Money: What Rich Social Workers Do To Make More


Ask any random social worker on the street what the number one complaint in social work is and they’ll say it’s the money (or, rather, the lack thereof).

This is not a new complaint and not likely one to go away in the next several years. Social work has long been associated with volunteerism and poverty and it seems that the more good we try to do, the harder it is to make a living doing it.

And if it wasn’t hard enough for those of us who work in the field, it’s even worse for many of our clients. Ironically because of often limited resources those of us who are trained to do more just aren’t financially empowered to do so.

But why is that? Why aren’t more social workers making more money? Better yet, what are rich social workers doing that the rest of us are not?

Suzy, Steadman + Brené

A while back I wrote about three amazingly wealthy social workers and outlined how they had built their enormous wealth.

Besides all being linked to Oprah in some way (which never hurts), they all share the common variable in that they each created unique products or services that they then sell to those who want and can afford them. In turn they’re able to not only take better care of themselves, but they also  create more time to do more of the things they love.

Not only is this a good strategy to create wealth, but it allows you to serve many more people than you could one-on-one.

That’s Not Social Work, Is It?

The universally accepted definition of social work is that:

Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work.  Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledge, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing. – International Federation of Social Work 2014

Basically, we help people grow and cooperate with their environment to reach their maximum potential.

Traditionally, the methods to do this have been through providing services such as community programs, case conferences, home visits, counseling sessions, advocacy meetings, policy developments, administrative delegations and personal burnout (just kidding about that last part…kind of). And rightly so. In order for social work to work there must be practitioners on the ground to help clients meet their goals. Without them social work would cease to exist as we know it.

Now in the business world, these services are actually called products and services and they’re no different from the products and services that rich social workers create, except that in the traditional social service work-world social workers don’t create the product, they are the product.

I call that getting swindled and pimped. ~ (Macklemore’s words, not mine.)

Case Study

Now stay with me. We’re going to look more closely at Brené Brown: a tri-degreed social worker (I just made that word up and I like it), a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, and a rich social worker. Brené offers a great opportunity to take a closer look at the idea of how a social worker might create wealth through offering his or her own products and services while still working within a social work system.

I got a chance to hear Mrs. Brown speak at the National Association of Social Worker’s Conference in 2014. She was every bit the engaging presenter that you’d expect her to be. As mentioned in  the above-referenced article, Brené has managed to expand her social work efforts to the masses and in the process she’s become very, very rich.

So how did she do it? She created products.

Not only has Brené published several books  for the commercial market (not just for academics) – two of which are New York Times’ #1 Best Sellers – but she has a blog, has authored several CD’s, she’s created online classes, and she speaks at various events. So even though she has a salaried position as a university research professor, she still finds time to create products and offer high-priced services.

In short, Brené is a product creation machine. And you know what she does with those products, don’t you? She sells them and creates for herself multiple pay days per year.

Go’head Brené!

Brené Brown on Empathy

Motivation For Creation

So why would a social worker go “off the grid” and create multiple products and services, and what does this mean for you?

Well, one reason obviously is to have a way to make more money, but if your only motivation for creation is to make more money I guarantee you’re doing it wrong.

As social workers we often hear about the magical, mystical legend called “self-care.” Sadly, far too many of us continue to ignore its routine practice until we find ourselves so far down the rabbit hole of burnout that the only choice we have left is to cut our losses and run.

That’s sad and should not be (yes, I used the “s” word).

But the act of creation has it’s own kind of magic in it too. Studies show (here’s one) that when you take the time to focus your energy in a way that is creatively stimulating  in order to bring a new thing into existence  it can have tremendous benefits on your mental, emotional, and even physical health.

But I’m sure you knew that already.

The Missing Piece

What you probably didn’t know is that most social workers have no idea how to create a product or service that they might sell to someone and generally, unless we’re talking private practice, it’s a wildly foreign idea.

In the upcoming weeks I’ll share with you the process of what it takes to use your creativity and package it into a sellable product or service, but in the meantime why not schedule some time to reconnect with your inner creative? Write, paint, sing, read, connect, ski, cook, draw, climb, dance; pretty much do anything that pulls out the creative side of you and try to see if you can assess your level of prowess compared with someone else not as skilled. Those gaps may provide the very clues you need to identify  where your opportunity for product development may lie.

But for now, answer this question:

How would my life change if I were able to create and package my expertise and passion that others could then purchase to improve their lives?

The more clearly you can describe this, the better.

Finally, if you you know someone that could benefit from this, please pass it on!

An Easy-to-Use Guide to Incidental Mindfulness: A Mini Rest for the Busy Brain

Artwork created by Author Felicity Mary Cross

Do you constantly live in the future, or in the past? Are you constantly planning ahead or thinking over and over about past events?  Do you experience a million racing thoughts, like what groceries to buy, did you put the washing on, have you paid bills, when to pick up the kids and who’s going to what sports and when?

We live in an era of business. We are constantly on the move, juggling multiple jobs, roles and responsibilities. No previous generation has been as time poor, or had as many competing concerns as we have, it is a chaotic affair just to juggle work and children and life. And all those constant and intrusive thoughts make for busy heads. Being busy by definition means we have little time to counteract this with relaxation or rest, let alone any great mental health relaxation training techniques. Who has the time for meditation, not I and I bet not you!

Mindfulness is a buzz word we hear a lot these days, but the positive effects of Mindfulness training are not disputed because it works. Mindfulness is literally a practice that involves pulling our thoughts back from that chaotic level of everyday thought, and thinking purely in the moment.

