Decreasing Social Work Burnout and Increasing Self Care By Using DBT Skills

Social workers are often asked to do a lot with little resources, leaving people in this career vulnerable. There is a high risk of burnout in the field of social work as we work with challenging and complex individuals and systems. It is important for social workers, and other clinicians, to practice self-care and use skillful behaviors in order to continue to be able to help those we treat in effective ways. One way to do this is through skills – the same ones we teach others – to decrease our vulnerability to burning out. In fact, in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), it is believed that not only patients, but also therapists, should continuously practice skillful behaviors, since therapists can get out of balance and need support.  

DBT teaches four skills modules: Mindfulness Skills, Interpersonal Effectiveness Skills, Emotion Regulation Skills, and Distress Tolerance Skills (DBT Skills Training Manual 2nd Edition, Linehan). One section of the emotion regulation skills module is aimed at decreasing vulnerability to emotions and burnout. In DBT, emotion regulation skills are taught and grouped into 4 segments: understanding and naming emotions, changing unwanted emotions, reducing vulnerability to emotion mind, and managing extreme emotions.

According to Marsha Linehan, PhD, the creator of DBT, (DBT Skills Training Manual, 2nd Edition), “Emotion Regulation is the ability to (1) inhibit impulsive and inappropriate behavior related to strong negative or positive emotions; (2) organize oneself in a coordinated action in the service of an external goal (i.e. act in a way that is not mood depended when necessary); (3) self soothe any physiological arousal that the strong emotion has induced; and (4) refocus attention in the presence of strong emotion. Emotion regulation can be automatic as well as consciously controlled.”

The ABC PLEASE skill, one of the emotion regulation skills, is specifically aimed at reducing emotional vulnerability and burnout, and is a great one to apply to your life as a social worker! This skill is about accumulating positive experiences to build in opportunities for pleasant emotions, building mastery so you feel a sense of accomplishment in life, learning how to cope ahead of difficult situations so they go as smoothly as possible, and taking care of ourselves physically since our bodies impact our moods.

Some ways social workers can practice ABC PLEASE include:

Accumulating Positive Emotions: 

“Increasing positive emotions can be accomplished in a number of ways. Increasing the number of pleasurable events in one’s life is one approach.”

  • Spend time with friends and family
  • Participate in or attend a sporting event
  • Spend time with coworkers outside of work
  • Attend work events, like the annual Orioles game
  • Use PTO for vacation and time off

Building Mastery:

“Engaging in activities that build a sense of self efficacy.”

  • Participate in clinical supervision
  • Attend trainings
  • Get into a routine for your work tasks, like writing notes or meeting with patients or families
  • Review and develop personal coping skills
  • Practice mindfulness daily

Cope Ahead:

“Learning to cope ahead of time with difficult situations.”

  • Create a plan prior to going to a meeting or leading a session
  • Identify road blocks that may make your job more difficult, and problem-solve ahead of time
  • Practice “imaginal rehearsal” for an upcoming meeting or task
  • Engage in treatment team discussion to obtain support from other team members
  • Ask for help when you need it!


Treat PhysicaL Illness:

  • Have yearly check-ups with a primary care provider
  • Go to the doctor when you’re sick
  • Use sick leave when not feeling well – that’s what it’s there for!
  • Take medications as prescribed

Balanced Eating:

  • Eat a balanced diet
  • Don’t skip meals (even when you’re busy!)
  • Keep snacks around so that when you are busy you have food to eat
  • Eat mindfully
  • Allow indulgences in moderation

Avoid Mood Altering Substances:

  • Limit caffeine intake throughout the day
  • Be mindful of your level of alcohol consumption and reason for consumption: is this to relax, for enjoyment, or is this to avoid?

Balanced Sleep:

  • Get sufficient sleep, but not too much sleep
  • Create a bedtime routine
  • Put electronics away 30 minutes before bedtime
  • Seek medical advice if you’re having trouble sleeping


  • Take a walk after work
  • Attend an exercise class with friends
  • Take a walk on your lunch break
  • Hike or ride a bike
  • Do body weight exercises during breaks throughout the day
  • Track your movement!

Social work as a profession is important, stressful, and, most importantly, rewarding. In order for social workers to be successful, there is a great need for self-care. As we all know, we can't effectively support and care for our clients (or systems) if we are not taking care of ourselves. An empty well does not provide water. DBT is an evidenced-based practice that can be used to help clinicians fill their well and continue to help people heal.

LINEHAN, M. M. (2015). DBT SKILLS TRAINING MANUAL (2nd Edition ed.). New York, NY: GUILFORD.

Kelsey Conn, LGSW, obtained her Bachelors of Social Work Degree from Salisbury University and Master of Social Work from The University of Pittsburgh. Kelsey has a certificate in Child, Adolescent and Family Studies. Kelsey truly enjoys serving the adolescent population and working with their families. Kelsey's biggest passions are the Pittsburgh Steelers and her French Bulldog, Topher.

Samantha Steinberg, LCSW-C, is a child and adolescent social worker at Sheppard Pratt Health System’s hospital in Towson. Samantha earned her Master’s from the University of Maryland School of Social Work, and her B.A. in psychology from West Virginia University. She is passionate about working with children, adolescents, and families.