Secondary traumatic stress and burnout, part 1

Earlier this evening I saw a social media post from a student I had several years ago. She was writing about transitioning into a new line of work because of experiencing burnout in her social work career. I have kept up with this student over the years and I know her to be committed to service, and to be someone who works with integrity. I am sorry she is leaving social work practice in the traditional sense, but I know she will always be a social worker in the sense of looking at the world in systems, in terms of problem solving, etc. I am sorry she is leaving the profession, but I understand it.

Burnout is real, and it is brutal.

Photo by Volkan Olmez on Unsplash

I have a BSW and, sadly, no professor in my undergraduate program taught me about the dangers of burnout. I don’t remember the discussion of it in my MSW program either. Maybe those topics weren’t talked about then, maybe they were discussed but not by my professors. Maybe it was discussed in practice class the day I was late because of talking to a boy in the hallway and the professor locked the door on me.

Another topic I didn’t hear about was secondary traumatic stress (STS), but that’s because we (as a profession) weren’t aware of this concept in any significant way at that time.

Secondary traumatic stress is real, and it is brutal.

One of the things I try to help my students understand is the difference between burnout and secondary traumatic stress. There is negative impact of both, certainly, but solutions differ somewhat. I typically explore this in the context of child welfare class, and somewhat in the macro practice class when we are talking about how organizational culture shapes our practice but it would also fit in a micro or mezzo practice class.

This podcast episode is useful for understanding STS, and told from the perspective of child welfare professionals with long histories in child welfare work:

I had my students listen to this outside of class and then we discussed it in class. They were interested in the degree to which an agency or organization had to be very intentional about addressing STS and working to prevent it. Some of the organizational strategies were pretty simple, like a “no gossiping” policy (so that people didn’t have to worry that being vulnerable and sharing their challenges would get them talked about by colleagues), while other strategies involved more layers of mentoring and the use of groups with an intentional structure of building resilience and emotional safety for the workers.

Here are some other resources I use, either to share with students or for my own background understanding: and This second resource is directed toward K-12 educators as an audience, but there is good overlap for social work students and social workers as well. I sometimes use this in my policy class when we are talking about education policy and trauma-informed schools.

Check back soon (or soon-ish) for resources for teaching about burnout.

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