College of Social Work Launches Self-Care Lab

LEXINGTON, Ky. (June 4, 2018) They are the people who sacrifice to better the lives of others — social workers, teachers, nurses, firefighters and police officers, just to name a few. At their core, helping professionals are selfless. They are dedicated to providing services for the physically, mentally, economically and socially disadvantaged.

Doing their very best to meet the needs of others day after day, year after year, while potentially putting their own needs on the back burner, could lead to burnout.

Associate Professor Jay Miller, in the College of Social Work at the University of Kentucky, understands the career path he chose can be rewarding and restorative, but also exhausting and emotional.

"In essence, helping professionals are on the frontline of dealing with some of society’s most problematic circumstances. The demand placed on these individuals can lead to a number of problematic conditions, including compassion fatigue, vicarious traumatization, secondary traumatic stress and professional burnout, among other problematic phenomena," Miller explained. "What’s more, is that many helping professionals are disproportionately affected by cumbersome bureaucratic processes, funding cuts and restrictions, and changing or uncertain political climates. These factors, either singularly or in combination, can impact not only the individuals providing the services, but can have an impact on the services they are providing."

Burnout, a term first coined by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in 1975, describes what happens when a practitioner becomes increasingly inoperative. As symptoms worsen, its effects can turn more serious. That begs the question, how can social workers provide compassionate care for others if they are not doing the same for themselves?

The need to engage in self-care is so great that the profession is stepping up in a variety of ways to deliver resources and provide training. The College of Social Work understands managing crippling stress among faculty, staff and students is fundamental. They believe self-care is not only indispensable but cannot be ignored.

"Self-care is paramount. In terms of professional disciplines, it is an ethical imperative. If one doesn't adequately take care of themselves it is unlikely that they can provide the best possible services to others," Miller said.

The College of Social Work has launched the Self-Care Lab (SCL). What exactly is the purpose? The SCL will generate empirical knowledge associated with broad ranging self-care research and education among social workers, educators, nurses, law enforcement and other helping professionals. In doing so, the lab seeks to address potentially toxic employment conditions.

“Helping professionals face an increasingly complex workplace, the consequences of which undoubtedly impact individuals, families and communities," Ann Vail, interim dean of the College of Social Work, said. “We are really excited to be able to contribute not only to the profession of social work, but to all helping professionals, in such a unique and innovative way.” 

The Self-Care Lab, which officially started operating on June 1, is the first known entity to be explicitly dedicated to examining self-care among helping professionals. It entails a unique, collaborative partnership comprised of researchers across the nation. Additionally, the SCL has already established formal partnerships with academic institutions in Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic, among others. 

Miller, who will serve as the lab’s director and principal investigator, currently oversees a number of national and international studies related to self-care.

“The research is clear. Though many helping professionals desire to engage in self-care, little is known about approaches that actually lead to meaningful change," he explained. "We hope the Self-Care Lab can contribute to learning more about the construct of self-care and about promising interventions that can improve it.”

Miller believes there is immense opportunity for high pay-off. The lab will afford students, faculty and staff from across campus the opportunity to engage in scholarship and research directly related to self-care among helping professionals.

The ultimate goal is to help those who are in the helping profession understand self-care does not and should not have to be sacrificed.

"We care about helping professionals and we care about the populations they help. We want to support them in providing the best professional service possible," Miller continued. "We can do that through rigorous clinical research and innovation related to self-care."