Self-care, self-responsibility, and the governed social work self

Submission to The Social Lens: A Social Work Action Blog by Heather Stuart, Doctoral Candidate, Wilfred Laurier University

Neoliberal self-care discourse

In the social work academic and practice-based literature, self-care strategies are proposed as a means of mitigating the effects of workplace stress and feelings of emotional exhaustion (McGarrigle & Walsh, 2011; Miller, Lianekhammy, Pope, Lee & Grise-Owens, 2017; Newell, 2010). In fact, often the notion of self-care is touted as the primary means for preventing worker burnout and mitigating the painful emotions that can arise as a result of the practice of social work. Studies specific to practicing social workers and self-care are “scant,” though there is general agreement that self-care practices are central to maintaining a “…healthy, productive and ethical workforce” (Martin, Myers, and Brickman, 2020, p.75). However, the self-care discourse intended to alleviate feelings of distress may in fact be exacerbating professional burnout. For instance, Lloyd et al. (2002) suggest that self-care strategies could worsen things that are identified as “real problems”: work pressure, workload, role ambiguity and relationships with supervisors.

Neoliberal discourse—the discourse of self-care, for example—conceals and reinforces structures that serve to oppress both social workers and the people they serve. Writing on the concept of self-care in social work is marked with themes of self-responsibilization and market-based thinking (Stuart, 2020). A close reading of writing from social work journals, practice-based publications, as well as professional standards of practice, reveals that social workers and related mental health workers are encouraging one another to be their own solution to the distress experienced by many working in the field.

As a broad sociopolitical theory, neoliberalism enables axes of analysis that pay particular attention to three main areas of concern: discourse, pervasive market rationality, and governmentality. Yet these three spheres tightly interact and intersect, most powerfully through the power of discourse, where market rationality and governmentality most often bring themselves to bear on individuals and organizations. The presence of neoliberal ideas of personal autonomy and responsibility within the writing on self-care in social work is revealing of the operations of power within our profession.

Therefore, one of the theoretical frameworks necessary to better understand social work writing focuses upon critiques of power. Intended in the Foucauldian sense, the word ‘power’ is used expansively here to signal powerful practices and their discourses—reified and bolstered through time and effort—of both the individual and the collective (Foucault, 1971; 1988; 1991; Rose, 1996; 1998). Think, for example, of the Foucault’s Executioner (see Discipline and Punish, 1975) as at once individual actor, state representative, and powerful metaphor. Or think, as a much better example, of social work as selfless, oriented around ‘helping,’ and yet as capable of causing harm both to the public and to the social workers themselves, and then always—also as the discourse around the social and the work—maybe most particularly where the discourse obscures or reveals the edge between self and other, or between help and harm.

While it may seem like studying the ‘words’ social workers use to talk about stress and care might be a purely rhetorical exercise, neoliberalism, as a specific set of strategies of power, primarily functions through discourse. I would like to implore social workers to sharpen our ability to identify and intercept prescriptions that encourage us to remain docile in the face of structures that oppress both social workers and our clients. Thus, we need ongoing, careful critiques of these discourses as they evolve. We also need to amplify untold stories, marginalized voices, and dissenting narratives.

Education and evaluation as neoliberal tools

The impacts of neoliberalism as a sociopolitical ideology have been widely recognized across sectors of society. The creep of neoliberal practices, ideas and discourses has fused seamlessly with many aspects of daily life in Western culture. It follows that university operations and climates have been progressively structured to enact and reflect the neoliberal landscape. Terms now normalized in discourses across society are central to university operations, as industry-inspired logics structure our understanding and evaluation of educational institutions. As Denzin and Giardina (2017) point out: “Annual evaluations. Efficiency metrics. Merit indices. Bibliometrics. Impact Factors. Accountability. Transparency. Effectiveness. University rankings. Strategic planning. Benchmarking. Managerialism. New Public Management. All are buzzwords of a contemporary audit culture in which the market logics of life in the neoliberal university—of life in the new normal—are structured and perpetuated” (Denzin & Giardina, 2017, p.1).

Likewise, social work education has not escaped neoliberal influences. Calls for social work educators and practitioners to pay attention to neoliberalism’s impacts abound. Changes to service delivery for children and adults, bolstering of carceral operations, redistribution of resources to favour the wealthy, and centralized government policy-making are just a few of the documented impacts of neoliberalism upon social work (Brown, C., 2016, Cummins, 2018; Garrett, 2009; Heron, B, Boudreau, F. & Poon, M., 2016; Marthinsen et al., 2019; Morley, C., 2017; Noble, C. & Henrickson, M., 2011, Welbourne, P. 2011).

As Garrett (2009) cautioned a decade ago, social work education needs to heighten its awareness of the multiprongs of neoliberalization in order to apprehend and critically examine the ways that social work education and practice has changed over time. Mearns (2014), Hyslop (2018), Pollack and Rossiter (2010) and others map the role of language as one of the key ‘prongs’ naturalizing neoliberal values in contrast to the values of social justice. A common thread for all of those writing about social work and neoliberalism is the idea that values such as inclusivity and equality, commonly considered fundamental to social work practice, are at odds with a neoliberal sociopolitical philosophy and the discourses it produces. Within and beyond the field of social work, terms like ‘self-care’ and discussions around issues like stress and burnout need to be analyzed with a neoliberal lens, but also how their rhetorical and narrative analysis situate them as, in fact, exemplars of neoliberal discourse.

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