Surviving the Psychological Challenges of a Social Worker

employee burnout

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Members of the US Armed Forces sacrifice life, limb, and peace of mind to keep these words alive. But for many Americans, the pursuit of happiness is full of endless obstacles: poverty, abuse, addiction, and battles with mental health. The nation’s social workers throw themselves onto this dark and winding path to make sure no one has to go it alone.

Like military service, though, social work comes with risks. As a veteran or active-duty service member entering the field, you’re probably more equipped to handle physical risks than many of your new colleagues. But what about the psychological challenges that come with such an emotionally-taxing career?

As a licensed social worker with over a decade of experience, Dr. Sean St. Jean, MSW, RSW, has seen the psychological pitfalls of his field in action. In his role as the Director of King University’s Master of Social Work Field Education program, he and his colleagues work hard to make sure his students are prepared to face these often-invisible dangers:

“We start talking about self-care and support from day one of the program. Frankly, without those two things, very few students will actually make it.”

In an interview with, Dr. St. Jean discussed four specific challenges social workers face and what tools are required to overcome them.

dr. sean st. jean

Dr. Sean St. Jean, MSW, RSW, knows the challenges of social work on an academic and personal level. While earning his Doctorate, he focused on vicarious trauma, burnout, and compassion fatigue. Today, he often works with first responders and other professionals who experience trauma on a daily basis. As the Director of King University’s Master of Social Work Field Education program, he arms a new generation of social workers with the tools they need to survive a sometimes unpredictable but rewarding field.


The Challenges


Whether you served in a combat or support role, you probably experienced burnout at some point during your military career. While it’s typically caused by overwhelming work demands, burnout is a state of constant exhaustion that looks a little different for everyone.

Some of the most prevalent symptoms of burnout include:

Though it’s hard to put a number on how many social workers experience burnout, Dr. St. Jean’s experience indicates that it’s an extremely common problem:

“The burnout rate is very high in social work. Most students are attempting to work full-time while attending a full-time program. Throw a couple of kids into the mix and some other  responsibilities and it can quickly spiral out of control.”

studying hard

To complicate things even more, surveys conducted by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) show that the field needs more licensed professionals in almost every area (behavioral health, family services, etc.). As a result, social workers sometimes juggle more clients than they should and find it hard to address each individual’s needs. So, in many cases, even the most well-trained, experienced, and compassionate social workers have the odds stacked against them.

Vicarious Trauma

People often feel called to social work because they want to help people. But before they can help, they have to listen. According to Dr. St. Jean, this small act is one of the most difficult parts of the job:

“You may go into the field thinking, ‘Hey, people are basically good, the world is a good place.’ But after a few years of hearing all of these stories, it’s like brainwashing. You just hear this negative content every single day for hours. It starts to skew our brains.”

This warping of one’s own worldview is called vicarious trauma. It happens when a person is deeply affected by hearing about another person’s negative experiences. As an example, think about the fact that one in seven children in the US experience abuse. Most people know it happens but don’t dwell on it as they go about their daily lives. It’s just a sad statistic. But to a child welfare social worker who sees it firsthand, it’s a grim reality that can completely darken their outlook on life.

Secondary Traumatic Stress

Hearing stories of abuse and neglect all day isn’t just damaging psychologically. It can actually cause physical stress. This phenomenon is called secondary traumatic stress (STS). As Dr. St. Jean describes it, it’s similar to something many veterans are already all too familiar with:

“Secondary traumatic stress is a lot like PTSD. So, if you imagine some of the symptoms of PTSD, that’ll be things like hypervigilance, nervous system symptoms, nightmares, and flashbacks. Secondary traumatic stress is when your own body starts to take on some of the symptoms of the body of your client. You’re right there with him.”

Social workers experiencing STS often develop the same unhealthy coping mechanisms as people with PTSD do. They avoid clients and situations that cause it, use drugs or alcohol, or become distant to those around them — all things that get in the way of carrying out one’s duties.

