Self-Care A-Z: Professional Self-Care as a Strategy To Wake Up From Career Sleepwalking


by Tracey Kelley Neal, LMSW

     You might be career sleepwalking if…

…the last time you thought about your professional self was when you were in an academic program, studying for your licensure exam, or in the process of a job search. 

     Sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. Deliberate professional self-care can help.

     Why does it matter? It matters because you matter and because, without intervention, career sleepwalking can have detrimental consequences for your social work practice, our organizations, and our communities. This post spotlights career sleepwalking resulting from apathy toward care of professional self and career development. But, it’s important to also recognize other underlying causes and/or contributing factors, such as burnout and compassion fatigue.

What Is Career Sleepwalking?

     Career sleepwalking is characterized by inaction and/or lack of inspiration and motivation about your career. Career sleepwalking might look like staying in the same position even after your reasons for taking it are no longer a priority.  It can present as aimlessly jumping from role to role and agency to agency in search of professional purpose or meaning. LinkedIn survey findings suggest nearly a third of U.S. professionals are career sleepwalking.

     Social workers aren’t exempt from this experience in our careers. My work with practitioners and organizations confirms this reality and reveals the accompanying struggles of social workers to find and create safe places to acknowledge career sleepwalking.

 An Invitation to Self-Care

     Through awareness and acknowledgment of career sleepwalking, I hope we, as practitioners and as a profession, can compassionately move ourselves and our organizations toward action and adaptation. I invite you to take a minute to think about what you can do to recognize the warning signs and/or characteristics of career sleepwalking within yourself and/or your organization. 

     Next, I urge you to consider self-care as a purposeful step toward enabling action and adjustment that can help address career sleepwalking and maintain or reclaim professional passion, purpose, and focus. Because career sleepwalking is marked by inaction and/or lack of professional inspiration and motivation, it makes sense that persistent engagement in self-care efforts directed specifically toward our professional self is a meaningful intervention strategy. 

A Wake-Up Call

     Does your current self-care practice include activities specifically directed toward your professional self? If not, I encourage you to develop a self-care plan that incorporates self-care practices to support your purposeful engagement in professional self-care  and  career development.

     As a guide to inform constructing your plan, you might start with an activity I call “a wake-up call from the past.”  

     Grab a copy of your most up-to-date résumé or vita and, one by one, examine each of your previous professional work and/or internship experiences. Ask yourself the following questions related to each experience: 

  • What went well and supported my capacity to thrive professionally? 
  • What was problematic and did not support effective and appropriate use of self in my professional role?  

     Now, review the results and identify trends. Use this information and the questions below to guide you toward activities you can use to enact your plan, whether you’re struggling with or trying to prevent career sleepwalking.

  • What do I need to produce my best work?
  • What do I need to support my professional development?
  • What do I need to support moving toward my career goals?

Being Alert and Moving Forward

     Next, identify three specific actions you can take to address these needs, care for, and develop your professional self. For example, if you identify a need for mentoring, consider who in your professional network you could tap for this role. If you realize you were most satisfied in a previous role with more flexibility, consider how to have more flexibility in your current position.  

     It’s not contrary to the mission of the social work profession to have career goals or designate resources to care for self. As this blog forum consistently promotes, self-care (personal and professional) is imperative to the social work profession. This post is not about judging yourself or colleagues. Instead, this post is meant to increase awareness about career sleepwalking and encourage meaningful efforts to care for your professional self throughout your career. Finally, I also invite you to seek out ways to begin conversations about these topics with colleagues and build environments and safe spaces for professional self-care within your organizations. 

Tracey Kelley Neal, LMSW, is the founder of GROW Development Institute and an adjunct faculty member at the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University. As a social work educator and career services professional, she appreciates the importance of nurturing professional self and building supportive professional networks. She is dedicated to cultivating resources to support the professional development of students, practitioners, and organizations.

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