Focusing on what’s being experienced right now. In Mindfulness practice, we are promoting a certain quieting of the busy mind. Unlike meditation where you are required to empty your mind of thoughts which can be quite difficult without extensive practice, mindfulness practice allows you to still let your mind work and let thoughts occur. The point is to make these thoughts moment specific and simple.

The theory is that by doing this simple exercise you can reduce stress and increase your well-being. But again who has time to follow a mindfulness regime?

The answer is all of us. We don’t have to make mindfulness a long drawn out affair; we can practice a simplified form called Incidental Mindfulness. Incidental Mindfulness is literally taking a small moment in your day to practice Mindfulness; this moment can literally be 30 seconds to a few minutes, for example:

  • When you are washing up, try to stop your busy thoughts and really focus on being in the moment, making your thoughts specific to that very moment: how does the warm water feel on your hands, how the soap feels against your skin, slippery against the dishes. Try to quiet your thoughts by just focusing on what you are feeling and being fully present and planted in that moment.
  • Or, sit wherever you happen to be and focus on your surroundings. Again try to quiet your mind and let go of the chaotic everyday thoughts and think about how your body feels sitting in the chair, be aware of your surroundings, smells, sounds, and sights, let the thoughts flow in and out of your mind i.e. I hear a bird chirping, a car driving by, my legs are relaxed or sore. Noticing immediate feelings and thoughts, being fully present in that moment and in that place.
  • When you are eating or drinking, for example having a cup of tea. Take a moment to stop and think about how the cup feels warm in your hands, how the tea tastes, the sensation of the warm tea down your throat, if you can smell your tea. Noticing all the physical sensations of drinking your tea, and how that makes you feel, again being fully present and pulling your thoughts right back to the immediate sensations and thoughts.
  • When you are in the shower focusing on washing your body, try using your non-dominate hand (if you are right handed or try using your left hand). Fully noticing your motions/actions and how that feels, if it is awkward or uncomfortable; how your skin feels and the sensation of the wash cloth on your skin, the sound of the running water. Looking intently at your hands, your legs, noticing all your limbs, how they look and how they feeling. Again fully noticing all your physical sensations, using your senses, touch, smell, sight and hearing.

As you can see anyone can practice Incidental Mindfulness, at any time, in any place! Find an activity that works for you, and one that is easy and non-disruptive to your busy life. This practice is meant to reduce stress, not add stress, so please remember the one and only rule: keep it simple. We wish you improved health and well-being through helpful, easy-to-use Incidental Mindfulness to begin de-cluttering your busy brains.

Mindfulness Practice and Self-Care for Introverted Social Workers


We are drawn to service work for many reasons. We want to help others, we find human beings fascinating, and we are called to make ourselves available to the suffering of others. The work can be engaging, demanding, and draining. For those of us who are introverts, the energy expending and restoring aspects of the work can be critical.

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The introverted brain is more active and stimulated relative to the extroverted brain. Because of this, extroverts will feed off the energy of social interactions while introverts will get drained. The type of interaction matters such that superficial banter is more exhausting than a deeper conversation. However, social energy expenditures need to be followed by periods of restoration in order to prevent burnout. The quality of our attention also matters to how energy is spent and during work time. We can bring mindful attention to our practice and, through that presence, engage in higher quality care and self-care simultaneously.

The default mode of the brain is self-talk. Neuroscientists have confirmed this self-referential thinking as the default mode network of the brain (DMN) and have mapped its pattern of activation. This is how we spend much of our time—engaged in storytelling, projecting ourselves into the future, dragging along the past, and generating opinions about the present. As introverts, we may be more prone to this internalized self-talk.

In clinician groups that I train in mindfulness that often include social workers, I survey the participants and ask them how often their DMN is active during sessions with clients. The range spans approximately 30 to 70 percent of attention on the task at hand and the rest rattling around loose in imagination. The average tends to be 50 percent. We are all well-meaning and care for the people we serve, but these informal surveys reveal that we can do a lot to improve our attention. Closing this gap and shifting from the DMN to the experience of the encounter-at-hand will, no doubt, make us more empathetic.

A regular practice of mindfulness meditation can help us to be more present. Studies by Yale’s Judson Brewer and others have shown that experienced mindfulness practitioners can more readily withdraw attention from the DMN and redirect to the embodied experience of the present moment. In addition to a regular meditation practice, you can bring mindful attention into your work hours.

Mindfulness works by focusing attention on something happening in the present moment such as the physical sensations of breathing. Each time attention moves away from the breath to the DMN, you refocus your attention on the breath. This process is repeated as needed, which is usually quite a lot!

I teach a technique that I simply call “divided attention.” If, as the survey suggested, a large chunk of our attention is not with our client, then we can take let’s say 10 percent of that attention and ground it on the breath. That is, we aim to be mindful during the service time such that we speak and listen with an awareness of our breathing body. Now, close to 90 percent of our attention is with our person because we have steered our attention away from the DMN.

This kind of attention takes practice. It’s easy to get caught up in the stories of the moment—our own and those of the people we treat. Having a regular daily silent meditation practice can help us to develop the skills necessary to be mindful while communicating. When we bring our full presence to the work, it tends to be less exhausting because we are getting the benefits of mindfulness practice through the service hour. Mindfulness helps us to bring a sacred attention to the work. It conveys that we care deeply enough to be present and becomes the vehicle of that presence. Compassion, empathy, and equanimity will follow.

We can also take the moments between sessions to have mindful breaks. Instead of peering into your smart phone, take three minutes to be with your body and mind. These little mindfulness hits can help to keep your energy tuned during the workday.

