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?

12 responses to “Dangers of Workload Burnout”

  1. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    Having an idea of the causes of our distress enables me to persevere–even over the long-term. Response to stress becomes habitual. Emotional pain is a weapon against those who are good, or who do good: realizing that is the beginning of recovery. Learning how to parry pain in our individual circumstances is our challenge. I find ways to imaging the recovery, the bouncing off of an negative event. Images of evasion–often from sports–help. “Bounce off a tackle,” “get back on defense,” “take it to the hoop,” “go up strong”; these are some of the word phrases from sports that help, spiritually. These are internal instuctions: I don’t want exaggerate these, verbally, to make them stronger cliches; but the internal coaching helps. As I’ve shared, previously, the “safety-valve” or “soupape de surete,” in French, helps release pent-up stress. Furhtermore, the image, in soccer, of passing the ball back, instead of advanceing the ball toward the goal, as in American football, help, too. It’s ok to lose ground in order to gain ground. Then, discrete sharing of my theory of current events-which are aggressive and in oppostion to us–is a plan of further action to combat the nefarious forces. The knowledge of postitive reply is good and helpful.

  2. Erin Dupuis says:

    Wow, timely. This week was not a good one for me. I ended up taking a two hour break yesterday at work to go recoop! I spent 45 minutes in a nearby chapel praying and reading and just sitting quietly. Then I got a 20 minute massage from a walk in place across the street. And came back to the office after grabbing a healthy green smoothie. Sometimes we can do everything to take care of ourselves, and nothing is enough. Got to remember, one day at a time, and sometimes just one moment!

  3. Patsi Maroney says:

    I totally agree with taking a long break when things get too intense! I also do that; go for a walk, talk to someone, meditate, draw in a coloring book, any & all of the above. I used to over-rely on comfort food & sugary junk food, which caused various health & weight problems for me. I’m now actively avoiding sugar (easier said than done!) and making healthier choices so I don’t fall back into that trap. One day at a time, for sure!

    • Matt Bennett says:

      Isn’t it is funny how being healthy is so freak’n hard when we are exhausted! I wish we were programmed the opposite way.

  4. VBaker says:

    SO Timely, had a cancelled meeting this morning and took that time to do some breathing prayers, intentionally thinking about what went right for clients this week, praying for a client who was coming in who has multiple health issues: AIDS, Hep C, Cancer and Emphysema. I thought I can’t meet this client’s needs, what am I going to tell him? There was another agency here today and they had resources I was not aware of that will address his immediate and ongoing needs! The client was not demanding or victimized, he has all his medical records and enough Rx’s for the month….all I had to to do was pray with him at the end!! What a privilege…

  5. Matt Bennett says:

    Such a cool story! Thanks for sharing.

  6. Olga says:

    Thank you for this topic. I have been struggling in my job lately overwhelmed thinking how do I resolve these issues for my clients. Reading through your blog and the subsequent posts, I am reminded I am not alone nor do I have to do it alone. In analyzing my own situation and what has worked best for me in the past, I know that I must put more joy in my life outside of work. When I get overwhelmed I tend to retreat and stop doing some of the very things that help thinking I don’t have time but knowing I must make time for such like daily meditation or prayer time, exercise, eating regularly, massage, etc. However above and beyond these types of maintenance activities I personally must fill my cup with activities I truly enjoy…live music, festivals, cooking class, salsa dancing class or learning just about anything new. While these differ for everyone, finding what brings you joy and incorporating that at least weekly if not daily can fill you up so you can handle another day, week, etc.

    • Matt Bennett says:

      Thanks Olga. The work/life balance is critical and not always easy. You hit on something really important with the joy piece. I have also challenged people in my trainings to think about the joy they experience in their work. It is the focus on the positive that can help balance out the stress.

  7. sara carrillo says:

    I’ve had to learn, over the years, to compartmentalize in my mind and heart. I give my all at work but I try, once I’m home, to focus on other things – family, hobbies,friends, etc. There are times when I lie awake at night and worry about a particular family – last night was one – but for the most part I find it helps just having a life that is apart from work. I don’t work, as most of you do, in the mental health field, per se, but I work with homeless, immigrant, and refugee families so I encounter many of the same stressors. Lately, I’ve been relieving a great deal of stress by writing to my legislators…….. (smile)

    • Matt Bennett says:

      Thanks so much Sara and I know those sleepless nights all too well. You also speak to the keeping work at work and home at home challenge. I believe we should all strive for this while realizing that work stress can easily spill over at times and if you are in the field long enough it will at some point!

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