Sunday, March 18, 2018

Self care for Social Workers: Interview with Erlene Grise-Owens, Justin “Jay” Miller, and Mindy Eaves

[Episode 118] In today’s episode, I talk to Erlene Grise-Owens, Justin “Jay” Miller, and Mindy Eaves, the editors of the TThe A-to-Z Self-Care Handbook for Social Workers and Other Helping Professionals, published by The New Social Worker Press. My guests debunk some self-care myths and they share some of the guidelines about making self-care a practice.  My guests not only talk about what self-care is and is not, but they also model it. We talk about SMART self-care plans, about how being active is not the same as being athletic, about how personal self-care requires professional self-care and that professional self-care affects organizational wellness and that organizational wellness affects professional self-care.

If you like what you hear, check out their book The A-to-Z Self-Care Handbook for Social Workers and Other Helping Professionals, published by The New Social Worker Press. If you want a deeper dive into self-care, Erlene and Jay are doing a webinar for the New Social Worker magazine: Self-Care Wellshop™: Foundations & Fundamentals on March 21, 2018.

Download MP3 [51:56]


Dr. Erlene Grise-Owens, Ed.D., LCSW, MSW, MRE, is a Partner in The Wellness Group, ETC. This LLC provides evaluation, training, and consultation for organizational wellness and practitioner well-being. Dr. Grise-Owens is co-editor of The A-to-Z Self-Care Handbook for Social Workers and Other Helping Professionals, published by The New Social Worker Press. As a former faculty member and graduate program director, she and a small group of colleagues implemented an initiative to promote self-care as part of the social work education curriculum. Previously, she served in clinical and administrative roles. She has experience with navigating toxicity and dysfunction. As an educator, she saw students enter the field and quickly burn out. As a dedicated social worker, she believes the well-being of practitioners is a matter of social justice and human rights. Thus, she is on a mission to promote self-care and wellness.

Justin “Jay” Miller, Ph.D., MSW, CSW, is an Assistant Professor in the College of Social Work at the University of Kentucky. Jay has previously worked as a social worker at the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, Louisville’s Crimes Against Children Unit, and the Ireland Army Hospital at Fort Knox. Jay is dedicated to social issues and community outreach, a passion that he brings to his work as an educator and scholar. His research and academic interests focus on child welfare, particularly outcomes related to foster care and adoption. Jay was a Cohort Two Doris Duke Fellow (Doris Duke Foundation and Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago) and earned his Ph.D. at the University of Louisville. Jay is co-editor of The A-to-Z Self-Care Handbook for Social Workers and Other Helping Professionals, published by The New Social Worker Press. He enjoys physical fitness for self-care. Last but not least, Jay is a proud foster care alum.

Mindy Eaves, MSW, CSW, Ombudsman is the founding Ombudsman for Jefferson County Public Schools, the 26th largest school district in the country, Faculty at Western Kentucky University teaching in the social work graduate program, co-author and co-editor of the The A-to-Z Self-Care Handbook for Social Workers and Other Helping Professionals an Amazon social work books top seller, and a doctoral candidate at the University of St. Thomas.  Mindy earned her BA in Sociology with Certificates in Pan African Studies and Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Louisville.  Mindy graduated Summa Cum Laude with a MSW from Spalding University and holds a CSW granted by the Kentucky Board of Social Work.  Her areas of interest include the “prison pipeline”, social policy, intersection of race, class and gender, conflict resolution and social work education.  Mindy is a member of the Phi Alpha Honor Society and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc.  Mindy is a past recipient of the Cabinet for Health & Families award for Excellence and Social Worker of the Year and Kentucky Court of Justice KLEO award.  Mindy serves on the Spalding MSW Alumni Group and Co-Chair of the Membership Committee within the International Ombudsman Association.


Hey there podcasts listeners, Jonathan here. In today’s episode, I talk to Erlene Grise-Owens, Justin “Jay” Miller, and Mindy Eaves, the editors of the The A-to-Z Self-Care Handbook for Social Workers and Other Helping Professionals, published by The New Social Worker Press. In the next 47 minutes we will unveil the four minute solution to coworker conflict, the 2-week detox that will free you of aches and pains, and the 5,000 year old mantra that helped me land my very own podcast.

I’m totally kidding.

