Module 9: Training materials (Social sector)

Relaxation techniques

Breathing exercises are the simplest path to inner calm. Practicing 15 minutes a day can achieve a significant reduction in your stress-related symptoms. Breathing is one function controlled by both the voluntary and involuntary nervous system, forming a bridge between our inner and outer selves. To use the technique, take several deep breaths and relax your body further with each breath.

Diaphragmatic breathing

By performing this exercise, you engage the diaphragm (the most important muscle of breathing), which increases airflow in your lungs.

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Square breathing

Also known as box breathing or 4×4 breathing. This technique is the simplest form of mindful breathing and aims to return breathing to a normal rhythm in only a few minutes.

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Progressive muscular relaxation

One of the most popular and easy-to-use methods to relax is by doing progressive muscular relaxation. This approach is useful for relaxing your body when your muscles are tense. The key is to become aware of tension and its corresponding state, relaxation, in each of the body’s muscle groups. First, tense a group of muscles so that they are tightly contracted. Hold the muscles in a state of extreme tension for a few seconds. Then, let the muscles relax normally. Next, consciously relax the muscles even further so that you become as relaxed as possible. By tensing your muscles first, you will find that you are able to relax your muscles more than you could if you simply tried to relax your muscles directly.

Experiment with this method by forming a fist and clenching your hand as tightly as you can for several seconds. Relax your hand to its previous state, then consciously relax it again so that it is as loose as possible. Following this practice, you should feel deep relaxation in your hand muscles.

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The following video shows how stress affects our body:

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Learn more about how stress affects the brain in particular in the following video:

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The following video explains what happens to our body and brain when we do not get enough sleep:

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The following video explores the stages of how our memory stores information and how short-term stress impacts this process:

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Learn more about burnout in the following video:

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Secondary traumatisation

This video introduces secondary traumatisation and its possible effects on work and personal life. It also offers some techniques for addressing work-induced stress and trauma.

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Case studies
Case study: Self-care in the social sector when dealing with cases of domestic violence

Jason is a social worker at a non-profit organisation specialising in supporting victims of domestic violence. He works closely with individuals and families to help them escape dangerous situations and rebuild lives free from violence. In his role as a social worker, Jason regularly encounters people who have become victims of domestic violence. He provides emotional support, resource referrals, and practical assistance to help them regain safety and stability.

Although Jason loves his work and is passionately committed to supporting victims of domestic violence, he increasingly recognises how burdensome it can be. He is regularly confronted with traumatic stories and heavy emotions that leave him emotionally drained.

Tasks for reflection

(1) What challenges does Jason experience as a social worker dealing with victims of domestic violence?

(2) Why might it be difficult for social workers like Jason to engage in self-care practices? What factors might help Jason recognise his need for support, and how can he be encouraged to seek and accept help?

(3) How can neglecting self-care, such as not setting boundaries at work, impact the performance and well-being of Jason?

(4) What steps could Jason take to improve his self-care and accept support?

(5) How could the work environment in the social sector be improved to help social workers like Jason enhance their self-care?

(6) What resources and support mechanisms could be helpful for social workers in similar situations to improve their self-care?

Possible answers to the reflection tasks

(1) Jason faces several challenges in practicing self-care, including:

  • Emotional burden: Constant exposure to traumatic stories and intense emotions can be emotionally exhausting.
  • High-stress levels: The urgency and complexity of clients’ situations can create a high-stress environment.
  • Compassion fatigue: Over time, Jason may experience reduced capacity to empathise due to the continuous exposure to others’ trauma.
  • Vicarious trauma: Absorbing the trauma of clients can lead to symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Resource constraints: Limited resources and support systems can make it difficult to provide adequate assistance to all clients.
  • Work overload: Balancing multiple cases and administrative duties can lead to feeling overwhelmed.

(2) Social workers like Jason might struggle with self-care due to:

  • Professional commitment: A strong dedication to helping clients can make it difficult to prioritise personal needs.
  • Guilt: Feeling guilty about taking time for themselves when clients are in need.
  • Perceived responsibility: A sense of responsibility for clients’ well-being may lead to overworking.
  • Lack of time: High caseloads and demanding schedules can leave little time for self-care activities.
  • Working culture: The culture within the social work profession might undervalue or overlook the importance of self-care.

Factors that might help Jason recognise his need for support include:

  • Physical and psychological symptoms: Experiencing symptoms of burnout, such as fatigue, irritability, and anxiety.
  • Feedback from colleagues: Colleagues noticing changes in his behaviour or performance.
  • Supervision: Encouragement from supervisors to prioritise self-care.
  • Education and training: Awareness programmes highlighting the signs of burnout and the importance of self-care.

