Dangers of Workload Burnout
Posted on February 17, 2017
Burnout is a constant companion in the helping professions. There is rarely a day that goes by that I do not have a conversation or read an article about this dangerous phenomenon of our modern work environment. I have seen dozens of studies throughout the years on which professions are at highest risk for burnout, and every study shows that anyone reading this blog is in a high-risk category.
While I think that we often label the impacts of compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, and secondary trauma as “burnout,” I do believe it is an ever-present danger in our professions. Stress accumulates in our body over time, and if we do not act to get it out of our system, the intense stress eventually leads to burnout.
There are two types of burnout that we will cover in the next couple of weeks. The first type of burnout is the one people are most familiar with: workload burnout. This type of burnout will be our focus this week. The second type of burnout, which we will discuss next week that I call expectation burnout, is less well-known, but just as powerful. It is when a person’s expectations of their work environment continuously fail to be met.
Workload burnout is the result of trying to do more work than we can complete, at the quality we expect from ourselves. At first, a person might experience this as stress, but when this becomes intensified, it can turn into burnout, and end up feeling larger than one’s robustness level. Large caseloads, paperwork requirements, grant deadlines, e-mails, and other demands of work can fill up a person’s cup over time.
In the helping professions, there is a dangerous combination of variables that lead us down the path of burnout. These variables include whether stress goes on for a long duration, has an element of uncertainty, or concerns something that is important to us. If these are present, the experience of stress and its impact on the helper’s physical, emotional, and social health increases.
Duration. Is there ever enough time? Paperwork, applications for services, client crises, and on and on and on. Between system requirements and client needs, helpers are often overwhelmed with the amount and intensity of the work they must do over long periods of time, just to meet the essential demands of the job.
Importance is also something inherent to our work. We genuinely care about those we serve. Our clients’ well-being, dignity, and futures are important to us. When bad things happen to clients, it hits us in a very powerful way. We care, and caring puts us at significant risk.
The outcomes of our work carry with it considerable importance as well. Unfortunately, we often do not have the resources or time to give clients everything they need. It is not our fault that rental assistance ran out, that the program cannot cover the cost of a new set of dentures, or that the client lost their job. Understanding of the client’s need and not being able to match those needs with dwindling resources is one of the greatest causes of burnout.
Dealing with uncertainty every day should be on all of our job descriptions. Working with struggling people battling addiction, mental illness, and traumatic memories entail dealing with high levels of unpredictability. Trauma often steals structure and safety from clients, and this manifests itself in behaviors that often put the client and those around them at risk. Most people know about prostitution, homelessness, injection drug use, and child abuse but few of them deal with these deep issues and their impact on individuals, kids, and communities every day.
Just looking at this reality of our work, it is amazing that we are not all burned out. That we find a way to work in this intensity and keep our sanity. Doing this work requires near-superhuman strength. Staying healthy in the face of it all is almost miraculous. My question this week is, how do you balance the intensifiers of duration, importance, and uncertainty without, burning out?