The next time you see one of those self-care headlines, just pull out your magic decoder ring and see the message underneath: A fool and their money are soon parted. (and for you grammarians, that was an intentionally gender inclusive use of the word “their”).  The self-help industry WANTS you to think that self-care can be quick and easy if you only buy their book or their product. It isn’t. But it isn’t impossible either. And that’s what we talk about today. My guests debunk some self-care myths and they share some of the guidelines about making self-care a practice.  One of the things I loved about this interview is that you can hear Erlene, Jay and Mindy modeling one of the essential components of self-care – finding a community and support network. They have a great time with each other. They finish each other’s sentences, tease each other AND support each other. So, my guests not only talk about what self-care is and is not, but they also model it. We talk about SMART self-care plans, about how being active is not the same as being athletic, about how personal self-care requires professional self-care and that professional self-care affects organizational wellness and that organizational wellness affects professional self-care.

If you want to learn more about the myriad of things that each of these fine people do, check out their bios on If you like what you hear, check out their book The A-to-Z Self-Care Handbook for Social Workers and Other Helping Professionals, published by The New Social Worker Press. If you want a deeper dive into self-care, Erlene and Jay are doing a webinar for the New Social Worker magazine: Self-Care Wellshop™: Foundations & Fundamentals on March 21, 2018.

If you want to transcribe this or any other episode, please send me an email and I’ll gladly take you up on your generosity.  Crowdsourcing transcripts is one of the ways you help me take care of myself. In the spirit of self-care, I’d like to give a big shout out to some folks who have generously donated their time to transcribe episodes – some of which are recent, and some of which are further back in the archives.

And speaking of self-care and people who generously donated their time to transcribe episodes, I’d like to give a big shout out to
  • Anastasiya Jenkins, MSW from Dallas TX 
  • Kendra Wagener, MSW, AAS Certified Crisis Counselor, Forensic Specialist 
  • Cassie Griffith, MSW, Case Manager JUF Uptown Cafe, EZRA Mutli-Service Center 
  • Dedrick Perkins, University of Oklahoma’s Anne & Henry Zarrow School of Social Work 
  • Meredith Amshoff, an MSW graduate of Boston College, who is currently working with Catholic Relief Services in Kampala, Uganda 
  • Ester Park, an aspiring clinical and school social worker from New Jersey. 
Thank you for making the podcast a better resource.

If you want a deeper dive into self-care, Erlene and Jay are doing a webinar for the New Social Worker magazine: Self-Care Wellshop™: Foundations & Fundamentals on March 21, 2018.

And, without further ado, on to episode 118 of the Social Work Podcast, Self care for Social Workers: Interview with Erlene Grise-Owens, Justin “Jay” Miller, and Mindy Eaves.

Jonathan Singer: Well thank you all so much for being on the Social Work Podcast and talking with us about self-care. So, what should people do to take care of themselves to really sort of do self-care right?

Jay Miller: And we get this question all the time. Folks want us to tell them what to do for self-care and on its face, we just totally reject that notion. If I had a self-care pill to give to everybody I would do that.  But because we don't,

Mindy Eaves:  And sell it

Jay Miller: And perhaps sell it

Jay Miller: But because we don't, we really try to, there are some common themes, there are some kind of universal pillars that people can adopt related to self-care.  But outside of those, folks have to come to what self-care is for themselves. They have to think about what works for them and their families and their situations. What's actually calming to them or works for them.
Erlene and I joke about that all the time. Erlene's really big into yoga. Yoga does nothing for me. I just fall asleep and take naps.

Erlene laughing: If you only did it that would be (laughter)

Justin Miller: But that speaks to the notion of like we're very different people, with very different personalities, with very different families and lifestyles and so I find self-care practices that are conducive to things going on in my life and I think that's what everyone should try to do. But we have to totally reconceptualize and reframe this notion of there is a prescription that I can give you and if you go do this you'll be well, or you will be practicing self-care. Again, there are components that people can learn, it's certainly a skill that people can develop, but outside of that framework, you have to fill in that framework with what works for you.

Jonathan Singer: So, what is that framework?

Erlene Gries-Owens: It's a lifestyle. One of the myths. One of many myths about self-care is like Jay said there's a self-care plan. And there is not a self-care plan. Not even, my myself plan now at my, in my point life is not the same self-care that I had when I was in my thirties or forties or at a different point in my life. So, it's what is your lifestyle and how can you integrate self-care into that lifestyle. So, it's not something you do after work, it's something you do during work, it's how you do your work. One of the hardest things or one of the things that happens a lot is that when people first start doing a self-care plan first start doing self-care is they try to do someone else's self-care plan. That is almost universally the mistake that people make.
So, Jay is an athlete.

Jonathan Singer: He looks like an athlete.