Jason can be encouraged to seek and accept help through:

  • Creating a supportive environment: Fostering a workplace culture that values and supports self-care.
  • Peer support: Establishing a network of colleagues who provide mutual support.
  • Access to professional resources: Availability of counselling and mental health services.
  • Positive reinforcement: Recognising and rewarding self-care practices within the organisation.

(3) Neglecting self-care can significantly impact Jason’s performance and well-being, including:

  • Physical health issues: Higher susceptibility to illnesses due to chronic stress.
  • Mental health Issues: Increased risk of depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns.
  • Burnout: Emotional and physical exhaustion, leading to a decrease in job satisfaction and effectiveness.
  • Decreased empathy: Reduced ability to empathise with clients, potentially affecting the quality of support provided.
  • Poor decision-making: Reduced ability to make decisions, which can negatively impact clients.

(4) Jason can take several steps to enhance his self-care and accept support:

  • Setting boundaries: Establishing clear boundaries between work and personal life to ensure adequate rest.
  • Regular self-care activities: Engaging in activities that promote relaxation and well-being, such as exercise, hobbies, and mindfulness practices.
  • Seeking professional support: Seeking counselling or therapy to process emotions and stress.
  • Peer support: Joining support groups with fellow social workers to share experiences and coping strategies.
  • Time management: Prioritising tasks and managing time effectively to reduce workload pressure.
  • Education on self-care: Attending workshops and training on self-care and stress management techniques.

(5) To help social workers like Jason enhance their self-care, the work environment can be improved by:

  • Promoting a culture of self-care: Encouraging open discussions about self-care and mental health.
  • Flexible scheduling: Offering flexible work hours and time-off policies to allow for recovery and personal time.
  • Access to wellness programmes: Providing access to wellness programmes that strengthen resources for physical, mental and emotional health.
  • Regular supervision and support: Ensuring regular supervision sessions to provide emotional support and professional guidance.
  • Workload management: Balancing caseloads to prevent overburdening staff.

(6) Resources and support mechanisms that could benefit social workers include:

  • Counselling and support services: Providing access to confidential counselling and support services.
  • Professional counselling: Offering mental health services tailored to the needs of social workers.
  • Training and workshops: Conducting workshops on self-care, resilience, and stress management.
  • Peer support groups: Creating formal peer support groups for sharing experiences and coping strategies.
  • Sabbatical leaves: Providing opportunities for sabbatical leaves to allow for extended recovery time.
  • Access to wellness facilities: Access to wellness facilities such as gyms, relaxation rooms, and quiet spaces for reflection and relaxation.

All sectors include different case studies. Visit Module 9 for the police, health sector, and legal sector to find out more.

Knowledge assessment – Quiz

Quiz: Self-care

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Further training materials
Difficult situations in the context of domestic violence

Frontline responders play an important role in providing emotional support to victims, improving their safety, and providing legal assistance, but they routinely encounter unpredictable and complex situations and confront a range of challenges while providing support to victims.

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Strategies on how to improve self-care

The following strategies are recommended to improve self-care at work.

Please click on the crosses to get more information.

Self-assessment tool: Self-care

Self-care activities are things you do to maintain good health and improve well-being. You will find that many of these activities are things you already do as part of your normal routine.

In this self-assessment you will think about how frequently, you are performing different self-care activities. The goal of this assessment is to help you learn about your self-care needs by spotting patterns and recognising areas of your life that need more attention. There are no right or wrong answers on this assessment. There may be activities that you are not interested in, and other activities may not be included. This list is not comprehensive but serves as a starting point for thinking about your self-care needs.

Rate yourself, using the numerical scale: 5 = Frequently, 4 = Occasionally, 3 = Sometimes, 2 Never, 1 = It never even occurred to me

How often do  you do the following activities?