Mindfulness practice is a form of quiet solitude that is especially important for those of us who are introverts. It can be beneficial for everyone, but we need it for restoration of energy. Being mindful during sessions, as suggested above, can help to offset the energy drain that inevitably occurs in social work. Getting yourself on the cushion on a daily basis will also help to build a foundation of energy that can be drawn upon in all the challenging situations of your life.

Tips for Grandparents Raising Grandchildren


Grandparents raising grandchildren is an age-old practice and continues to be common in today’s society. This article offers helpful advice to these grandparents as they parent their grandchildren in the 21st century to avoid barriers to success for both the grandchild and grandparent within these families.

Grandparent-led households develop for many reasons. Although commendable, the positive and negative factors associated with this arrangement, including the grandparents’ physical and mental health as well as their commitment and loyalty to their families, should be considered.

I interviewed 12 African American grandmothers raising their grandchildren as parents regarding their perceptions of school-based assistance available to support them in meeting the educational needs of their grandchildren.  Of the six themes and two subthemes that emerged, barriers to services that were repeatedly mentioned included lack of adequate finances, access to care, transportation, lack of available resources, limited grandparent educational attainment, and technological advances.

As a result of the study’s findings, I have compiled a list of general grandparent caregiver tips which may be useful as they raise their grandchildren. The practice of grandparents raising grandchildren has existed throughout the history of the United States. However, this phenomenon has gained increasing amounts of attention as the number of children raised in these households continues to rise.

Although the tips offered are generic in nature and may be used by any grandparent raising grandchildren, they are based upon information collected as a result of a research study conducted with African American grandmother caregivers within a rural county in North Carolina.

  • Be proactive.  Meet with agencies and school officials to prepare for the arrival of your grandchildren into your home. Complete as much paperwork as possible to ensure their arrival and new routine occur as seamlessly as possible.
  • Network with other grandparents raising their grandchildren. Regular conversations with other grandparents who are also raising their grandchildren can provide a great support as you are able to encourage and give confidence to each other.
  • Research. Become familiar with resources in your area. If none are available to meet your family’s needs, advocate for change.
  • Form relationships with your grandchildren’s schools. Be an active presence in the schools, volunteering and making sure to attend parent-teacher conferences and other school-based activities whenever possible.
  • Regularly attend doctor’s appointments. Make time to ensure your physical and emotional needs are met. Be in touch with your health and feelings. Take time to get adequate amounts of healthy food, rest, and exercise.
  • Take a time out.  It is normal to feel overwhelmed and anxious at times. Arrange for respite care services from friends, neighbors, or agencies before they are needed.  That way, the resources will be available when contacted in the moment.
  • Take time for yourself. Frequently indulge in activities that you enjoy. Make time to relax, and participate in fun things that make you smile and bring you happiness.
  • Have a sense of humor. Parenting does not come with a handbook, and grandparenting is no different. Laugh often.
  • Apply for financial assistance if available. Meet with the local social services agencies and others to apply for financial assistance to help defray childrearing costs.
  • Listen to your grandchildren. The adjustments may have been difficult for you, and even more so for your grandchildren.  Allow them time and space to talk to you about how they are feeling. Seek help if needed, for your grandchildren and yourself, to cope with these feelings. 
  • Enjoy the journey. You are to be commended for raising your grandchildren, regardless of the situation. Enjoy small victories and celebrate your and their accomplishments along the way.

Grandparents assume these responsibilities due to varied reasons, including parental incarceration, death, substance abuse, unemployment, parental abandonment, neglect, and HIV/AIDS-related complications. Regardless of how or why grandparents began assuming the caregiver role for their grandchildren, they are in need of specialized resources and assistance.

Although grandparents are commended for taking on this responsibility, their self-care should also be emphasized.  Normal chronological development, lack of resources, and being at greater risk of disease are factors which should be considered within this population.  Their experiences, passion, and willingness to guide another generation should be utilized and not overlooked.

Standards of Self-Care Series 3 of 3

In the final article in the series reviewing the Standards of Self-Care established by The Green Cross Academy of Traumatology, we cover the section on Inventory of Self-Care Practices.  These practices fall into one of three categories; Personal, Social/Interpersonal and Professional.

Personal self-care practices include both physical and psychological strategies.  These have been noted as engaging in bodywork to release tension, getting proper sleep and proper nutrition. In addition, this category includes relaxation time, time in nature and creative expression.  Other recommended skills include assertiveness, stress reduction, interpersonal communication, cognitive restructuring and time management.

self-careFBUnder Social and Interpersonal self-care, the guidelines state that we should have “at least five people, including at least two at work, who will be highly supportive when called upon.” I think this is great because as helpers we sometimes struggle to ask for help.  To know that the bar is being held at finding five people, whom we are willing to ask for help, puts us in a solid position to stay healthy.

In addition this category includes getting help personally and professionally as well as engaging in social activism that brings a sense of satisfaction for trying to make change.

The final category, professional self-care, is all about Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries.  This section recommends setting boundaries to keep work and home separate, time boundaries to prevent overworking, therapeutic boundaries and personal boundaries.

It ends with this statement, which I one hundred percent believe is necessary. “Realism in differentiating between things one can change and accepting the others.”

The reason I love this last guideline is because over the course of my work as a Compassion Fatigue Coach, I find this to be the single biggest barrier to implementing all of the other self-care strategies.

Because helpers tend to have giant hearts and tend to work with people who have multiple struggles and needs, the ability to accept what can be changed and what cannot be changed (at least in that moment, with the resources they have) is very difficult.