Erlene Gries-Owens:  He's an athlete. I am not an athlete. So, we serve as self-care support group. So, when CrossFit first came out I said to Jay who has tried to work with me on fitness, because we have that kind of relationship. So, I said to Jay, this new CrossFit thing do you think that it is something that I can do. He looked at me and said nope.
So, one of the things in self-care is saving time and having critical friends that you can depend on to keep you accountable because I joked I said he just saved a lot of time. He would have had to come see me in the hospital

Jay Miller: Which would have cut into my self care plan

Erlene Grise-Owens: Medical Bills would have cut into the college fund for his kids. So really being very intentional and very aware. In my self-care plan I strive to be active. Not athletic.
For many years I thought that the way to have good physical self-care it was to be an athlete and I wasn't an athlete, so I was constantly failing. So, to identify who you are, what works for you, make it a part of your lifestyle.

Jay Miller: To note, self-care is not a destination. It is a journey. It is a process. So Erlene could have went and tried Cross-Fitting and found out very early that this is not self-care for me and she could have conceptualized that as oh this self-care thing doesn't work I tried it and it's no good. So, it's a journey and you are going to try things, maybe one day I'll try yoga, that works and doesn't work but because if you view it as a process, as a skill, again, when social work students are learning assessment skills or interview skills there are times when they may make missteps or mistakes or say things that they didn't mean to say or do things that they didn't mean to do self-care is the same way. You're going to go try something and say "Ahh that didn't work," or "I really didn't see the point in this" and it doesn't mean you stop doing it. You don't stop learning assessment. You just retool and learn it a different way self-care is the exact same thing. So, it's important that people try to see it that way.

Jonathan Singer: So, Mindy you've been sitting over here sort of quietly, but I can see that you have things that you have got things that you want to say about this. What is it that you think that students and practitioners should know?

Mindy Eaves: Well the plan is a living plan so of course it does change depending on if you try CrossFit and it doesn't work for you or if you try yoga and it doesn't work for you. My self-care I love to spend time in nature and I garden a lot, I do it with my daughter. So being a single mother, a career mother, I always feel bad really about not having that time and so when I'm out gardening she can do it with me. So, I'm spending that time with her I'm feeling good about that those feelings of guilt that single mothers get, single career mothers get I kind of deal with that by spending that time with her and it just feels really good to be connected to the Earth and to garden. When it comes to self-care for practitioners and students, it's about sustainability and if you want to sustain in this work then self-care really isn't an option. It has not been an option for me.

Jonathan Singer: You mean it's not an option not to.

Erlene Grise-Owens: It's not optional it's essential.

Mindy Eaves: Yes, it's not optional. It's essential. Thank you. So, if you want to sustain in practice, you know, we are working with folks that have experienced all types of trauma, day in and day out where we are kind of running into places that folks run out of. Last year at the plenary, Dracon said, "you all have to go in places where nobody else wants to go" and he's talking about all  those challenges of vicarious trauma, burnout, and professional depletion and so how do we sustain in doing that work and it is in taking an intentional approach to it and also it helps with our work in terms of other people because we are modeling that so as practitioners we're modeling that for our clients as educators we're modeling that for our students and that's really one of the best ways to teach is to model it yourself and if we really want to change this landscape in Social Work where professional depletion and trauma, like you said earlier Erlene is a badge of honor, right? It's a badge of honor to burnout. Is that really sustainable? Is that really what we want for Social Work is for us to burnout? Because really, we need people that stay in it, that practice, that teach and then go on to be lobbyists better they understand all of this work. But if they're burning out, they're leaving. So, we want them to stay and so self-care is a component of sustaining and being competent.

Jonathan Singer: So, one of the myths is that burnout is a badge of honor? Are there other myths about self-care that you think are important for people to know about?

Erlene Grise-Owens: Yeah.

Mindy Eaves: I think that there are some myths. As a social worker I work as an ombudsman though, but Social Work is my foundation.

Jonathan Singer: What is an ombudsman?

Mindy Eaves: Yeah, so an ombudsman, I'm an ombudsman for the school district and basically, I help folks handle very sensitive matters off the record as a neutral. So, I'm hired to be a neutral and anyone can come to me, whether it's a substitute teacher or an administrator who works in the area of equity all of them can come to me about their concerns and it stays off the record.
So, it's a trusted person who's typically a good listener, who understands policy. Well who's that? Social Workers, right? That's what we are, so they come to talk to me about their concerns, but I do it in a PK-12 environment.

