On the Front Lines: Interview with a Social Worker


I had a friend who worked as a social worker in a poor section of Brooklyn, visiting families in need—she was kind, patient and empathetic—and she went home every night and collapsed in tears. Social work is a demanding and challenging profession that is essential to the health of our society—even while it damages the health of its professionals.

Social workers advocate for clients who face issues caused by neglect, abuse, domestic violence, poverty, mental health or parental substance abuse–referring them to resources, and developing plans to improve their quality of life. On a day to day basis, social workers extend themselves to those facing life’s most debilitating circumstances. And while there is a huge emotional reward in being able to help redirect someone’s life to be more productive and more fulfilling, constant exposure to the suffering of others takes its toll.

Burn out and compassion fatigue

Because of burnout and compassion fatigue, the profession loses many of its most dedicated workers. Red flags for mounting problems can be insomnia, depression, impatience, numbness, estrangement, anxiety, hopelessness, resentment, and growing dependency on drugs or alcohol.

To learn more from someone with first-hand experience, I turned to social worker Katherine Steen. Katherine, who is 42 years old, and was born and raised near Seattle. She has worked with kids since she graduated from high school, through coaching soccer, mentoring, casework and therapy. “Working with kids is all I know!” she says.

Katherine received her Master of Science in Social Work from the University of Texas at Austin. In Texas she worked in the Juvenile Probation Diversion Unit and was a Conservatorship caseworker in Child Protective Services. In Seattle she was employed in nonprofit management for Orphans to Ambassadors and as a child and family therapist at Vashon Youth and Family Services. Currently Katherine works in Fairfield Iowa for The American Home Finding Association in their therapeutic group home setting and as a crisis/diversionary worker for their Child Welfare Emergency Services department.

JH: Katherine, what populations have you served as a social worker?

KS: Teens with incarcerated parents who themselves have become entangled in the justice system (Juvenile probation); foster kids, orphaned kids in underdeveloped countries, youth, ages 5-17 struggling with behavioral health issues; teens placed in a therapeutic group home; and youth in crisis at home.

JH: What situations surprised you when, having finished your education, you found yourself confronted with real life situations?

KS: Probably standing in court listening to a judge give visitation to a man and his newborn. I was in court to ask that the baby be placed in foster care. This man was the most terrifying human I have yet to come across—he had just threatened people in court and sent a two-year old to the hospital—and yet the judge gave him access to his newborn son. I was aghast—it was a surreal moment. And I was to be supervising these visits, alone in a room with him. I was petrified. Even thinking about this 12 years later gets my heart rate going. Fortunately, within a few days of that court hearing he committed a terrible crime and was imprisoned. I feel like that baby and I dodged a bullet that day.

JH: What have you found to be most rewarding?

KS: Oh, the hugs! And seeing kids smash people’s low expectations of them. Breaking molds, interrupting cycles of violence. Sometimes you just can’t know the effect you have on people, you just do your best and hope it’s enough to propel them down a different path or help them see a situation a different way. They have all the tools they need already. My job is just to show them that.

JH: What have you found to be most difficult—even emotionally or physically trying?

KS: Long hours, managing caseloads, and the emotional toll—your standard social work trifecta. For me, a lot of times it’s managing the effect people have on me energetically. I have a visceral response to negativity—it feels like people are assaulting me even when the negativity is not directed at me. Protecting my energetic boundaries has been a life saver; I wish I’d had some of the tricks I’ve been learning recently in my toolbox in my younger years.

JH: I know you learned the Transcendental Meditation technique in November of 2018. Have you experienced personal benefits of TM mentally, physically, socially?

KS: Yes, I like that I can disconnect from the chaos around me twice each day and just be. I’ve noticed I sleep better since learning TM—I love sleep! I also love that it has started some really interesting conversations with people too. I’m always extolling the virtues of self-reflection, the power of silence and of meditation with my clients. Taking time out to do TM is a great way to model what I’ve been talking about.

JH: I’ve read that there are steps social workers can take to avoid or reduce burnout and compassion fatigue, such as setting limits with clients so that they don’t impinge on personal time, being well-rested, eating a healthy diet, physical exercise and ways to make time for yourself. The TM technique provides exceptionally deep rest, reduces stress and fatigue, balances health, and gives you some perspective (like a mini-vacation) by settling the mind deep within, beyond the usual relentless experience of thoughts. Have you noticed that these or other benefits from the TM practice supported your work with your clients?

KS: Oh, my goodness, yes. This is where I’ve noticed the most results.To be honest, I was so burnt out in social work. I moved to Iowa to take classes, learn TM, and possibly go in a different direction all together. But I found a job working in a youth shelter and group home, which was supposed to just be nights and weekends so I could focus on classes, and it’s turned into so much more. There are opportunities here, I’m taking on new roles, and I’m learning to love social work all over again, but as if for the first time. TM has given me the ability to love my clients more deeply, while still detaching from the everyday chaos. It’s like I’m witnessing things from afar, yet closer than ever. And I feel like it gives me resilience: the mental, emotional, and physical recovery in between shifts that is so necessary. I work in a 24-hour facility and am often oncall, so my hours can be a bit wacky. In the past, before learning TM, there was no way I could have handled it.

JH: Would you recommend that others in your profession take the TM course?

KS: Without a doubt. The Transcendental Meditation technique is a game changer for me!


About the Author

Janet Hoffman is the executive director of TM for Women Professionals in the USA.

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