The inability to accept that maybe you can’t solve all the struggles in the immediate moment, causes helper to work longer, harder and feel even more despair when they go home at the end of the day, while their client is still in some level of distress.

This overworking, over giving and over caring is what can put you on the fast track to Compassion Fatigue and Burnout.

I encourage each person I work with to create a statement they can tell themselves when they feel hurt because they cannot fix all their client’s problems in the moment.

My statement has varied over the years, but is generally something like this,

“I did not single-handedly create the society that has put this person, in front of me, in this situation.  I will not single-handedly be able to heal and solve this person’s problem.  I will do my absolute best with what I have and trust that the universe will take care of the rest.”

This is why spirituality is such strong protective factor for Compassion Fatigue and Burnout. Spirituality gives you the sense that there is more in this world that just individual people and provides a framework of beliefs about why things are as they are.

I trust that I play a role in many people’s lives.  I also trust that I am not the only one and that others will as well.  This statement and belief system has kept me safe from breaching my own self-care boundaries numerous times.

I know a statement like this can seem controversial or harsh to some people.  What are your thoughts?  How do you make sense of the pain and suffering you see as a helper while still keeping your health protection.  Please let me know in the comments below.

How to Have Fun as a Social Worker


Forever ago, I wrote an article extolling the virtues of  fun in social work. What I didn’t touch on was what that looks like or rather what fun as a social work can look like since we all have different definitions of fun. I’ll break it down into what we can all do as individuals and what supervisors and the organization can do as a whole to support a fun, thriving work environment. Again, for those who’ve forgotten or never knew, having fun (aka playing) leads to increased creativity, innovation, and productivity. There’s no reason to be a stick in the mud, especially if you want to excel at what you do.

As individuals:

  1. Share the funny: youtube videos, newspaper cartoons, something hilarious that someone said (while still being mindful of feelings), etc., etc., etc. It’s quick. It can be sent with the click of a button. Even a brief laugh can up the endorphins and provide the necessary motivation to continue with the day.
  2. Exercise breaks: Do some pushups between notes, take a walk around the building or even better outside during a break, challenge your boss to an arm wrestling competition. Exercise also boosts endorphins, and if you sit a lot help combat all the problems that go along with that.
  3. Jam out to some tunes: Play your favorite music while writing notes. Listen to it in the car on your way to a home visit or meeting. Utilize it during therapy sessions with clients. There are a million ways music can create a more fun and therapeutic work environment.
  4. Books on smart devices (this is assuming most people no longer do books on tape or CD): Great if you have to spend a lot of time driving for your gig. Or you’re waiting for a client to show up. Veg out to something mindless or learn a new language. The sky’s the limit!
  5. Movies: If there’s an extra computer in the office put one on while writing notes. Use them for therapeutic interventions with clients. There’s plenty of inspiration on film out there.

As supervisors/organizations:

Remember your employees matter too: While ultimately it is about serving clients, it’s your responsibility to make sure you have a staff that’s capable of doing so and that means cultivating an environment of support, inspiration, creativity, and of course, the theme of the article, fun!  Utilize your employees’ passions to more thoroughly serve the organization’s mission. While it may not always fit into a neat, tidy, organized job description it is more likely to benefit both the employee and clients when the employee is passionate about what they’re doing. And one thing we should be well aware of as social workers is that life is not neat, tidy, and organized.

  • Creative corners: Speaking of cultivating creativity, set aside space and time each week for employees to work on a creative project of their choosing. It could be for the actual work environment or for themselves. If that seems frivolous, remember that creativity is what leads to lasting change, as well as job satisfaction. There are businesses that set aside up to half a work day each week for employees to work on a creative project that had NOTHING to do with their actual job and it was found that productivity in their workplace increased significantly, as well as innovative thinking and solutions to actual work challenges.
  • Office Olympics: I don’t remember where I ever saw or heard about this but I’ve been itching to race down a hallway in my rolley chair ever since. It could be an annual tradition. Hmmm…
  • Secret Santas, office potlucks, funny employee awards, happy hours, etc., etc., etc. There are a million fun little ways to boost workplace morale. Find the ones that work for your environment and utilize them often. It’s all right to not spend every single moment working. More work gets done that way anyway.
  • Encourage wellness. Don’t ask your employees to work crazy long hours. Provide incentives for physical exercise. Provide emotional support for those tough days that are a given for social workers. Provide surprise days off. Hold yoga or dance or whatever classes on the job site.

There are an infinite amount of ways to have more fun as social workers or in a workplace in general. These are just a few to get you started. It may seem that this would be a waste of time since often there isn’t enough time to do everything that needs to be done as a social worker as it is. However, it’s more likely that taking the time out to take care of yourself (the much lauded self-care) and your employees you’ll find more time to do the social work. Besides helping others should be fun, not work. Maybe the name social work should just be changed to social fun!

This is Serious Business: Is There No Fun Allowed in Social Work?

There seems to be an unspoken rule in social work that no fun is allowed. Aside from play therapy for children, everything else is serious business. In some ways I get it. We deal with a lot of serious issues. It isn’t exactly appropriate to crack a joke every time a single parent is about to lose his/her home and children or a young adult is seeking treatment for child sexual abuse. Still, overall, people seek social services/therapy because they want increased happiness, joy, fun.

No FunNo one walks in saying, “Please help me feel worse or make my situation even more difficult. I’d like to cry a little more.” Utilizing play, humor, and fun can be extremely useful to ease tension and stress during challenging times.