So, in terms of myths, I think that in a lot of other helping professions, don't explicitly talk about self-care and themselves as a helping profession and being impacted by some of the things that we've been talking about and so our book it says "and for other helping professionals."  So, in the PK-12 environment, a lot of teachers suffer from some of the very same things that Social Workers do, and it makes sense right because they're right there with those students. Those students that we're working with in their homes and with their families, they're coming to school with all of those issues and still trying to engage them and educate them and then not having really the skill set at least or haven't worked on that in school to develop those skills and so it's a myth that other folks don't suffer from some of these things and we need to talk about it. So, one of the things that I do, we all do workshops on self-care, but I really try to get them just to understand that this is them too. It's kind of a myth that, "well that's the Social Worker," no, you actually struggle with it too. Are you dealing with this?  And I'll go through the list, they're not sleeping, they're having dreams, things like that, well, guess what yours suffering from maybe secondary trauma let's talk about it and what you can do to take care yourself

Jay Miller: I think two of the big ones that we often get questions about is, the first myth is that self-care is selfish, and it is not. I think the second one is that self-care is something extra and again it isn't. It should be something that is integrated into your everyday practice. It's not something that is ancillary, or you should have to take on in addition to your work, it should be part of your work. And quite frankly, I think that it is probably selfish not to engage in self-care because I  can't fathom, I think we've done some research that shows that people who are practicing self-care are better practitioners for their clients and so to me it just runs counter to think well if I do more and burn out then I'm somehow serving my clients better. You may be doing more hours, but I would argue that those hours are probably not the quality ones that you should otherwise be putting in. We've tried to do some work around re-conceptualizing the way that we think about self care. It's not selfish. It's not ancillary. It's not something extra that you do, and it is a skill that can be practiced. So, we are on this journey with everyone else. We'll probably leave here and go downstairs and start talking about, okay, we've got to think about this or think about that, because to us this a journey, this is not, again, it's not a destination. So, we are great to continue to grapple with and celebrate self-care concepts and we hope that we can continue to do the work to help people do the same.

Erlene Gries-Owens: I've actually had other social workers say, "well that self-care thing, that's nice, but it's kind of a privilege, isn't it to participate in self-care?" And I respond to them, Audrey Lorde, whose a radical feminist shero of mine said "Self-care is radical practice" and that as Social Workers, particularly because we are working with folks and we ourselves often times who enter the profession are in  marginalized groups and so there's that layer of cultural stress layered on to our professional stress and then of course most of us who are in Social Work or in helping professionals are the identified go to person in our families around the caretaker.
So, the importance of practicing racial self-care and that's what I started framing it as, is it's not a "I'm going to go get a massage" and by the way I love massages, it's part of my yoga and massage instead of CrossFit.
So, it's all of those things but taking a radical approach is necessary. I've become more and more convinced of that because it's not going to work, sustainably as Mindy said to just kind of dabble in it. It is so counter to what we've besides immersed in that it really requires being radical about it and doing things like I will put self-care appointments on my calendar.
I put yoga classes on my calendar before I put anything else because I know it's too tempting for other things to squeeze in.

Jonathan Singer: So, you're prioritizing yourself care by scheduling it first.

Erlene Gries-Owens: Right and that's good way of thinking about it in terms of what are my priorities and as Jay said what I've learned in my decades of doing this is when I'm doing well or at least good enough, I am a better, I am a much better practitioner, because of taking care of myself, I'm sharper, I am better able to sustain my work, and stay in the profession in a very meaningful way.
It's not just doing it to survive. It's really, "I love this profession" and part of why I've been able to sustain that love for the profession and I consider it a pleasure and a joy to do the work that I do. And that isn't because items easy or because I always have worked in non-toxic environments, because a lot of the environments we work in are toxic but it's having that radical approach to self-care that has helped me remain not only in the profession but really joyful about being in the profession.

Jonathan Singer: Alright, so I see you shaking your head about this radical thing.

Jay Miller: Yeah. I just want to say that while I certainly think it's necessary to think of it in that way, it's also very sad. It's a very sad reflection of our profession to think about having to take care of oneself as being radical and I think that as educators and practitioners we always strive to adhere to codes of ethics and I think the interesting thing is that those codes speak to the notion that self-care is a part of ethical social work practice.
You look at NASW 2008/2009 put out a statement about professional self-care.
You look at IFSW [International Federation of Social Workers]
You look at NABSW [National Association of Black Social Workers]
You look at NACSW [National Association of Christian Social Workers]
All of those codes speak to this notion you must take care of yourself to provide adept, competent service to practitioners.

So again if that is indeed the case, I just find it both sad, perplexing and refreshing all at the same time, that we have to think about this or convince people if for no other reason, if you don't find value in taking care of yourself, if you don't find value in making the time, if for no other reason but it's the ethical thing to do, one should seek to engage in self-care practice.

