Burning or Burnout Passion?

How do disability workers prevent burnout and stay motivated and healthy in their work?

There is nothing like the absolute joy I feel when I see the changes that have taken place for a client. I feel a burning passion to work with families and clients, bringing my training, experience, knowledge, and passion to work every day. I know that I can say the same for many in our sector!

But there is a cost to doing this work known as the “cost of caring for others”.

Every day that we are at work our focus is on our clients, not ourselves.

We witness their lives, their struggles, the anger and frustration, the way they have been let down by families or the systems around them.

Our professional commitment to them demands that we always do our absolute best and bring our professional skills to make changes to their lives.

People in caring roles, where decision making and responsibility for decisions and outcomes is huge, experience significant pressure.

As managers and supervisors, we see staff overwhelmed and exhausted, and think BURNOUT. Is it burnout?

Burnout is described as: “Resulting when the balance of deadlines, demands, working hours, and other stressors outstrips rewards, recognition, and relaxation”.

Burnout has to do with experiencing chronic stress, and when the demands being placed on you exceed the resources you have available to deal with the stressors.

Research indicates that people working in the ‘helping’ profession

  • working in the frontline are at number 1 in terms of demanding careers with high burn out levels
  • 75% experience burnout at least once in their careers.

The six key domains of burnout have been identified as:

  1. work overload,
  2. lack of autonomy (too much control over work by others),
  3. rewards are lacking (financial, recognition)
  4. few healthy relationships in the workplace (toxic workplace relationships)
  5. perceived unfairness (lack of trust, openness)
  6. incompatibility between individual values and company values.

My key takeaway:

Burnout isn’t weakness, burnout is what happens when we are exposed to more stress than we are given resources to cope with. On the other hand, what I see more often in our work is compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma. These are also conditions that are associated with the cost of caring for others.

Compassion fatigue is described as “the overall experience of emotional and physical fatigue that social service professionals experience due to chronic use of empathy when treating patients who are suffering in some way” (Newell & MacNeil, 2010).

Compassion fatigue increases when a worker sees that things aren’t getting better or changing for the client, like ‘pushing mud uphill’.

Vicarious trauma, is the experience of trauma symptoms that can result from being repeatedly exposed to other people’s trauma and their stories of traumatic events. A person’s world view (belief systems) can be significantly changed, as a result of hearing those stories. Vicarious trauma is cumulative, building up over time.

Vicarious trauma is a specific phenomenon concerned only with people who experience trauma through exposure to another’s traumatic material. Vicarious trauma is a consequence of working with survivors of trauma or people experiencing trauma.

Burnout, compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma can be the cost of bearing witness and of empathic engagement with those we support. It is important to differentiate vicarious trauma from compassion fatigue and burnout, with which it is often confused, and yet commonly co-exists.

So, burnout relates to exhaustion or stress rather than to a client’s traumatic experience.

The important point of difference is that burnout is transient and much more preventable.

You may find that you experience a little bit of each of these at different times.  What can be most helpful is to have an understanding of their impacts so that you can be proactive in preventing or minimising them.

My next blog on prevention and management of these impacts will come out next Thursday.

Author: Sue Campbell Ross, Able2

Photo credit: Verne Ho on Unsplash