This can also lead to new and creative insights and solutions that we don’t see when we’re stuck in a rut. Helping a chronically unemployed client find a job might be more effective if it’s turned into an enjoyable and exciting process. We all know that when we enter into something with positive, creative energy, the results are more favorable.

Now I’m not advocating we ignore, minimize, or make light of the serious issues that clients bring in. It’s necessary to acknowledge, process, understand, and accept the past and present but too much focus on problems and the accompanying negative feelings can be detrimental to forward progress.

I’ve worked with numerous adult clients who have had years of social services and therapy beginning in childhood, and are stuck in a cycle of blame and excuses because the primary focus has been on everything terrible that has ever happened and is still happening to them. There was little focus on the future, their desires, and how can they build the motivation to reach those desires.

Yet, if you look at children who have not been scarred by the purported seriousness of life (aka adults) they have nothing stopping them because they are focused only on possibilities. They world is their oyster and their lobster and if they don’t like seafood, their peanut butter and jelly sandwich. They laugh, they play, they joke, and they create wonderful masterpieces. They can be and do anything in their minds, and if a motivated mindset stays intact throughout childhood and into adulthood they become successful, happy, fulfilled adults.

However, many get stuck somewhere, often for quite a few valid reasons. It’s easy to understand why an adult who was seriously abused as a child or shuffled through foster care or juvenile justice system has a hard time laughing, dreaming, and seeing the possibilities anymore. Even so, I truly believe that if social services brought a little more joy to the table they would remember their natural childhood state and eventually embrace its benefits.

The problem is most of us aren’t trained to use humor, play, and fun in a therapeutic sense, especially with adults. I have previous experience with the field of therapeutic recreation so when I officially entered into the field of social work, I was excited to blend the two. Then I encountered a very serious graduate program that was primarily focused on all of the atrocities in our world with little room for discussion of creative solutions.

I also had a quite stoic internship supervisor tell me never to use humor in my therapy sessions. The fun and joy that I began with was slowly squeezed out of me. I figured these highly educated, licensed, and experienced professors and professionals must know better than me what they’re talking about. So I got super serious, but that wasn’t me. Since I’m the only tool I have in working with my clients, it wasn’t helpful to them.

I realized later my supervisor likely meant I shouldn’t use humor unless it was useful to the client in which I fully agree with. However, neither she nor anyone else in my program provided any guidance in that direction. Luckily, I had other role models who used humor and play effortlessly and I rediscovered similar skills I had learned previously or used naturally.

Through some trial and error, I found that many of my clients responded positively to humor and a little playfulness. They more easily let go of some of their life’s negative accumulation and replaced that with life’s possibilities and motivation to move toward their desires. They smiled, they laughed, they were happy to take responsibility for their lives.

Utilizing humor and play can also be beneficial for social service providers, who often suffer from burnout and secondary trauma when dealing with such serious issues on a regular basis. Used carefully and thoughtfully, fun is an important aspect of the therapeutic process for everyone involved and should be implemented more often in social service provision.

Interested in Medical Social Work: Interview with Sally Dagerhardt

Are you curious about what medical social workers do? Read this interview with Sally Howell Dagerhardt, MSW, LCSW, a clinical social worker for a primary care setting. She has worked for the past six years in various departments and capacities of medical social work, including Geriatrics, Gero-Psychiatric Nursing Home Unit, and Primary Care. Prior to her medical social work positions, she was a working in residential and community mental health.

How did you decide to go into medical social work?

Medical-social-workI was drawn to social work by the diversity of opportunities. After two years of being in rural mental health, I was feeling a bit burned out and I began to apply for opportunities within the medical field for a change of scenery. It would be dishonest to say that the pay increase wasn’t a big motivator as well. I firmly believe in the “clinical” (aka therapeutic) aspect of my social work practice as a medical social worker. I provide intervention during times of stress and crisis, and I assist patients in making changes to maintain their wellness. I also provide a more holistic, social work perspective to my medically trained co-workers – doctors, nurses, etc.

In your opinion, what are the best aspects of your job?

While there are problems and pitfalls with every employer, I try to actively focus on the best aspects of my job, and honestly, there are a number of them. First and foremost, I get to work directly with people and provide them with needed assistance. My employer values my position, as do my co-workers. I perform a variety of social work interventions throughout the day, and I enjoy the fact that each of my days is different. I think being a part of a medical team also helps with self-care, as I do not feel solely responsible for my patients’ care. I can take leave and know that my patients will be cared for, and we can collaborate as a team to ensure good care on a daily basis. I cannot leave out that another great aspect of my job is the pay and benefits, which also enable me to be more focused on my job, and are often unavailable in other social work positions.

What are the most challenging aspects of your job?

Two challenging aspects immediately come to mind. In each of my social work positions, including this one, navigating inadequate systems is always a challenge. Whether it’s your employer or an entity in the larger community upon whom you rely for assistance, there’s nothing more challenging or frustrating for me than inadequate resources or institutional barriers to care for someone who is working hard to make change. My second biggest challenge as a social worker will always be self-care and avoiding burnout, cynicism, etc.

What would you change about your job, if you could?

While I feel that my employer does an amazing job at valuing social work and the importance of what I can bring to the table, I still think that there are ways that my clinical skills could be better utilized. As a medical social worker in an outpatient primary care clinic, my job tasks are diverse, but at times I still feel compartmentalized. I think that this is a result of the way my employer is organized: primary care, mental health, specialty care, etc. and at times, it limits my ability to assist the “whole person” by directing me to refer patients to other services lines or departments for assistance, when my social work license would theoretically allow me to assist.