Erlene Grise-Owens: I also think, having been in social work education for a couple of decades that is unethical for schools of social work or for programs to not to prepare in the arena of self-care, to not make that part if the curriculum, because we are putting students out there, we're putting new graduates out into the field and part of our ethical obligation in terms of competence, in terms of practicing as a professional is for them to be prepared to do that and a core part of being prepared to do competent practice, to do ethical practice is to know how to do self-care.

So, there are specific things that can be taught. One of the things that we've used in our curriculum for several years is every student has to design a self-care plan and then throughout the curriculum there are check in points and they have accountability partners. So, we have a format that has the areas of: emotional, social,

Mindy Eaves: Professional

Erlene Grise-Owens:  professional, academic and professional, personal. What are the...psychological.

Mindy Eaves: Psychological, physical, social, and professional care

Erlene Grise-Owens:  So, having a structure and being attentive to all of those areas and then spiritual can be incorporated into any of those areas. And they design. We encourage folks to think of it in terms of Drucker came up with the terminology of S.M.A.R.T.:
Time Limited
Because often times what we start out with and I thought about it in terms of redefining success like I was saying earlier about my brief foray into CrossFit, where Jason said just say no.

Jonathan Singer: You know I was going to have the CrossFit foundation sponsor this episode but it's not going to happen.

Erlene Grise-Owens: That was not S.M.A.R.T. That would not have been a S.M.A.R.T. care plan for me. Instead a S.M.A.R.T. care plan for me is my pedometer. So that I can specifically measure if I have a goal. I started out with a goal of 10,000 steps. I did a baseline and I wasn't meeting that, so I could have felt like a failure. But if I reassessed and made it S.M.A.R.T. by being realistic, the R part. To be realistic I started out with trying to attain 5,000 steps a day and then over time ratchet that up as I've been able to do that. So, often times people will start out with things like "I'm going to take better care of myself, that's my self-care plan." That's an example of not S.M.A.R.T. specifically, like somebody might say "I'm going to take breaks at work", so that's a good movement towards being S.M.A.R.T. but even to be more specific of "I'm going to take two fifteen-minute breaks" or I'm going to make really where if I came in I could observe or there would be a measurable way of assessing that.

Jay Miller: You really have to kind of stick to the plan, you have to work the plan, you have to know that you are not going to hit all of the metrics that you have there.
So, you have to revisit. I think the commitment piece, is making a commitment to take care of oneself or engaging in self-care is huge and there are times when it impacts my self care because I'll call Erlene and I'll say "Hey this is a really important thing. We got to finish up this project. I need to meet and let's meet Wednesday morning at 9:00" and she's like "Nope, got my self care day today or I'm doing yoga or I'm taking a walk" and I'm like "But we've got this stuff" and she like "No I'm going to take a walk." And it speaks to this level of…

Erlene Gries-Owens: We can talk about it while we walk.


Jay Miller: It speaks to this level of commitment that you have to have and then too the component of having a self-care partner of an accountability group. Again, I think that the CrossFit is...but, one example of where we have tried to work to have this self-care accountability group was whereby we're often checking in, "How are you doing with this and how are you doing with that?" It helps us to assess if something is going to be realistic or not.
I may have some scholarship goals that I may set for myself for a year and I'll talk to Erlene and sometimes I'm not being realistic about what I'm goons to be able to get done.
So, it is good to have people around you who are honest and authentic and who can help you along in that self-care plan just like any other arena of your social work practice.

Mindy Eaves: We talk about professional care and I mentioned it a little bit earlier, as practitioners we have CEU's and it's time limited. You have to have them by a certain period of time based on whenever you got your license and what I have found, and others is that we're kind of rushing to get our hours at the very last minute because we put ourselves second. We focused on our organization. We focused on making sure we're doing the documenting. We focused on whatever it is we need to do for our clients. But our CEU's are about sharpening ourselves, right? We are our greatest tool, our best tool.

If you are really taking time you want to go to your Ethics class, your ethics CEU and then look at what you are doing currently and make changes or celebrate what you are doing well. If you are rushing at the very last minute then it's more about just getting the CEU's as opposed to actually sharpening your tool, which is yourself and your knowledge. I know that a lot of people don't look at professional care as a component of self-care, but it is.

In my office, another way, in terms of professional care is what I have in my office. We've struggled with over the years, do you have pictures of your family or not in your office.
I guess it's different for every person and the work that you do. For me it's a big yes, I do have pictures of my family there.

