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GSSWGraduate School of Social Work

Study examines wellness intervention for student stress reduction

February 16, 2017

Meditation for self-care

No surprise here: Social work can be stressful, and burnout is common. But research demonstrates that the stress levels of graduate students in social work and other helping professions may be even greater than the stress of professional practice.

Self-care interventions can help. Associate Professor Nicole Nicotera reviewed the research on graduate student stress and found that with wellness, self-care intervention, students reported an improved quality of life even as their stress levels increased.

Would the same be true at GSSW, where students have asked for more wellness support? Nicotera is studying whether a self-care intervention reduces stress and enhances quality of life among foundation-year MSW students at the school. She's joined in the study—Self-Care and Wellness for the Helping Professions—by Kate Ross, an associate professor of the practice of social work, and concentration-year MSW students Amy Black and Kasey Crosby.

"Students are taking four classes at a time and doing 16 hours of field every week, plus hours of homework. They're under a lot of pressure," says Ross, coordinator of the GSSW foundation-year curriculum. Students also juggle work, family and challenges like settling in to a new city, she explains. "They lose confidence, they worry a lot about their ability, and they often don't know anyone. It's an adjustment cycle."

"Students also get stressed and overwhelmed by large caseloads and working with people who are dealing with trauma—we're taking on things that our clients are going through," Black adds. "Self-care is important to help social workers keep that at bay."

For the study, all foundation students were invited at orientation in fall 2016 to participate in all components of a three-tier self-care intervention. Half of the invited students (n = 120) responded to a pre-intervention survey to assess their stress, quality of life and current self-care activities, and 50 percent of those respondents also completed a post-intervention survey.

Tier 1 included weekly Self-Care Thursday events facilitated by Nicotera and Ross. An average of 15 students attended each weekly session. Topics for the 10 sessions ranged from nutrition and recipes to mind-body practices such as meditation and breathing techniques to calm the nervous system.

The intervention's second tier included access to an internal website that hosted resources and activities related to nutrition, nature and play in addition to social, emotional and physical wellness. These resources also included ideas for students to explore and get to know Denver and Colorado.

Tier 3 included weekly 5-minute self-care sessions incorporated into the required Clinical Interviewing Skills course; the sessions used mindful breathing, listening and guided-imagery recordings produced by Radiant Beginnings through a community partnership.

In developing the intervention, "We tried to identify all of the holistic aspects of wellness," says Black, whose concentration is health and wellness. "Mindfulness is a practice shown to reduce stress in other populations, so we wanted to apply that to the GSSW population."

Mindfulness, Black explains, is "being actively present in what is happening right now in your life and attending to those things. Mindfulness is important for social workers for stress reduction and reducing burnout, but it also helps with our practice of social work to be present with our clients and attend more to our own feelings as well as theirs."

The research team now is analyzing data from the two surveys to assess the intervention's feasibility and outcomes. Although analysis is still under way, Ross says the early evidence indicates a positive experience. "Those who participated enjoyed it socially as a time to connect or emotionally as a time to relax," she says.

The positive results may continue. Five MSW students have indicated an interest in organizing wellness and self-care sessions for GSSW students going forward.

And, Ross says, "We should continue to look at self-care as part of the foundation curriculum. There is a larger conversation at the school about the culture and support for all types of learners and backgrounds—it's all linked together with the advanced-degree culture of the university. How do we transform our culture to be productive but maintain a work–life balance for both students and faculty?"

"Self-care is a skill for clinical practice," adds Nicotera. "Our hope would be that this sets students up for good practice in the future. They will learn to build self-care as a habit."

Wellness Quick Tips
Put your feet up
Spend 2–3 minutes a day with your feet above your head. This core yoga practice stimulates circulation and can be done while you're in bed or on the couch.

Take a deep breath
Taking slow, even breaths for the same amount of seconds on the inhale as the exhale can help you cope with stress without triggering the automatic nervous system's fight-or-flight stress response. Practice this technique when you are stuck in traffic.

Unplug from the Internet
Using electronic devices can disrupt sleep, so make the hour before bedtime a computer- or smartphone-free time. Checking email first thing in the morning can increase distractions and decrease productivity, so wait an hour after you wake up.