Unfortunately, STS isn’t rare. In one study, researchers found that about 70% of surveyed social workers had experienced at least one symptom of STS in the previous week. 15% had experienced enough symptoms to be diagnosed with PTSD themselves.

Compassion Fatigue

The term compassion fatigue sounds pretty straightforward. Social workers show compassion, get exhausted by it, and find it harder and harder to show it as time goes on. While that simple definition isn’t wrong, Dr. St. Jean says the causes of compassion fatigue are a bit more complicated:

“Compassion fatigue is a sort of special situation. It happens when we become over-invested emotionally. So maybe we’re working with someone who reminds us of our own child, mom, or a younger version of ourselves.  We may start to inappropriately take on some of the emotions that they’re feeling.

Even though it sounds like compassion fatigue would only be a problem in very specific scenarios, the NASW says around 70% of social workers suffer from it at some point. And despite being no strangers to stress, veterans may be especially vulnerable to this particular form of it.

counseling session

For instance, imagine being a social worker who works with veterans suffering from PTSD. One client served in the same theater as you, was born in your home state, and has a similar background. Like you once did, he can’t seem to find happiness in the face of flashbacks and a world that feels alien to him. His struggles aren’t just like yours — they are yours. Each triumph is spectacular, but every setback is devastating. You can’t sleep or concentrate. As a result, your personal and professional life begin to suffer.

Self-Care and Perspective: Personal Protection Essentials

For Dr. St. Jean and his colleagues at King University, preparing students for these potentially devastating challenges isn’t an afterthought. It’s a theme that informs every class and internship placement:

“We help students get the safety gear they need to weather the field of social work long-term. We set that tone right away.”

But what gear does a social worker need? Dr. St. Jean says that without exception, social workers need self care techniques in their arsenal. However, many students enter the field with a skewed idea of what that term actually means:

“Self-care has kind of a bad rap. People think of going to Starbucks for a caramel macchiato or doing hot yoga. Like these really privileged kinds of things. But self-care is much more basic than that. It’s more like if you wanna go into construction, you’re absolutely required to wear a hard hat, steel-toe boots, and a high-vis vest. That’s really what we’re talking about.”

Treating yourself or blowing off steam with hobbies are certainly valid forms of selfcare, but to navigate burnout, trauma, and stress, social workers often need to take a more structured approach by:

Practicing these principles is often hard for people coming from military backgrounds who are used to trudging on no matter what. But it’s important to remember that ignoring your own needs can be dangerous. In fact, the NASW says that burnt-out social workers often can’t provide the level of care their clients need and deserve.

However, Dr. St. Jean says self-care alone isn’t enough. It needs to be used with another vital piece of equipment — perspective:

“If you go in thinking, ‘I’m going to rescue people, I’m going to save people from addiction or I’m gonna save children from messed up families,’ that’s a recipe for burnout because, actually, we don’t have control over most of that. We have control over whether or not we show up that day. What you’re giving is your time in the field for those hours on that day, the end.”

As Dr. St. Jean pointed out in another interview about the perils of imposter syndrome, social workers operate in an often chaotic theater. Failure is a real possibility for any and everyone. That’s what makes routine self-maintenance so important whether you’re new or an experienced professional:

“I tell my students it’s a little bit like washing dishes. No one thinks, ‘If I just wash this dish well enough after dinner, I’m never gonna have to wash it again.’ You’re gonna use that same dish tomorrow and get it dirty. You’re gonna have to wash it again. That’s what social work is like. There’s no fixing. There’s no before and after. There’s no tadah.”

But to Dr. St. Jean and hundreds of thousands of other social workers, navigating the pitfalls of the field is worth it. While not every story has a happy ending, without their efforts, even fewer would. In that sense, self-care isn’t a sickly sweet, feel-good affair. It’s a necessary tool that makes good possible. It builds strong communities and even stronger social workers.