I have a plant and pictures of nature because that's what really soothes me. And it's something that you can really do, so if you're listening to this podcast, take a look at your space, your work space. Is it stressful, does it bring stress to you? Does it bring happiness? Is it soothing? Do you have access to music? Do you have plants or a fountain or pictures of your family or some folks like successories. Do you have that on your wall and that's motivating? So, it is going to yoga.
It is doing CrossFit or not. It's also putting your professional care first. So, you're really taking advantage if the CEU's that's out there and you're just not getting the hours because that's not the point, the hours aren't the point, sharpening your skills is the point.

Jonathan Singer: It sounds like there's a... One of the things that I'm picking up is it's important to have a plan and you use the acronym S.M.A.R.T. to sort of figure of that it's attainable and measurable and all those sorts of things. But there is a meta level about actually going through that process and being conscious and intentional about things in general probably helps you to take care of yourself instead of just sort of sleepwalking through life and professionally we sleep walk through until a month before our CEU's are ready and then we're like "Oh my God, I've got to get this done!"
The other thing that you said that I thought was really interesting was about your environment not just external like outside the office but also inside the office and reminds me about the importance self-care in an organizational context. Can you guys talk about self-care, the relationship between a student intern or a professional and their organization and maybe what the organizational responsibility is in supporting Social Workers to take care of themselves?

Erlene Gries-Owens: Sure. Part of the work that we do is working with organizations and doing consultations with organizations around organizational wellness. The way that we frame self-care and wellness is that self-care is a component that affects organizational wellness and organizations affect self-care. But one of the myths is that practitioners think "Well if my organization would be better, I could be better"

Jonathan Singer: Right. Like, "I'm in a really dysfunctional organization so how could I possibly take care of myself?"

Erlene Gries-Owens: Exactly and that is a huge myth. Because if we wait until the organization changes, we'll be waiting a long time. And part of changing the organization, one of the things that Social Workers are really good at, is doing systems thinking. So that's the way to find it, is that systemically, if I make a change in my own self-care, I am making a change in the organization and there are lots of things that organizations can and should do to promote practitioner well-being and to promote the health of the organization. And there are things that we as practitioners in terms of self-care that even if the organization does nothing we will change how we are practicing. And that changes the way that we experience our work, the way we're able to sustain our work. So yes. Organizational wellness is really an important topic and an important aspect of this. I just want to caution us all to not fall into the myth of “it's up to the organization that I can't do something myself.”

Jonathan Singer: So I think that there is something important about this which is that, you know my field of suicide and kids, there are times when things happen, and organizations can be responsive and that can help folks in terms of this burnout and it might not be sort of the long term self-care plan, but there are things that organizations can and should do to be supportive of employees so that they can engage in their self-care.

Jay Miller: Yes, and we've done several projects and written papers around thinking about and conceptualizing organizational wellness and I think the literature is very clear that social service organizations do not do a good job at this. A lot of the literature concentrated in the business realm and I think again, I try to be a rational person, and I always like to present people with this is why you should do something and as leaders of organizations it makes sense to say I want to put my employees in the position to be the most efficient, productive people that they can be and again when you think about it in that mind, the research is very clear that when folks participate in wellness initiatives from simply handing out literature to these very rigorous multi layered initiatives you have better outcomes, your employees do better, they perform better, they stick around longer.

Retention and recruitment is a huge issue and what we're starting to see is that as the self-care thing continues to grow and we continue to engage it as a part of practice and students keep thinking about it and working on it, we're going to start to see and I would encourage students to think about when you're going to work at an agency there are a multitude of different factors you need to take into account, how much you're going to get paid, etc. etc.

You also need to think about the wellness or how will this organization help me practice my self care? What kind of wellness initiative do they have? Do they allow my family to be involved in different things and outings? What the environment looks like where I am thinking about working? When you think about it in those terms no matter what you personally may think about self-care, it just makes the most sense to do that and I hope that and we hope that organizations become more responsive to that but again to Erlene's point, it does not mean that if your organization does not do self-care well that you get off the hook or that's an excuse for you to not do it. You got to keep doing it.

Erlene Gries-Owens: Many folks who start out with their own self care plan, their own attention to self-care, that reverberates out into the team, which then may reverberate out into the broader organization.

You can also, I've talked with folks who have gone to some of our workshops or familiar with the work that we've done and they've taken some of the materials, the book or other materials and to their organization and you start it with a team, you start it with a co-worker and you say this is something I want to commit  to do will you be my accountability partner and that too is how organizations begin to change. As people with that perspective, move into leadership roles, move into supervision roles, that's also how we're going to change the culture of the profession. I truly believe, I'm convinced of this that in several years we can look back at the profession and say, wow, remember when it was assumed that people would burnout, look at how much the profession has changed in terms of who we are as a profession and how we know to take care of one another, I believe that's possible and it starts with one self-care plan at a time and can reverberate out into the organization and really educating ourselves about the possibilities.

