Children's Voice Sep/Oct 2006

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Management Matters

Understanding and Preventing Worker Burnout

Do I have burnout, or am I just fatigued by my compassion?

By Kathryn Brohl
Job burnout was first identified in the 1970s and defined as "a breakdown of psychological defenses that workers use to adapt and cope with intense job-related stressors" and "a syndrome in which a worker feels emotionally exhausted or fatigued, withdrawn emotionally from clients, and perceives a diminution of achievements or accomplishments." 1 In other words, when workers experience burnout, their coping skills have declined, they are emotionally and physically drained, and they feel what they do does not matter.
The child welfare system includes several uncontrollable factors that play a large role in feeling out of control, and loss of control is the overwhelming contributor to worker exhaustion.

Workers usually arrive at their jobs with a certain level of educational competence, in the form of an associate's, bachelor's, or master's degree. Formal training, however, doesn't prepare them for the challenges they can encounter. It can be jarring: The mother who beats Satan out of her children, or the newborn found faintly breathing in a garbage can behind a fast food restaurant; the kids playing with parents' heroin needles, and the enraged teenager kicking in doors; the children in foster homes or hospitals claiming nobody hurt them, it was just an accident; policies that require workers to fight for the kids but keep themselves at emotional arm's length.

Child welfare work can mean long rides in subways and hours spent suffocating in filthy, overheated rooms. It means tolerating explosive parents and sometimes explosive judges. It can require calming a child after a 2:00 a.m. nightmare, or noticing the fresh, self-inflicted wounds on another. Child advocacy can be dangerous, especially when children are removed from their homes in front of drug- or alcohol-affected parents.

While working with uncertainties, workers must also keep their feelings in check when they grieve for young clients. It's difficult to express grief if workers have no time for it and have to move on to the next case. The child welfare system is filled with workers who have not had an opportunity to deal with their losses.

In an article published in City Limits, a New York News Magazine, a child investigations worker comments,

The more I ended up at ECS [emergency children's services] the harder it became to comfort these children. When you had no idea where a child was going to end up that night, it was impossible to assure them of anything. When a child asks, "Am I going to get split up from my little brother?" you can't say no. Instead you have to say, "Let's hope not, okay?"

Child welfare's greatest loss is the talented people who leave the field because they are burned out. Workers coming and going create a revolving door, especially in residential treatment. Administrators and supervisors bemoan the fact that just when a new worker is trained and beginning to give quality service, he or she leaves. The pressure is mounting as demands on people in direct service grow to reduce risk in children, fill out piles of paperwork, and live with marginal wages.

Are Burnout and Compassion Fatigue the Same?

A newer definition of worker fatigue was introduced in the last century by social researchers who studied workers who helped trauma survivors. It was called compassion fatigue. People confuse it with burnout, but burnout is different.
Compassion fatigue, or secondary traumatic stress (STS), can surface quite rapidly. Burnout, on the other hand, emerges gradually as one is exposed to mounting job strain. 2 Burnout occurs when gradual exposure to job strain leads to an erosion of idealism, which leads to discouragement and reduced sense of accomplishment. Burnout and compassion fatigue can share symptoms, however--emotional exhaustion being one of them.
But, unlike burnout, STS can suddenly cause a child welfare worker to feel confused, helpless, and isolated from supporters. STS symptoms often are not related to real causes. One symptom, for example, is feeling worthless, reflecting irrational thinking, yet helpers with STS can experience a speedier recovery.

People with STS experience stress as a result of helping or wanting to help a suffering person in crisis. Child welfare investigation professionals may acquire STS more easily due to their early role in the child separation process. Child protective services professionals would be more likely to experience burnout because they tend to stay with a child's case much longer.

External and Personal Stressors

External stressors that contribute to burnout include:
  • Poor agency management. Poor interoffice communication, bad managers, and constant crises in agencies contribute to low morale.

  • Poor work conditions. Difficult work schedules, excessive on-call hours, intense workdays, and blurred job descriptions, leading to a feeling of losing control, being overwhelmed, confusion, and frustration.

  • Boring work, fewer opportunities for promotion, and fear of downsizing. These factors contribute to feeling stuck and not being able to realize one's potential.

  • Difficult interagency politics, and inadequate training. Poor or no communication between agencies or workers can lead people to make mistakes.

  • Personal risk. Insufficient supervision with regard to potentially hazardous conditions places workers at risk of contracting diseases or being exposed to violent situations.

  • Lack of appreciation. Everyone needs to feel good about what they do. People don't get this feeling through osmosis. Child welfare workers will leave a job sooner if they don't receive appreciation than if they receive low pay.
Personal or internal stressors that contribute to burnout include:
  • A recent loss. A loss through death, divorce, or life stage, such as children leaving home, contributes to a sense of losing control.

  • Chronic illness. Ongoing sickness is exhausting and causes irritability and frustration.

  • A history of trauma. Formerly traumatized workers may give their previous suffering meaning by working with children, but they may be biologically more sensitive to danger cues at work and thus experience exhaustion as a result of these physically hypervigilant conditions.

  • Lack of support. Single parenting, moving to a new town, or being estranged from family can create a feeling of isolation when trying to manage home and work.

