have histories of depression and experiencing coercion and/or repression in our personal lives (which we sometimes cope with by taking stances of anti-oppression).

    I remember quite consciously thinking that as a politically active person I was feeling powerless, and so decided to focus on micro-level practice with mental health, because I felt that this was an area where I could contribute my energy and “make a difference.” Now, having spent years in the mental health system, I feel that I have been sucked into a kind of social work that is apolitical and complacent. The barriers between client and social worker in class, power structure etc, will never be eroded under the current assumptions in mental health. This pressure to always perform as an “expert” is burning me out.

    also, I think that “burnout” comes from (in part) the realization that the work we do is not the radical liberation we hope for but in fact, suspect to neoliberal economic practices, which are a real influence on social work, due to the way the nonprofit industry is based in capitalist, nation-state policy, which ultimately produces the same social suffering that we try to alleviate. So if we’re getting paid by the same system that creates the problem, doesn’t this suggest that the principles of “anti-oppression” are pretty much lip service?

    I could go on and on, because like a kaleidoscope “burnout” has so many facets…

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