Jonathan Singer: You didn't say this specifically but as you were talking I kind of got this impression of a sea of yesses. Like somebody says, "I'm going to take care of myself" and then somebody else is like "I'm going to take care of myself " and then at the organizational level, the organization is like "Yes, we support this, we're not sure exhibit how that's going to.... but yes, we're going to say yes to this idea". It reminds me, my first job was at a crisis unit. I worked the 2-10 shift and one night I was sitting there eating dinner and I had made some chicken thing and I brought it in and my co-worker said "Oh that looks good can I have some?" and I was like "Sure" and she said "Well next time you make that, make enough for me" and so we're crisis workers so we're ribbing each other all the time and then I said "okay Well if I make something for you then you should make something for me" and so once a week we would alternate making food for each other and it turned into this really nice self-care thing that my then girlfriend was like "well why are you cooking for her and you're not cooking for me" and so that inspired a date night with my home. So, it's a way of this sort of self-care that started as a joke, but we said yes to it and then we moved on and it wasn't something that the organization did but the organization didn't stop us from doing that at work or at home.

Mindy Eaves: We did a similar thing. So before becoming an ombudsman and a social work educator I worked in child welfare for almost a decade and as Jay mentioned earlier, high turnover and burnout and that area and at the time I didn't know it and that was the landscape of child welfare and so we just happened to be, a lot of us students of Erlene, and we started doing self-care things.  We didn't even call itself care actually, but we did what you did.
Once a month we would have breakfast and we'd schedule that time and we'd brought breakfast for those two hours a month that's what we did on a Friday that we had breakfast with one another. It was on our team.

Another thing that we started to do in terms of professional care is we had what we called flex days. All of us took flex days and we knew each other's flex days and so we made an agreement that whenever, like Jonathan if you were on a flex day, we wouldn't call you if something had happened on your case, we would take it. So, we got to know each other's cases and then allow that person to be off and really carve out that time to do whatever it was that you wanted for yourself and not be impacted by what was going on at the office. Another thing that we did was, we wanted to just hang out together or do something fun and go on a vacation together, we become friends and also, we were colleagues, but we became friends. We would travel together, vacation is part of self-care and so as I bring this back to organizational wellness or you can do even if the organization isn't doing it is that eventually our supervisor took a look at our numbers and our outcomes were much better in that we had more reunifications, we had less disruptions in placements and I do believe that it's because we knew each other's cases, we supported each other and we were to be honest, we were a wonderful team. To this day, I just remember those outcomes with our families and that particular zip code and I do believe that it had a lot to do with the work that we did on that particular team and those that weren't on board at first, just kind of started doing it too. So, we didn't let the fact that two or three didn't want to do it stop us.
So, it really can, just one self-care plans a time, two people to three people, then it became a team and then it truly did affect our outcomes for at least that particular zip code.
So that was nice.

Jonathan Singer: That's a great story.

Jay Miller: I think it speaks to this notion a lot of times and we find this too, we'll get a call from an agency or organization and we would be working with them around organizational wellness and we'd come in and we'd find that they're already doing a lot of stuff, there are already some wellness type things going on and sometimes we'd just encourage them to try to think about repackaging the things that they're already doing or it's amazing what adding a label, what saying, yes the fact that you do walking meetings, that's a form of self-care - “let's put that in the plan. What does that look like?”

So, there's this synergistic kind of thing of getting people to thinking about, "oh well I do engage in self-care it's not this abstract construct that sits in a corner. It's something that I can touch and see and so it kind of demystifies the concept of I work from 9-5 and then I'll try to do self-care afterwards.

So again, for organizations and folks who are moving into going to work in an organization I would encourage them to think about what's already happening and how you can leverage that or build on that and again back to this notion of it doesn't have to be something extra.
It is something that can be integrated, and a lot of times people are doing stuff already. So, encouraging people to think about that is important.

Erlene Gries-Owens: Yeah and taking the solution focused approach to, like Jay was saying, what are you already doing or what have you done in the past and how can you leverage that to really make wellness and self-care even more effective.  So, as we were talking about this a couple of things I wanted to add, one is that, people do tend to over complicate it and they tend to make it something that's "wow, I've got to do this self-care" and really, it's a skill as we've been saying, something to be developed and it's a philosophy. It's how you approach your work. When we talk to organizations we talk about how we encourage them to think about it as a lens, that everything you do in organization to look at it the wellness lens and as a way of operating, not as something you do as an initiative, that then goes away, but how you operate. So, when you're looking at a policy change to look at it there the lens of how this will affect wellness. When you look at it through team building, as how Mindy just described, how do we build this team? Building teams, having trainings on how to deal with conflict, those are all self-care and wellness components. The way I've come to think about it, is that it's really about everything. It's about your lifestyle.

