Mindful Practice: 12 Tips for the Busy Social Worker

April 13, 2017
Julie Fanning
A woman talking to another woman and writing something in a notebook.

Being a social worker means being busy. We often have more work than we can reasonably manage. It’s also difficult to help others when there’s so much emotion and chaos in our average day.

After over a decade of being a social worker, I still love it. I’ve found that being mindful is a necessity to preventing burnout and disengagement. Mindfulness means purposefully being in the moment. Not looking ahead or behind, but focusing on only what is now. Here are some tips I use as often as I can to help with mindfulness.

Breathe deeply and fully   
It’s surprising how many people don’t take time to focus on their breathing. There are a variety of breathing techniques, so try a few until you find one that works for you.

If you’re feeling anxious, one method that I find works well consists of slowly breathing in through your nose for five counts, holding for four counts, and breathing slowly out through your mouth for another five counts.

When you breathe in, try to do it from your diaphragm. As you inhale, your belly should expand, not your chest. This is called “diaphragmatic breathing” or “belly breathing.” You can try this breathing exercise standing, sitting, or lying down. Counting helps you concentrate on your breath and calm your inner chatter. 

Develop a mindfulness ritual
Before a workday, I try to put aside a bit of time just for me. When you give yourself this time, create a ritual to center you. You can incorporate the previous breathing technique with prayer, meditation, or affirmations like “strength” or “hope.” There are many who also enjoy journaling, reading, or engaging in exercise. Play around with this time to find what works for you, and make it a habit to do before each workday. 
If you’re not much of a morning person, set aside time after work when you’re home again to help you leave all the stress behind and focus on the moment.

Take a break from your electronics
Even if it’s just for five minutes a few times a day, deliberately put all phones, laptops, and notebooks aside. Sit in the silence.

Download a relaxing app
When you pick up those electronics again, choose a few meditation and breathing apps to download. Apps can be a great way to focus your breathing or time your break. Solely focusing on your breath is easier said than done, making apps a great tool for those starting out. And of course, the Internet (including YouTube) also has plenty of free videos of guided meditations.

Focus on your client
You probably have a million things going on at all times (I know I do), and all of those tasks are floating around in your head until you can get around to them. However, when you’re interacting with a client, consciously make an effort to set aside your own inner dialogue. Just listen to their words and what they’re trying to convey because it’s their time, not yours. Anything that’s on your plate before you meet with a client will still be there afterwards, and thinking about it during your time with your client will only cause stress and divide your attention.

Being mindful is about focusing on the moment at hand. By really listening to your client, you’ll respond more thoughtfully and become a better social worker.

Put aside time, turn off all distractions, get yourself comfortable, and do paperwork! Don’t laugh—I know you can do it! Nearly every social worker is overwhelmed with documentation. It’s virtually endless and there never seem to be enough hours in the day. Spending a concentrated amount of time on paperwork, even if it’s just 20 minutes, can be calming. Plus you’ll feel great for having caught up a bit.

Be aware of your body 
Take moments throughout the day to check in with your body. Start with your toes and work up through the top of your head. You may be surprised at how tense or tight your body is. Purposefully tighten and then relax these spots. I typically feel more mentally clear after this too.

Keep moving
Don’t underestimate the power of taking a walk to keep you in the now. On your lunch break, take a walk around the building or walk around your home or office. Try focusing on your walk, and not on all the tasks you still have to do.

Have a lunch date with yourself
During the day, social workers are constantly assisting people. And you know that when you go home, your family and friends will want to spend time with you too. Consider taking your lunch alone and going away from your work area, especially if you’re not able to set aside time for the mindfulness ritual mentioned earlier. Concentrate on the tastes, smells, and texture of the food you’re eating. Chew slowly. Make eating your meal the activity rather than a mindless distraction while you’re doing other work.

Set aside time during your day to do just one thing
As social workers, we often need to multitask or we wouldn’t be able to complete our job responsibilities on time. However, by multitasking, we’re often not as thorough as when we’re focusing on just one thing. If you’re answering emails, just answer emails. If you’re on a conference call, simply engage in the call. If you’re working with a client, give your attention to your client. You might find that you feel more settled, more in the moment, and that you ultimately get more tasks done.

Be aware of your thoughts and feelings
I like to stop a few times a day and ask myself, “What am I feeling right now?” We often go through our days on autopilot, relatively unaware of what we’re actually feeling in the moment. Accepting and feeling your feelings is one way to live in the moment.

Remember gratitude
Each day, take some time to express gratitude. It can be anything from the sunrise to the way your child made you laugh. Recognize moments to celebrate and appreciate. You may even take it another step and keep a gratitude journal.

These tips have worked for me, for other social workers, and anyone else willing to give them a try! Taking time for mindfulness helps you live a more complete life.

Julie-Fanning.pngJulie Fanning, MSW, LCSW, is the blogger for MSWOnlinePrograms.com, where she draws on her professional experience to provide tips and resources to students and other professionals in the social work field. She has worked with individuals and families of all ages in a variety of settings, and is currently running her private practice, Holding Hope Services.

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