  • Poor coping skills. Many people are workaholics or perfectionists. They do not know how to relax or take time to regenerate. Their communication skills may be primitive, or they may not have control over their anger.

  • High expectations of others. Some workers expect their coworkers to have the same commitment to the job. If their expectations are disappointed, they become angry or withdrawn. If clients do not fulfill their treatment goals, they may become disheartened or hardened.

  • Unrealistic expectations of agency administrators. A small number of child welfare workers may rebel against authority and pout when they do not get their way. Their obsession with trying to change the system can exhaust them.

  • Choosing the wrong career. Child welfare work is not for everyone. People who want to please others can choose it for the wrong reasons. Dealing with the resulting conflicting feelings puts tremendous strain on physical and emotional systems.

How to Prevent Burnout

The best way to prevent burnout is to "know thyself." Identifying one's strengths and weaknesses is necessary. People can get into undesirable work situations and expect far too much of themselves if they don't know what they want.

Unfortunately, many people do not explore their internal selves until they are in crisis, but they can stop burnout if they begin to notice signs of slow burn. Some things people can do to prevent further decompensation include:
  • Take vacation time, even if you have nowhere to go.
  • Make sure someone takes your calls when you're off the clock.
  • Take a yoga or drawing class--something to disengage your brain.
  • See a therapist.
  • Find a mentor at work.
  • Get new training.
  • Form a peer supervision group.
  • Talk to more-experienced workers about how they cope with stress.
  • List your stressors, and see what you can prune from the list.
  • Go to bed earlier.
  • Exercise and cut out the heavy carbohydrates and caffeine.
  • Say no to evening events.
  • Turn off your cell phone and beeper.
  • Delegate work at home and at work. Ask for help.
  • Make time to do at least one relaxation activity a day.
  • Write your goals for the next workday.
  • Don't put off making decisions.
  • Spend time outdoors.
  • Get a massage.
  • Surround yourself with supportive friends who aren't all child welfare workers.

How to Deal with Burnout

Any painful condition like burnout provides an opportunity for growth, because crisis forces us to evaluate our old habits. Most people learn through suffering. It opens us to a more authentic state. But each crisis is terribly uncomfortable, and we can find ourselves in a state of anxiety.

Ironically, when people experience burnout, they tend to hang on more tightly to familiar habits. When the anxiety will not go away, however, they are forced to consider other choices. They may not know that burnout is a state of vulnerability. It puts them at a crossroads in their lives.

Feeling vulnerable can cause us to feel guilt-ridden and extremely self-critical. Taking excessive responsibility for all that happens to us is typical. Consequently, shame and embarrassment are also predictable feelings. People naturally want to hide from the realization they are not perfect, but frailties become less powerful when one accepts them. Experiencing burnout is a wake-up call to discard unnecessary baggage.

Overcoming Burnout

The first thing to do if one chooses to work through burnout is to slow things down and become more aware of one's physical and emotional condition. The obvious solution is to take personal days, but if that isn't possible, cancel personal appointments and get some rest.

The second step is to work at adopting patience with oneself and others. Getting to the burnout stage takes time, and physical and emotional healing is not immediate. Patience is a daily practice. Practicing breathing or slow exercise can help one become more observant and patient. Changing perspectives by literally changing scenery is helpful as well.

Next, workers need to examine old habits with compassion. One of the most difficult things for people to do is list 10 things they like about themselves. Workers reach burnout due to a number of reasons. Not all of them are the workers' fault, and burnout has nothing to do with being bad. Remember, all the saints we know are dead.

Along these lines, it's helpful to reassess one's expectations for oneself and others. Sometimes, all we can do is our best; even then, however, the situation may get worse. When workers examine expectations for clients, they can recognize that sometimes a little change is the best they can expect.

In overcoming burnout, workers need to practice new habits, but first, they need to know which ones to adopt. This is where self-awareness comes into play. What do we like to do? What makes us excited, eager, or curious? Old habits are hard to break, but it's easier when we're excited about adopting new ones.

When working through burnout, it's important to practice new behavior and thinking, because practicing them leads to confidence, and subsequently, success. It takes time for brains to develop new sensitized neural pathways, so repetition is the key to change. Few people learn a skill after a couple of tries. Change happens over time. Timelines in adopting new habits of thinking are more realistic when they are viewed in weeks and months.

Lastly, through the process of renewal, workers may be challenged to make brave decisions that will affect their lives. For example, they may need to speak up, take a stand, or simply consider other career opportunities. Taking responsibility for improving one's well-being is scary but absolutely necessary in overcoming burnout.

The Other Side of Burnout

The opposite of burnout is authentic appreciation for the opportunity to work with children and families. It's a state that allows workers to participate fully and leave the job behind at the end of the day. Most people will experience burnout at some point in their careers. It isn't the end of the world. Yet how they acknowledge and work through their condition, while learning from their experience, has a lot to do with their resiliency in the future.

Adapted from The New Miracle Workers: Overcoming Contemporary Challenges in Child Welfare Work, by Kathryn Brohl (CWLA Press,2004).

  1. Kreisher, K. (2002). Burned Out. Children's Voice, 11 (4), 6-11. back

  2. Figley, C.R. (Ed.). (1995). Compassion Fatigue: Coping with Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder in Those Who Treat the Traumatized. Bristol, PA: Brunner/Mazel. back

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