How long do you see yourself in this field?

Working for a large medical institution offers me a diversity of positions and moves that I can make within this organization. As a result, I plan to stay within the medical social work field indefinitely, secondary to the ability to work within different departments, thus avoiding burnout, and have an adequate retirement.

What advice would you give to someone considering medical social work as a career?

I think that there are a number of great opportunities within the medical field for social workers. I think as social workers we need to consider the diversity of our skills and the myriad of settings to which they can be applied. So many of us graduate from social work school with limited ideas as to the kind of work we would like to do. Opening your mind to the range of opportunities that exist for a licensed clinical social worker may improve your job satisfaction. There are so many environments where people in need can benefit from great social work intervention. It’s possible that you will improve your own job satisfaction and day to day life in the process.

Burnout: Who’s Taking Care of the Care Takers?



Stressors are a given in the helping professions such as social work, teaching, and nursing which can often lead to burnout. These can include intense and long work hours, low salaries, mismanagement, lack of appreciation and support, lack of job autonomy and security, lack of professional development and growth opportunities, politics (both interagency and governmental), and even personal risk at times. As a result it’s highly important to establish and implement procedures that reduce and/or eliminate stressors in order to prevent burnout and ultimately employee turnover which negatively impacts the organization and those served. 

Burnout is preventable. However, helping professions haven’t typically focused on their employees in the same way they’ve focused on their clients. Reducing and eliminating the stressors that contribute to burnout would ultimately require a total revamping of society. Many of the standards set by organizations are established by outside sources that are often disconnected from the reality of service provision.

This can lead to organizations placing a greater priority on those standards rather than addressing and supporting the needs of their employees, which also directly affect the needs of those they are helping. In an attempt to meet particular standards, organizations often have limited resources to reach their objectives. This can manifest as low salaries as well as significant overtime due to limited staffing due to limited funding while occurring within a societal framework that often fails to provide sufficient vacation time, healthcare, or other programs to support well being.

Contemplating a complete overhaul of society is overwhelming and contributory factor in creating the circumstances for burnout. There are many protective factors helping organizations and employees as individuals can do to promote change. Many in the helping fields advocate for others as individuals and overall societal change, but often have difficulty advocating for themselves. Some of this is a result of societal traditions and some of it is a result of a lack of education on the issues that directly impact them. This is particularly evident in regards to pay.

Employees in the helping professions are often underpaid and since money equals value in our society this communicates how little our society values the services these individuals provide.  Of course most don’t go into their chosen field to make a ton of money. However, if one has a major financial burden due to the profession they chose, this can contribute to burnout. At a societal and organizational level, those in helping professions need to advocate not only for higher pay, but also shorter work hours and increased vacation time.

Research has demonstrated that working overtime has a direct correlation to decreased productivity while employing flexible hours has a direct correlation to increased productivity.  Such policies also promote overall well being in all aspects of life, therefore, they should be taken into consideration and ample time off should be provided to recuperate. This could also provide opportunities for more jobs in these fields thus decreasing the unemployment rate.

These changes alone could move the meter tremendously towards eradication of burnt out helping professionals. Additionally, there are smaller changes that can be made until organizations and society buys in to the value of taking care of its employees and citizens.  Since increased job autonomy and social support within organizations are directly linked to increased job satisfaction and decreased stress, organizations should create an environment that promotes this. Supervisors need to be mindful of providing praise as well as allowing room for employees to create aspects of their job duties.

Many enter into their chosen field passionate about certain areas and when they aren’t allowed to be involved in their passions, lose enthusiasm for their job.  Encouraging employees to incorporate their passions can significantly improve job satisfaction and decrease burnout. As well, creating promotional opportunities along with salary increases adds to employees’ motivation to be productive and satisfied. Along with all of this, providing opportunities for professional development in areas of employees’ interests will promote growth that will benefit both the individual workers and the organization. Included in this should be stress management workshops because no matter how many of these changes are made, stress will still exist in the helping professions.

Employees and organizations need to constantly educate and empower themselves in order to most effectively advocate for those they help, their field, and of course, themselves. At first, it may appear selfish to advocate for oneself when many working in helping professions have been socialized to operate within society’s parameters. By instituting protective factors for helping professionals, it will not only benefit the employees and their fields, but society as a whole will also reap the benefits. It’s time to stand up for health and well being for all including those who traditionally provide such opportunities of empowerment.

Standards of Self-Care for Helping Professionals Series 2 of 3

In my last article, I introduced the Standards of Self-Care that were created by The Green Cross Academy of Traumatology.  These standards are created for their members who work with people who have experienced trauma.  The purpose is to ensure that as a worker you “do no harm to yourself” and to ensure that you are giving high quality of service.

meditationThis week I will review the Standards for Establishing and Maintaining Wellness.  This section contains guidelines including:

1) Commitment to Self-Care

2) Strategies for Letting Go of Work

3) Strategies for Gaining a Sense of Self-Care Achievement.

As a Compassion Fatigue Coach, I often see the long-term commitment to Self-Care as one of the biggest struggles.  Most people have great energy for change in the beginning and then life starts to get in the way and self-care is one of the first things to go.  I usually notice this after three or four weeks.

The self-care standards states that we should make a formal, tangible, specific, and a public commitment to self-care and letting go of work in off hours.  This is to include putting good energy into activities that are “fun, stimulating, inspiriting, and generate joy in life”, which will help us let go of work.