Physical self-care
  • Eat regularly (breakfast, lunch, and dinner)
  • Eat healthfully
  • Exercise, go for walks, garden, workout at the gym, lift weights, practice martial arts
  • Get regular medical care for prevention
  • Get medical care when needed
  • Take time off when you are sick
  • Get massages or other body work
  • Do physical activity that is fun for you
  • Take time to be sexual
  • Get enough sleep
  • Wear clothes you like
  • Take vacations
  • Take day trips or mini-vacations
  • Get away from stressful technology (e.g., smartphones, email, social media)
Psychological self-care
  • Make time for self-reflection
  • Go to see a psychotherapist or counsellor
  • Write in a journal
  • Read literature unrelated to work
  • Do something at which you are a beginner
  • Take a step to decrease stress in your life
  • Notice your inner experiences (e.g., dreams, thoughts, imagery, feelings)
  • Let others know different aspects of you
  • Engage in a new area (e.g., go to an art museum, performance, sports event exhibit, or other cultural event)
  • Practice receiving from others
  • Be curious
  • Say no to extra responsibilities sometimes
  • Spend time outdoors
Emotional self-care
  • Spend time with others whose company you enjoy
  • Stay in contact with important people in your life
  • Treat yourself kindly (e.g., by using supportive inner dialogue or self-talk)
  • Feel proud of yourself
  • Reread favourite books, watch favourite movies
  • Identify and seek out comforting activities, objects, people, relationships, and places
  • Allow yourself to cry
  • Find things that make you laugh
  • Express your outrage in a constructive way
  • Play with children
Spiritual self-care
  • Make time for prayer, meditation, and reflection
  • Spend time in nature
  • Participate in a spiritual gathering, community, or group
  • Be open to inspiration
  • Cherish your optimism and hope
  • Be aware of non-tangible, nonmaterial aspects of life
  • Be open to mystery, to not knowing
  • Identify what is meaningful to you and notice its place in your life
  • Sing
  • Express gratitude
  • Celebrate milestones with rituals that are meaningful to you
  • Remember and memorialise loved ones who are dead
  • Nurture others
  • Have awe-filled experiences
  • Contribute to, or participate in, causes you believe in
  • Read inspirational literature
  • Listen to inspiring music
Professional self-care
  • Take time to eat lunch
  • Take time to chat with colleagues
  • Make time to complete tasks
  • Identity projects or tasks that are exciting, growth promoting, and rewarding
  • Set limits with colleagues and clients
  • Balance your caseload so that no one day is “too much”
  • Arrange your workspace so that it is comfortable and comforting
  • Get regular supervision or consultation
  • Negotiate for your needs
  • Have a peer support group


Stress can occur in different areas of our lives. These may include:

Please click on the crosses in the corresponding circles to get more information on potential warning signals in these different areas of life.

The following illustration shows the progression of a stress curve from too little stress to burnout:

Callidu. 2024. Stress Curve.

Too little stress

  • Inactive: In this phase, stress levels are very low. Individuals might feel bored, disengaged, and lack motivation. There is insufficient pressure to stimulate action or focus.
  • Laid back: As stress levels increase slightly, individuals may feel relaxed but still lack the drive to perform. There is minimal urgency or challenge to spur productivity.

Optimum stress

  • Stress as a productive force: When stress reaches a moderate level, individuals begin to experience increased energy and focus. This phase is marked by heightened alertness and motivation, leading to high performance. This is the zone of optimal performance where stress acts as a positive force, however this can result in fatigue without any rest.

Too much stress

  • Exhaustion: Beyond the optimal point, stress levels become too high, causing performance to decline. Individuals may experience physical and mental exhaustion, leading to decreased productivity. The stress starts to take a toll on the body and mind, making it difficult to maintain high performance.


  • At this stage, prolonged high stress may result in a complete breakdown. This phase is characterised by physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion.
Secondary traumatisation

The following checklist contains more signs to be aware of. The things on the list do not necessarily mean that you are suffering from burnout or secondary traumatisation. An answer of “yes” to any of the questions can alert you to the need to speak to someone to receive support.

Checklist for burnout and secondary traumatisation
  • Are your relationships with close friends, family, children, or partners changing for the worse?
  • Are you finding yourself irritable, anxious, agitated or “snapping” more frequently than usual?
  • Are you worried about your work performance?
  • Are you avoiding, or getting anxious about engaging with work, clients, or patients?
  • Do you notice mood swings or feel your moods are sometimes out of your control?
  • Are you feeling flat, sad, lacking energy, overtired for no reason, or as though you are “spacing out” from things around you when you are stressed?
  • Are you getting run down or catching more colds or infections than usual?
  • Do you feel unsafe or overly anxious about your safety?
  • Are you self-soothing in ways that might be numbing or can cause you increased stress later, such as mindless eating, alcohol or substance use, or smoking?
  • Do you feel you have lost hope, or that there is little “goodness” in humanity?
  • Do you have nightmares, poor sleep, intrusive thoughts, or images that are upsetting?