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Dangers of Expectations Burnout

Posted on February 24, 2017

Following last week’s post about workload burnout, here is another type of burnout that gets a lot less attention. This kind of burnout occurs when our expectations of our work, organization, or profession differ from actual reality. In the helping professions, this happens way too often, and can end with terrible consequences for us and for our clients.

Expectations can be just as powerful as actual events. Expectations, formulated from past experiences and a person’s beliefs about how reality should work, create pathways in our brain that are designed to process information efficiently across many different settings and situations. When reality does not match the expectations in our mind, the brain experiences this as a threat.

Dopamine, which is released when expectations match reality, is replaced by cortisol and other stress-related chemicals. This release can lead to high levels of anger, frustration, and anxiety. Over time, if our environment or expectations do not change, these chemicals can result in the physical, emotional, and social problems associated with burnout.

I experienced expectation burnout very early on in my career. As those who have met me can tell you, I don’t lack passion and excitement for this work. So you can imagine my eagerness as I walked into my first job as a counselor in a juvenile justice residential facility!

I expected to enter a field where I would work with compassionate and energized professionals trying to make a difference in clients’ lives, and in the larger community. Instead, I experienced the exact opposite. The facility was  run-down, the food was unhealthy and tasted terrible, the staff were surviving the work more than they were excited by it, and most clients were not receiving the services they needed to live a better life in the future. I was shocked and frustrated to confront this reality, while also highly motivated to change it.

After an initial few months of getting to know my clients and the juvenile justice system, I started to advocate for change within the organization. Naively, I went to leadership with a highly-detailed plan for improvements we could make and processes to put in place that I felt would increase the quality of care. However, program leadership informed me that they appreciated my thoughts, but believed the clients were getting the services “that they deserved.”

I can’t tell you how hard it was to watch clients that I cared about getting demoralized, and even verbally abused, by the staff. I understood that punishment was part of the juvenile justice system, but could not understand how our treatment of these kids was going to result in any behavioral change. I tried to find several different ways to make smaller changes over time, but eventually, this reality burned me out.

Honestly, I still struggle with this in my work today. As I travel the country, I speak to numerous people who find themselves in dysfunctional organizations and unresponsive systems. At the extreme, I hear stories about how system failures lead to things like homelessness, evictions, not stopping child abuse or domestic violence, and even resulting in the death of clients. How does a system or an organization that exists specifically to help others end up doing such harm?

I am fortunate to balance this with my great team at Coldspring Center, as well as being exposed to amazing work happening across many communities. It is this balance that allows me to stay motivated and passionate, and not fall prey to the expectation burnout that haunted me earlier my career. I know that this makes the lucky and fortunate.

We choose our professions expecting to work with people, organizations, and systems that help struggling clients achieve a better life. We quickly learn that lives are at stake. The frustration of this reality can immediately impact us in very negative ways. I want to open up the comment section this week for any of your struggles, or ways of successfully managing expectation burnout.

14 responses to “Dangers of Expectations Burnout”

  1. Thanks for another great issue, Matt. As an advocate, I feel the same frustration with expectations for how the system should function and the timeline for making improvements. Even the smallest change seems to take forever and it’s exhausting to keep up enthusiasm in the face of incrementalism. Single payer health care, broad scale investments in housing, livable wages–all these seem like pipe dreams particularly now when suddenly we are fighting like hell just to keep what little we have. That can be incredibly demoralizing.

    As a community, we MUST stay strong and focused and tenacious in our advocacy. Keeping expectations realistic will help us maintain the long-view so we don’t burn out in the here and now. Practice self care! Demonstrate compassion. Remember that systems are like people–they take time but change is possible and happening when you least expect it. Call your member of Congress (202-224-3121), attend town halls, get involved, stay engaged, and bring a friend or client to a community event! Find Joy in the struggle for Justice! But above all–manage your expectations. 🙂

  2. Thanks for another great issue, Matt. As an advocate, I feel the same frustration with expectations for how the system should function and the timeline for making improvements. Even the smallest change seems to take forever and it’s exhausting to keep up enthusiasm in the face of incrementalism. Single payer health care, broad scale investments in housing, livable wages–all these seem like pipe dreams particularly now when suddenly we are fighting like hell just to keep what little we have. That can be incredibly demoralizing.

    As a community, we MUST stay strong and focused and tenacious in our advocacy. Keeping expectations realistic will help us maintain the long-view so we don’t burn out in the here and now. Practice self care! Demonstrate compassion. Remember that systems are like people–they take time but change is possible and happening when you least expect it. Call your member of Congress (202-224-3121), attend town halls, get involved, stay engaged, and bring a friend or client to a community event! Find Joy in the struggle for Justice! But above all–manage your expectations. 🙂

  3. Trudy says:

    Are you following me around? lol
    I swear every week lately your blog was written just for me!
    I must continually adjust my expectations to more suit reality while still trying to maintain the highest level of care possible. It is a challenge for sure and requires ongoing re-evaluation and most importantly self care. Thank you so much for these weekly reminders that have helped me maintain a balance in these tumultuous times.
    So grateful!

  4. Trudy says:

    Are you following me around? lol
    I swear every week lately your blog was written just for me!
    I must continually adjust my expectations to more suit reality while still trying to maintain the highest level of care possible. It is a challenge for sure and requires ongoing re-evaluation and most importantly self care. Thank you so much for these weekly reminders that have helped me maintain a balance in these tumultuous times.
    So grateful!

  5. Robyn McKeen says:

    I do not follow a religion, nor have I attended AA, but I certainly resonate with this:
    “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
    Courage to change the things I can,
    And wisdom to know the difference.”- Reinhold Niebuhr

    I have learned that a workplace can always be changed (by finding a better fit!), and a system can be changed albeit slowly and oh so painfully (a system is made up of the people who make it run and people can change). It is finding the wisdom to truly identify and then accept the things I cannot change that challenges me the most…
    Thanks for the great conversation Matt!

    • Matt Bennett says:

      Thanks Robyn. Niebuhr’s wisdom is timeless. I struggled for most of my career to change things that seem unchangeable. Systems, organization, and governments can be slow to change and evolve but without our efforts stagnation is certain. Keep up the good fight!

  6. Robyn McKeen says:

    I do not follow a religion, nor have I attended AA, but I certainly resonate with this:
    “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
    Courage to change the things I can,
    And wisdom to know the difference.”- Reinhold Niebuhr

    I have learned that a workplace can always be changed (by finding a better fit!), and a system can be changed albeit slowly and oh so painfully (a system is made up of the people who make it run and people can change). It is finding the wisdom to truly identify and then accept the things I cannot change that challenges me the most…
    Thanks for the great conversation Matt!

    • Matt Bennett says:

      Thanks Robyn. Niebuhr’s wisdom is timeless. I struggled for most of my career to change things that seem unchangeable. Systems, organization, and governments can be slow to change and evolve but without our efforts stagnation is certain. Keep up the good fight!

  7. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    Activity is a good remedy, as Barbara suggests. Participating in the struggle alleviates sadness and guilt. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is a powerful antidote to the hate that some are spreading. The ripples of love are worth imagining and counting on and fantasizing about and hoping for and…. Do it! The Old Testament prophet said: “Do justice.”

  8. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    Activity is a good remedy, as Barbara suggests. Participating in the struggle alleviates sadness and guilt. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is a powerful antidote to the hate that some are spreading. The ripples of love are worth imagining and counting on and fantasizing about and hoping for and…. Do it! The Old Testament prophet said: “Do justice.”

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