Like all good goals, we are to set deadlines and come up with strategies that work and monitor them over time.   I love the last part that states “advocates of your self-care” should monitor your strategies.  Having an advocate of self-care is a beautiful concept, because we know that helpers tend to put more energy into caring for others than we do for caring for ourselves.

The third part of this section speaks to ways we can gain a sense of self-care achievement.  How do we know that we are achieving self-care?  When I ask people about their self-care practices, I am often given a laundry list of “self-care” activities.

It sounds something like this… “Yeah, I go to the gym a few times a week, I do yoga and I cook healthy meals”.  This is great, but I don’t hear passion for the activities and don’t usually get a sense that these activities bring “joy” throughout the day.

While it is important to have strategies that promote rest and relaxation, these need to be “tailored to your own interests and ability which result in rest and relaxation most of the time”.  The goal is to bring major stress reducing practices as a daily lifestyle practice, not something that is checked off a few times a week.

It can be helpful to take some time and explore personal interests and passions that can be incorporated throughout the day.  This can include meditation, mindfulness practices, journaling, reading, cooking, physical relaxation practices, spending time with children/animals/family/friends.  I think what is most important is to foster an awareness of self-care and stress reduction as it is happening.

Those 10 minutes between clients that you take to do some deep breathing is relaxing your nervous system and giving yourself the care you deserve.  I call this “Flexi Self-Care”.  What small self-care strategies can you incorporate into your lifestyle, as opposed to just checking off an hour at the gym or yoga studio a few times per week?

This week I challenge you to spend a bit of time and reflect on what really brings you joy & relaxation.  Then find ways to incorporate small amounts of this throughout your day (both at work and at home).  Let me know what you add to your self-care repertoire in the comments below!

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4 Reasons Knitting May Help Keep You Sane

Can knitting help keep you sane? Homesteading seems to be a part of hipster culture nowadays. It’s not uncommon to see young folks interested in canning their own food, planting urban gardens, and knitting their own clothing. Knitting can be more than just a hip thing to do, however.  There’s actually some interesting research out there on the mental health benefits of knitting or crocheting.

Here are some of the ways knitting has been demonstrated to help with stress relief:

1. Alpha-waves.

Knitting tends to heighten the brain’s alpha-wave output. These are brain waves that are seen when a person is fully awake but in a relaxed, blissful, and addictive state.  They also can occur during yoga, meditation, and even after smoking a cigarette.  This explains why many knitters say it helps them to de-stress and why many keep returning to knitting for coping time and time again. BATH_GEN_RE_KnitAndNatter

2. It’s tactile.

There’s soft yarn, rough yarn, fuzzy yarn, thick yarn, thin yarn, you name it.  Just handling yarn can be relaxing for some people. Combine that with the repetitive motions and counting and you can see how knitting is really quite sensory. Finished products can range from silky smooth to bumpy and puffy. Imagine touching something you made yourself that feels really great!

3. Challenges, problem solving, and growth.

Once you’ve made a scarf, a hat seems like a good challenge.  Next thing you know, you are making sweaters and blankets- increasing your skills and taking small (or big) leaps in the difficulty of your projects, which can be very rewarding.  Knitting also gives you an opportunity to fix mistakes in your projects and you are forced to do so with patience and attention to detail. If you are changing a pattern, you will find yourself growing in your ability to use problem solving skills, basic math, and creativity.  Practicing challenges, problem solving, and fixing mistakes could improve how you cope with real-life/non-yarn dilemmas too.

4. Pride and spreading the knitted gospel.

If you have ever made a yarn project, you remember feeling proud of what you accomplished at one point or another. I still remember how pleased I was with myself when I made a simple square pot holder as one of my first projects over 4 years ago. A 2010 survey found that the average knitter has taught about 8.5 people how to knit as well, making knitting a social activity that folks get excited about sharing.  Gift giving is the primary reason for knitting for about 13% of people in the same survey, again sharing and accomplishment are highlighted.

How can knitting be used in therapy?

Therapists can encourage clients who knit to use knitting as a coping skill during times of stress. “Knit to Quit” and similar programs teach clients to use knitting as an alternative to substance abuse, particularly cigarette smoking.

Therapists can ask clients to bring in a piece of work and talk about why they like it, what it means to them, etc.

Therapists can help clients with feelings identification and mood tracking by having them knit using a color or yarn type that relates to how they felt emotionally for that day. I’ve seen this done with projects like blankets where clients can add a row per day using different colors.

Therapists can allow clients to bring in projects that would help them focus during sessions-either a completed project they can touch or play with to calm them down or an easy project they can knit while talking.

Do you knit for stress relief? Have you ever used knitting as a therapeutic intervention?

The Standards of Self-Care (Part 1 of 3)

When we talk about the ethical responsibility we have to take care of ourselves as helping professionals, we don’t necessarily think about a specific set of guidelines to follow.  In this article, we will take a look at the Ethical Principles of Self-Care as well as the Standards of Humane Practice of Self-Care.

Self-CareThe Green Cross Academy of Traumatology has created the standards of self-care guidelines for their members to follow. The purpose of the guidelines are twofold: 1) do no harm to yourself while helping or treating others and 2) “attend to your physical, social, emotional, and spiritual needs as a way of ensuring high quality services…”  to those who are looking to you for support. It also states that self-care is so important for preventing a practitioner from harming clients, that it is unethical to not attend to self-care practices.

The three principles of self-care in practice are stated as:

1)   Respect for the dignity and worth of self: A violation lowers your integrity and trust.

2)   Responsibility of self-care:  Ultimately it is your responsibility to take care of yourself and no situation or person can justify neglecting it.

