One morning over breakfast, Laura started crying. Sobbing, she looked at her husband and said, “I don’t know what’s happened to me. I used to love working with parents, but now I think I need to quit my job.” Laura has been a home visitor 6 years. At first she totally loved her work. She got up each morning filled with energy and optimism about what the day would bring. Over time, things changed. Funding cuts led to larger caseloads. She could barely keep up with her families, paperwork and parenting assessments. Demands on her supervisors’ time increased so much that they rarely met anymore. Laura stopped taking time off, feeling like she just couldn’t because there was so much to do. Sometimes the families she worked with blurred into a mass of never-ending needs and she started wishing they’d just leave her alone. She was always tired, no matter how much sleep she got. She felt as though no matter how hard she worked or how many hours she put in, things never got better. She couldn’t remember anymore what it felt like to be excited about her work.
Guest Post by
Nancy L. Seibel, M.Ed., NCC, BCC
Over time the demands of Laura’s job eroded her commitment and left her depleted. We’ve all heard of burnout and maybe, like me, you’ve been there. But what is it, really? Who is most likely to get burned out? What can agencies, supervisors and staff members do to prevent burnout? Read on for some answers to these questions.
What Is Burnout?
You might see your own or a coworker’s experiences reflected in this definition of burnout: The result of prolonged stress or frustration resulting in exhaustion of emotional or physical strength and loss of motivation. Characteristics of burnout (which we saw in Laura’s story) are:
Emotional exhaustion - feeling drained and exhausted by excessive demands over time
Depersonalization - a sense of cynicism, callousness and reduced sensitivity to others
Reduced personal accomplishment - feeling like one’s efforts are wasted and worthless.1
Burnout builds up over time, resulting from too many demands and too few resources.2 The term “burnout” implies that a person was once “fired-up” about their work. It makes me think of a flame which must be refueled in order to stay lit. If it isn’t the flame dies out.3
Who Gets Burned Out?
Anyone who feels overworked and undervalued can get burned out.4 Helping professionals are at particular risk. They often come to their work with high levels of commitment and passion and have jobs requiring that they respond empathically to others dealing with significant life difficulties. Office workers, parents -- anyone dealing with excessive demands and time pressures may suffer burnout. A lack of support from supervisors and colleagues can increase the risk of burnout. Pressures in the work environment (i.e. high caseloads), demands stemming from work/family conflict can contribute to burnout. Individual characteristics may play a role, too. Younger and more highly educated employees may be more at risk for burnout. Those with higher expectations of their work, workplaces and of their own achievements, for example may tend to push themselves in ways that increase exhaustion.5
What Keeps You Burning Bright?
Burnout is costly and damaging. It’s painful for the staff member who experiences it. It harms agencies through decreased job performance and turnover. It has costs for children and families when their services are ineffective or their relationships with providers are disrupted by turnover. Think about prevention. We can prevent burnout by making sure there are opportunities to re-fuel and keep the flame of commitment burning bright. Agencies, program leaders and staff members can take steps to prevent burnout. It’s worthwhile to invest time and energy in preventing burnout.
What Did Laura and Her Agency Do?
At her husband’s suggestion, Laura scheduled an appointment to discuss her situation with her agency director and her supervisor. While she was nervous about doing this, she decided that she had little to lose and maybe something to gain by having this discussion. Laura explained, “I’m surprised that this happened to me. I often counsel parents to take care of themselves so they don't burn out. I even provide them many quality resources to help prevent parent fatigue.” (see parent resource list at end of post). Even though she was conscientious about self-care for the parents, she had come to realize that she also needed to take care of herself.
Caught up in their own stresses, they hadn’t realized how staff were being affected by workplace conditions. Neither of them wanted Laura or other valued staff to leave. They immediately took steps to identify what they could do to help Laura recover from burnout. They also looked at what they needed to do for themselves and for the entire agency.
Laura’s supervisor urged her to take some time off. When Laura returned, they worked together on a self-care plan that included slowing down, getting more support and taking a look at her goals and priorities. The agency did a self-assessment and developed an action plan to decrease demands on staff and increase supportive policies and practices. Supervisors and agency leaders took part in ongoing training in reflective supervision and the organization developed a multi-year plan to put relationship-based and reflective practice in place. As part of this, the entire staff was offered training and ongoing support in stress management and self care.
We see in Laura’s story that burnout prevention is an organization-wide issue. Here are some more prevention ideas, in addition to the examples found in her story.
- Provide training on self-care
- Offer opportunities for increasing job-related knowledge and skill
- Review caseloads and expectations of staff to determine if they are realistic
- Provide personal days off, holiday time, vacation time and paid sick days.
- Discuss stress and self-care in team meetings
- Meet regularly with each staff member for reflective supervision
- Support each team member’s strengths, professional growth and development
- Encourage use of vacation and other time off.
- Remember what inspires them
- Ask for help when it’s needed
- Create boundaries between work and personal life
- Schedule time for activities they enjoy and that they find renewing.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Preventing burnout is an important topic that affects our programs, our staff, ourselves and the families we serve. Please share your experience and tips on preventing burn out in the comments section below. Also, I’m going to follow up this guest blog post with a free, one-hour webinar in early June on burnout prevention. Would you like to join the webinar? If so please contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Resources for Parents for Stress Management and Care
Nancy L. Seibel coaches human service professionals and small business owners on getting control of their busy-ness, decreasing stress and increasing well-being. She consults with early childhood programs on relationship-based and reflective practice. Nancy has a background in direct services to young children and their families, program supervision and nonprofit leadership. She invites you to visit www.keystochangelifecoaching.com and to sign up for her newsletter for more information.
1 Maslach, C. (2003). Burnout, the cost of caring. Los Altos, CA: Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge.
2 Best Start (2012). When compassion hurts: Burnout, vicarious trauma and secondary trauma in prenatal and early childhood service providers. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: author.
3 (Korunka, C., Tement, S., Zdrehus, C. & Borza, A. (nd.) Burnout: Definition, recognition and prevention approaches. Available online at http://www.burnoutintervention.eu/fileadmin/user_upload/BOIT_theoretical_abstract_2705.pdf)
4 Smith, M., Segal, J. & Segal, R. (2014). Preventing burnout: Signs, symptoms and coping strategies. Available online at http://www.helpguide.org/mental/burnout_signs_symptoms.htm.
5 Korunka, C., et al., op. cit.
Assess What Matters to Children
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Nine Ways Parenting Assessment Can Make a Difference in Your Program.
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1. Documents evidence of parenting outcomes
2. Tailors services to individual parenting strengths and needs
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5. Serves as a parenting check-up as children develop
6. Shifts staff focus from child to parent-child interactions
7. Offers a common language for staff , families and programs
8. Builds reflective practice during supervision
9. Informs continuous quality improvement for staff and program.