During the past eleven years since entering the field of social work, I have learned that this profession to which I have I felt a strong call has come to mean many things, requiring multiple hats, and a broad skillset. And these skills required for social work, perhaps like anything else, need to be honed over time, throughout one’s career. Although I consider myself still quite young in the profession, especially if I consider the big–picture–grand scheme of things, I have become pretty confident that paramount among the skills of social work is the role related to advocacy.
We, as social workers, carry the task of serving as the voice for our clients and often for our agencies, as well as a voice for social change. We have to speak out for those who are vulnerable or have been marginalized and who may be unable to speak out for themselves; and we do this while empowering and motivating change at both an individual and a larger scale level.
In the work we do, we sometimes have to face daily secondary traumatization, and we deal with high levels of burnout; and the potential for loss of passion for our work is real. More important than being the voice for others, we, as social workers, must first find and harness our own voice, be our own advocate, and speak to our own needs. We need to find a voice for self-advocacy, if we are to be sustained. So, how do we do it? How do we manage to meet all the client’s needs, complete the ever growing piles of paperwork, and then still have time to do the things necessary for our own personal and professional growth and stability?
This was an area of personal struggle in the early years of my career. I threw myself into the work, as many of us often do, and with that came a “full plate,” overflowing with responsibilities. And, over time it became so easy to push to the side the essential responsibility on this “plate”—self-care. While it is important to develop and sharpen the ability to compartmentalize, as a key coping skill for functioning in this field, I want to encourage a social work voice that says, “Be generous in your own self-care.” Self-care is an important aspect of self-advocacy. And one important way to combat the pressures of the social worker is to ensure we take care of ourselves in addition to taking care of each other. Resonant in this are the words of Maya Angelou, “I learned a long time ago the wisest thing I can do is be on my own side, and be an advocate for myself and others like me.” Self-awareness in regards to our own limits and capabilities must not be overlooked, as we are no help to our clients if we become overwhelmed and burned out. Being a good social worker, and one who doesn’t succumb quickly to burnout, requires that we master the work-life balancing act.
So, we are tasked with caring for ourselves, much in the same way we care for our clients, identify our own goals and needs and the steps necessary for success. The steps around self-care and self-advocacy can be as simple as taking lunch, away from your desk, or enjoying time out to do yoga every week. Or they can be bigger, in asking that your agency to commit to ensuring you get regular clinical supervision by someone trained in the field. Also, asking your agency if they have programs in place or are willing to pay for CEUs for licensure renewals is another way to a solution. Further, self-care and self-advocacy can include having formal or informal peer groups within the profession or within our agencies. Such peer support groups can serve as opportunities for sounding boards. While the specifics are individualized, (much like our favorite person-centered treatment plans) the need is absolute. We cannot shy away from expressing our needs and ensuring that they get met. It shows great strength and self-awareness in recognizing where the support is needed for us to be successful in our career. We must invest in ourselves and surround ourselves with others who can help build our personal and professional capital, while allowing us to provide the best possible care for our clients.
For those of us dedicated to the helping profession, the demanding workload can seem so daunting a competitor to our self-care needs related to ongoing supervision, CEUs, and peer consultation. Nevertheless, self-care must prevail! I am very thankful that throughout my career, I have been able to surround myself with exactly those types of supportive people, individuals I could count on to keep me grounded in my professional values, while championing the work I do in the tough times. I have also had the pleasure of working for a few agencies and with supervisors that shared values about the importance of self-care, and they helped to build it into the daily job routines. Unfortunately, I have also worked with others who did not share these values, and I had to advocate for my needs on multiple occasions. When it was necessary, I would make the effort to reach back to my support group of like-minded folks, to get those needs met outside of the workplace.
After those experiences, it makes me proud to share my social work voice with the SWEET Institute. SWEET has tasked itself with providing a safe space for social workers and other helping professionals to get the support they need and deserve around supervision, peer gatherings, self-care, and continuing education. In SWEET, I now know that I have one unique resource for ensuring the continual replenishment of my skill and capital in this field, one that can seem ever draining. Sam Levenson sums this up nicely for me, "As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself and the other for helping others."
Jennifer Zinter earned her Bachelors of Arts in Psychology from York College of Pennsylvania and her Masters of Social Work from University of Maryland at Baltimore. In the 11 years since her first role as a Counselor’s Aide, working with incarcerated females, she has held a range of positions in the behavioral health field, becoming licensed at the clinical level in 3 states. These roles have ranged from working on a police partnered crisis response team, and in inpatient forensic social work; she was team leader of two ACT teams and has lead the development of an intensive community based intervention team. Jennifer is also a certified instructor of Mental Health First Aid. Areas of interest include trauma-informed practices, working with the forensically involved population, military social work and providing supervision, training and education within the profession.