How you can manage stress and avoid burnout

This is the third extract from our Book of the Week, Positive Social Work: An Essential Toolkit for NQSWs by Julie Adams and Angie Sheard. This book will help you as a NQSW to understand your role within the context of a newly emerging and developing Social Work service. It will ensure that you are equipped with the knowledge and skills to do the job as best you can.

Emotional exhaustion is the basic factor behind professional burnout. This is characterised by lack of energy for each new day and having emotional overstrain. You may well develop low self-esteem; this is the inner side of emotional exhaustion. You begin to ‘depersonalise’ your service users. They no longer appear as real people and they are just seen as part of your job and your daily routine. A person with burnout will avoid service users and colleagues and be both ‘physically’ and ‘emotionally’ distant. You do not see others’ situations as real or empathise with them as you would normally do. You find yourself distancing and avoiding situations where you have to mix with colleagues, peers and friends and you become fl at, unable to be responsive and act automatically to things. Burnout can appear in stages until it reaches a chronic stage
and in some cases stress and burnout can be fatal (Thompson et al., 1994 ). Have a look around your team; think about your peers. Can you identify any of these factors in your colleagues?

Your doctor may prescribe anti-depressants but anti-depressants do not tackle the issue of ‘causation’. They may, however, allow you to reach a position where you can begin to move forward and deal with the situation. You should always consult your doctor if you feel you are suffering stress or burnout. Being aware of the signs and symptoms of your own vulnerabilities and putting strategies in place to deal with them can help stop you becoming a candidate for stress and burnout.

Organisations can play a large part in reducing stressors within the environment where you work, at a personal level, a team level and an organisational level (Thompson et al., 1994 ; also see Chapter 8 ). Many organisations have gone a long way since the recognition of stress and burnout and the need for a good ‘work–life balance’, and have put policies and procedures in place to aid this. The Assessed and Supported Year in Employment should help protect new social workers coming into the workforce. It will allow you time to adjust, giving you the opportunity to explore your vulnerabilities within structured supervision and career routes and enabling you to develop a firm foundation to build resilience alongside your increasing experience.



  • Emotional outbursts including crying a lot
  • Decrease in workflow activity
  • Avoiding and neglecting responsibilities
  • Isolating yourself from others – friends and colleagues
  • Taking longer to do things you used to have no problem doing
  • Using food, drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism
  • Taking out your frustrations on others, short-tempered
  • Arriving to work late and/or leaving early
  • Increase in phoning in sick, making excuses


  • Feeling tired and exhausted most of the time
  • Lowered immunity, feeling sick a lot
  • Frequent headaches
  • Muscle aches and tension including back/spinal pain
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Change in appetite – weight loss
  • Changes in your sleeping pattern
  • Gastroenterological problems


  •  Anger and frustration
  •  Frequent feelings of anxiety and mood change
  •  Doubting yourself and thinking you’ll only fail
  •  Feeling helpless, trapped and defeated
  •  Detachment and feeling alone
  •  Feeling demotivated – lack of self-esteem
  •  Negative outlook all the time, being more cynical
  •  Decreased satisfaction and sense of accomplishment

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