3)   Self-care and duty to perform:  There must be a recognition that the duty to perform as a helper cannot be fulfilled if there is not, at the same time, a duty to self-care.

The four standards for self-care are stated as:

1)   Universal Right to Wellness:  Every helper, regardless of her or his role or employer, has the right to wellness associated with self-care.

2)   Physical Rest and Nourishment:  Every helper deserves restful sleep and physical separation from work that sustains them in their work role.

3)   Emotional Rest and Nourishment: Every helper deserves emotional and spiritual renewal both in and outside the work context.

4)   Sustenance Modulation:  Every helper must utilize self-restraint with regard to what and how much they consume (eg: food, drink, drugs, stimulation) since it can compromise their competence as a helper.

Often when I give a workshop on Compassion Fatigue, I speak about the importance of helping professionals to attend to their own healing as well. This speaks to the ethical principles – we need to respect ourselves, develop our self-worth and be responsible for our own self-care. In order to be a helper, we have an ethical duty for self-care. We thrive as professionals when we come from a place of self-worth, confidence and dignity for ourselves… and yes, this means doing the tough emotional healing that we ask of our clients!

This doesn’t mean only getting help from someone when we are in a crisis, it means really taking an inventory of our own past hurts. What does our grief history look like ? Have we healed from significant losses both from death and the end of relationships?  Do we have a trauma history? Over 70% of the population has had one or more significant traumas, so have we healed from ours?

The thing about helping professionals is that many have entered the field because of a personal struggle that was overcome with the support of another helper, so naturally we wanted to do the same for others. Do we have any of our own physical or mental health struggles, and are we seeking support for them?

We will always have experiences that cause unpleasant emotions, that’s just life.  Having said that, as helpers we need to know how to deal with these in a healthy way so that we can integrate the experiences and move on, instead of being stuck in them and potentially being triggered by them when clients share similar struggles.

I recently received an email from a helper who provides support for pet loss.  She is not a counselor and wanted to know how to separate her grief from the grief of the people she is helping. In my opinion, this is a two-step response: 1) Helpers needs to heal from their own grief and 2) Helpers need to learn how to practice conscious empathy, so we don’t unconsciously catch our client’s grief.

Alright, enough of my rant on the importance of our own healing.  The standards of Self-Care are pretty basic and most helpers know these, although, the last standard “Sustenance Modulation” can be somewhat controversial for people. Sustenance modulation states that helpers are to utilize self-restraint with regard to how much they consume (food, drink, drugs, stimulation).  I don’t mean it’s controversial because it’s not true, I mean it in the sense that this is the standard that can sometimes bring up a little bit of defensiveness in people.

I would love to know your thoughts on the Principles of Self-Care and the Standards of Self-Care as they relate to your role as a Social Worker.  Please leave a comment letting me know what you think!

Self-Care, What Exactly Is That?

by Daniel Jacob, MSW

It doesn’t take much effort to get to the information source these days.  It’s just a matter of logging on and booting up and you can find out anything about anything.  Does it mean it is the truth, fact, or the kind of information that you would welcome?  Not necessarily, but it does give some direction, perspective, and our own interpretation as we see it.  As I reflected on the idea of “Self-Care” and what exactly that means, there was a need to share.  There are plenty of experts out there as it pertains to self-care and well-being.  However, the one who truly needs to be the master of this practice is yourself!  You can read, study, and learn everything you need to about self-care, but if you are not able, willing, or ready to practice it, than guess what?  YOU WON’T!  So I ask you, what exactly is Self-Care?

I hope that I now have you thinking, in a manner that has you open and available to receive.  You see, I really have something to share on this particular subject matter.  Like many out there I thought that I had this self-care thing under control.  I mean, I was healthier than most, maintained an active lifestyle, had great support systems, and guess what?  I was far from healthy, and in fact what I should have been focusing on and attending to, I was not.  Therefore, it was only a matter of time when the vehicle known as “Me” was going to break down.  Often in life our greatest learning comes directly as a result of being confronted with challenge.  When challenge hits us we are presented with some choices.  We can either embrace it and take steps toward changing for the better, or we can resist, avoid, and keep on doing what will only lead to more challenges.  I’m the first choice kind of guy, and because I am, I have been afforded so many wonderful learning, growth, and self-awareness opportunities.  Because I have chosen to fight on when I am hit with suffering, I have allowed myself to move forward…

So, let me now move you forward and toward the meaning behind this post and subject matter.  Self-Care is a practice that is a part of your daily life activities.  What that means is that you do it not only because you know it will keep you well, but because if you don’t you will move farther away from the exact thing you are trying to reach.  You practice self-care because you can see the benefits of this in your actions, personal relationships, professional opportunities, physical, mental, and emotional well-being, and so much more that you can achieve and receive.  Self-Care is what you make it, and when you get to that place and space where it is a daily practice, then it is by far the most important job you have!  To be well you have to work at it every day for the rest of your days. If this sounds like too much effort or work for you and you’re just not feeling it, guess what?  You are right about one thing, it is the hardest work out there, and it takes a tremendous amount of effort, patience, and resilience to accomplish.  The experts can share the facts, data, and this or that model as it pertains to your wellness.  However, there is only one person who can change their quality of life for the better, and that person has to make a choice.  

Self-Care, What Exactly Is That? It is what you make it to be.  Life is not a dress rehearsal, you either give yourself the opportunity to change for the better, or not.  Until we meet again you be well to yourself, because when you are, that person you see in the mirror will be the same person you are looking at.  Can You Hear Me ?

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