From My Perspective – Burnout!

After three years of managing a virtually impossible schedule that has included holding a full-time job, maintaining full-time student status, fulfilling a nearly full-time commitment to the Athabasca University Students’ Union, writing weekly for The Voice, and taking care of my family obligations – during the past few weeks I have come closer to burnout than I ever have before. So far I’ve managed to weather the storm, but just barely. What was it that almost pushed me over the edge?

Last September I started a new job. After beating the proverbial pavement, filling out countless job applications, and sweating my way nervously through several interviews, I accepted a job as a family support worker with a local non-profit human service agency. I had several options available, but this particular job offer appeared to be the closest fit with my newly-earned bachelor’s degree. They seemed very eager to have me, offering me the job before the interview was even concluded. Although the remuneration for the position was not the greatest, I was assured that I would receive a bonus by the end of the year, plus a six-month performance review increment. The supervisor interviewing me commented that there were many compensations to the low pay, and added that she would choose to work for this organization for free because the environment was so rewarding. Her words should have been a warning to me, but at the time I took them at face value.

There were other advantages to the job. One benefit was the possibility of using the position as my practicum for the Master of Counselling program. They also promised a great deal of flexibility, since I would schedule my own client visits. This seemed like a real positive for someone going to school full-time.

One major drawback that made me hesitate was that the position required me to carry a pager and be on-call 24 hours a day. The intrusion on my life and personal space seemed excessive and I was not sure whether I would be able to manage it. I wrestled with the pager issue for quite a while. Burnout, of course, was another potential concern. Of course I knew going in to this field that mental health workers have a high rate of burnout, so I was quite prepared for that possibility – but I was additionally apprehensive with master’s studies beginning in January. The paced format of graduate studies would be very different from what I was used to, and course extensions would not be possible. Add all the rest of my activities into the mix, and taking on a high-stress job might be more than I could manage.

After much deliberation and discussion with friends and family, I decided to take the job. A good friend’s words proved to be a decision-maker. He advised me that I would not know if the job was right for me unless I tried it, and reminded me that I could always quit if it was not working out.

The first few months I was on a steep learning curve. The job entailed working with families that had been identified by child welfare as having children in the home in need of protection. Rather than apprehend the children, the family support worker would be sent into the home to work with the family on a specific set of goals that would, if achieved, allow the family to remain intact. There were also many families who had already had their children apprehended, and it was our job to work with them once the children returned to ensure that things went well. If we were successful, children would remain in the home, and families would have developed the skills and tools to be able to maintain a family environment that met the emotional, physical and mental needs of the children. If we were less than successful, children might be placed in permanent government foster care. Family problems covered every imaginable area – drug/alcohol addiction; sexual/physical/emotional abuse; parent-teen conflicts; physical/mental disabilities; neglect; and much more. We had families where drug dealing went on, situations of violence, infestations of lice or scabies, general uncleanness, etc., so our personal safety always had to be monitored.

It was exciting to be finally using my hard-earned university degree, and I found it deeply satisfying to be helping people. Instead of reading about dysfunctional family interactions in a textbook and theorizing on the best way to help, I was observing them first hand. I welcomed the opportunities presented to help families solve their problems and get their lives back on track. Situations were very complex and difficult, and clients were often resentful of Child Welfare involvement. My skills were tested continually. The very first client assigned to me required that I go into a family situation that involved spousal abuse and was potentially dangerous, due to the possible presence of firearms. I was warned to call the police if anything was out of order. My heart was racing as I knocked on the door, expecting the worst, fearful that the abuser might turn up at any time and I might be caught in the middle. To my relief, the situation was nothing like I had imagined. Instead, I encountered a young woman very much like one of my own daughters, and over the subsequent months I grew very close to her and her children as we worked together. I shared in her accomplishments and her disappointments, and in a very short time she and her little ones became very dear to me.

This experience was repeated with every new client intake. I grew close to my clients, and as I became involved in their lives and their problems, I found myself expending a lot of emotional and mental time and effort. The human services field is notorious for burning out workers for this reason – we can become so caught up emotionally in the difficult (and sometimes horrible) lives our clients lead that it starts to affect our own ability to cope. In my previous job with the Addictions Help Line, the atmosphere was extremely non-supportive, and we were expected to manage serious client problems on the phone without the benefit of being able to debrief with coworkers and supervisors. Before I accepted this new position I made it clear that I would not work for an organization that did not provide adequate emotional support for employees, and they assured me that the mental and emotional well-being of their employees was a priority.

Fortunately, this was one promise they did keep – at least partly. The support from my supervisor, and particularly from my co-workers, was exceptional. Because we were dealing with highly confidential matters, I was unable to discuss my client files with anyone outside the agency, so I did keep a lot inside. But at no time did I ever feel alone or unable to manage a client problem. The organization was focused on helping people and empowering clients, and they recognized the importance of providing employee emotional support so that they could do their best for their clients

After I began my masters’ studies in January, the job took on a new dimension. I was now able to apply everything I was learning in “Theories of Counselling and Change” to direct field work. It was exciting and challenging, and with every week, with every new lesson, I felt like I had yet another tool with which I could help my clients. I felt challenged and empowered, and I thoroughly enjoyed every client visit, every contact. Even more rewarding were the interactions I enjoyed with the other professionals. Case conferences and consultations with psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, youth workers, etc., provided opportunities to interact with my peers and earn their respect, and it was a wonderful feeling to be accepted as part of this professional environment.

One dynamic that was clear right from the outset was that of age. I was working in an environment where the majority of my colleagues were significantly younger than me. Since the position is an entry-level job, many of my co-workers were recent graduates in their very first “real” job. My supervisor was also half my age, something she acknowledged – and in fact, I was hired partly because they said they appreciated the wisdom and experience I would bring to the job. I certainly found this to be true, and my clients often commented how much they appreciated having a worker who had some life experience. Of course, with age comes a certain level of impatience, and ultimately it was my age and experience that led me to be unwilling to put up with injustice.

Next week: Pressure builds toward burnout

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