Ensuring All Levels of Social Work Self-Care

Published on : August 7, 2020

About Social Work Responds
The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB), the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), and the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) are committed to collaborating on the range of issues affecting the social work profession and the people and communities we serve.


Based on previous Social Work Responds e-mails and calls to action, our organizations want to share critical follow-up information.

ASWB has carefully considered offering the licensing exams online and determined that at this time it is not in the best interests of public protection, candidates, or the regulatory boards we serve. Read our full response.

CSWE joined with the American Council on Education and dozens of education associations in advocating for increased funding for colleges from congressional leaders. As students, faculty members, and colleges prepare for a new semester during the coronavirus pandemic, CSWE advocated for financial support from lawmakers in two letters on August 6, 2020. Read more about those letters and share your thoughts on CSWE Spark

Leaders from multiple social work organizations including NASW, CSWE, the National Association of Black Social Workers, the Society for Social Work and Research, and others will co-host a Black Lives Matter town hall on Friday, August 14, at 2:00 (EDT) to discuss what the social work profession should be doing to advance antiracism. The event will be livestreamed via NASW Facebook Live

Ensuring All Levels of Social Work Self-Care

We have discussed a variety of topics affecting the social work profession during the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout the pandemic, the social work profession has also spoken out about social justice and other challenges facing the diverse populations we serve. Despite challenges such as inadequate resources to meet exploding community needs, we serve clients and communities with the intrinsic belief that social work makes a difference. We have proven ourselves to be a profession of integrity, passion, and grit—and unapologetic champions for fairness and equity.

This is meaningful and enriching—but exhausting—work. 

It’s no surprise that self-care remains one of the most popular conversations among social workers around the globe. We talk about it at our workplaces, in our professional development courses, and at our conferences. We take classes to learn new techniques for renewal and keeping job-related stress in check. And we encourage one another through our extensive social and professional networks.

Social workers have many different roles and positions in society, but one thing is consistent. The professionals who have committed themselves to serving people and communities most in need are at risk of compassion fatigue, secondary trauma, and ultimately burnout.

Social work students are feeling the stress of so much change, as well. Eighty percent of students reported in a recent CSWE survey that the pandemic negatively affected their mental health.

Numerous research studies have emphasized the individual social worker’s role in managing their own mental health and in balancing personal and professional boundaries. We know we need to attend to our mental, spiritual, emotional, physical, and social needs to be helpful to our clients, students, or constituents.

But all this focus on self-care may miss two equally critical and systemic elements in our plan to sustain well-being. One is the role our workplaces and employers play to ensure safety, inclusion, and growth, and the other is what our society owes its frontline and essential workers who risk their health and mental health during a crisis.

Specifically, it’s time to talk locally and nationally about what additional support is needed to ensure that social workers can function professionally at an optimal level while also living lives of fulfillment and joy. When social workers thrive, social work clients benefit the most.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)—In the early days of the pandemic, several NASW chapters sounded the alarm about the lack of PPE among social workers employed in health care and advanced care settings. Local governments took notice and passed legislation to ensure better protection for all frontline workers, due to their higher risks of COVID-19 exposure. Federal relief packages also allocate resources to keep workers safe. As we slowly move to reopen more sectors of civic life this fall, including schools and businesses, will we continue to prioritize the safety of our essential workforce?

Compensation—Congress is currently negotiating the next pandemic relief package, and hazard pay is among the potential provisions that may be included. NASW and CSWE continue to advocate for these supports. These packages are important in terms of the relief or support they provide and in shaping the national conversation about which work has what value based on who is providing the services. Further enhanced unemployment insurance provisions eased the early impact of a devastated consumer economy for many social workers. Will new calls for living wages and guaranteed incomes for social workers and the families they serve gain more traction as the nation braces for a possible resurgence of the virus in the fall?

Student Debt Relief—Social work students provide countless hours of community support through rigorous field practicum experiences and often continue that work into the first years of their careers. Will public service loan forgiveness programs encourage the best and brightest to stay in the most challenging areas of the profession after the pandemic, or will financial barriers limit who can pursue what types of social work? 

Professional Development—There has been a welcome increase in the type and frequency of continuing education available on navigating COVID-19 and building a more antiracist society. This rich offering of online webinars, virtual conferences, town halls, and support groups gives social work professionals at every career stage new ways to engage with peers and cope with ongoing uncertainty. How can we sustain access to this exciting new level of scholarship and information sharing?

Telesocialwork—Emergency orders allowing telesocialwork in jurisdictions by social workers licensed in other jurisdictions have accomplished two objectives: ensuring client–social worker safety by limiting exposure to COVID-19 and providing greater client access to continued care, primarily when in-person sessions occur outside the jurisdiction where the client resides. When integrating telesocialwork services, practitioners may experience added work-related stress brought on by the need to develop the skills to use the new modality or challenges to address documentation requirements or client technology needs. Agencies and practitioners adopting this modality are encouraged to accomplish the integration in a way that supports a learning curve and meets regulatory and ethical requirements.  
As a country, we have developed innovative responses to an unrelenting series of crises this year. We are giving ourselves permission to be kinder to one another and are more accepting of inevitable setbacks. We are also taking time to consider our own actions to address systemic inequality.

The rewards of practicing in our profession are significant. Achieving social work wellness requires a multifaceted approach with strategies employed at the individual, organizational, and societal levels. We have learned a lot since March, and we will continue to use those lessons to advocate for ourselves in service to others.  

How We Can Help

ASWB ACE has many approved providers that offer courses in recognizing burnout and secondary trauma for supervisors and administrators to support staff health and wellness.

As students, faculty members, and administrators prepare for the upcoming semester, CSWE will proactively address their needs as the educational landscape continues to shift in response to the spread of COVID-19. Visit CSWE's accreditation Web page for information on standards, compliance requirements, and options for fulfilling field education hours.

NASW’s new Affiliate Organization model aspires to engage more employers in providing direct professional support for their social work workforce. Interested organizations are asking NASW and its chapters to develop ethics training, advocacy education, and leadership enhancement opportunities for their social work employees. For more information, contact [email protected].