Mindy Eaves: If you want to sustain.

Erlene Gries-Owens: If you want to sustain. It's about looking at it through everything from how much sleep am I getting? what is my routine? what is my environment, who am I associating with, whose toxic in my system, if I can't deal with them or if I have to deal with them, how do I limit that? It's everything. It's the CEU's. It's how do I integrate doing meetings walking rather than rather than sitting together? So, it really lenses, as contrasted with something you do after you've done everything else.

Jonathan Singer: So, I know you guys have edited a whole book about self-care. There is information on a blog on the New Social Worker website. Obviously, you guys run workshops and there's tones of information out there. So, we can't cover it all as much as we might like to. Are there some take home points that you would want listeners to leave the podcast knowing?

Erlene Gries-Owens: As someone who's been doing this, social work, for a few decades, I would want us to leave with the perspective or to celebrate the perspective of the possibilities for self-care really changing the culture of our profession. To tell my own story or to share my own journey with this. I am very passionate about this profession. I am still very dedicated to this profession. I've been in jobs, I've been in situations that are toxic and if you're in the profession I guarantee that you will encounter that. It's just unfortunately at least at this point in our development as a profession it's going to happen. I can testify that practicing self-care and really investing in that, really being committed to that, over the course of these several years or decades has really been the factor, the factor that helps me sustain my passion and my joy in the profession. So it's not just about taking care of yourself after work or taking care of yourself as an extra. It really is about that integration and being an intricate part of how we can sustain the passion for the work.

Mindy Eaves: I think one of my take home points if there is one thing that you could get from this is its small steps, you can do small things to change your environment and the way that you approach self-care. It's like the story that I shared earlier about when I was on that child welfare team quite some time ago we truly did affect outcomes and think it's because we reason started to connect with each other as practitioners. We got to know each other. We did a lot of team building even the we didn't call it that helped us feel better internally, that connection to each other, that then helped us better serve our clients. So, to understand that it's not just, like Erlene said, you do after work. It is something that allows you to truly enjoy your work and sustain long term. We need folks that stay in the profession, that love the profession, that believe in the work and have a positive approach. more years in they become leadership and then they can do that with their teams and then you never know, they can be the director of an organization and they can have that wellness perspective on the work. Thereby changing an entire organization. So, I really do believe that small steps can make long term gains in self-care. Thanks.

Jay Miller: I think I would just reiterate some earlier points in terms of for folks who are either in the profession or about to engage in the profession that they take self-care seriously, that they understand that it is necessary to skillful work and again just as we engage in practice and education and socialization around multitude of social work practice skills, we must also do the same thing with self-care and know that we've been doing it for a while and we don't always get it right, but that we continue to try and there's beauty in process. Sometimes process is product. So, thinking about the fact that you are engaging in the process can sometimes be viewed as the outcome. So, I would just implore folk to really re-conceptualize the way that we begin to think about self-care so that it becomes something that we could ask the question why wouldn't you do self-care?

Erlene Gries-Owens: Just one last thing: Do Yoga.


Jonathan Singer: That's awesome.

Mindy Eaves: I'll say go sit on the porch.

Erlene Gries-Owens: There you go. Sitting.

Jonathan Singer: As you can hear by the raucous laughter of these three people, it reasonably sounds like one of the things about self-care is connection and that you guys have connected with each other and you've talked about multiple ways in which you have self-care support and that that’s something that seems like it's really essential. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us here at the podcast.

All: Thank You. Thanks Jonathan. Thank You. Thank you for your investment. Thank You very much.

Jonathan Singer: Hey there. It's me again. That was so much fun wasn't it. Klezmer music in just a second. As I said in the beginning if you want a deeper dive into self-care, Erlene and Jay are doing a two-part webinar for the New Social Worker magazine called Self Care Well shop: Foundations and Fundamentals on March 21, 2017 and April 18, 2018. The link is on Okay here's the Klezmer music.

Music Outro.


APA (6th ed) citation for this podcast:

Singer, J. B. (Producer). (2018, March 18). #118 - Self care for Social Workers: Interview with Erlene Grise-Owens, Justin “Jay” Miller, and Mindy Eaves [Audio Podcast]. Social Work Podcast. Retrieved from

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