From My Perspective – Burnout, pt.2

As noted last week, I’ve always managed a heavy schedule and task-load, and even though I had been apprehensive about whether I would be able to cope with the demands of my job once I had started Master’s studies, I did not find it that hard. Well, at least not for the first few months. Although the “flexibility” of the job was something everyone had raved about, in reality it was only flexible in the sense that you had control of the time you booked in advance with clients, and this only represented a small portion of your week. The way the job is structured, you are required to put in an average of 37.5 hours per week. This mainly consists of direct client visits, but also includes phone calls, meetings and case conferences, travel, and reports and paperwork. Because you don’t always know how much time you will need for a client visit, days are quite broken up – so that a full 8 hour day can often translate into only four or five hours of billable client time. I also had many clients who worked, so my evenings were completely filled. The child welfare contracts specified how many hours you had to spend with a client each week, and at times a new intake would require daily supervision for a period of time.

Visiting more than three clients in a day could be emotionally taxing, but taking breaks in between stretched out your day. I tried to maximize the use of my time in between client visits so that I was not losing too many hours in between. One of my daughters bought me a little tape recorder so that I could “take notes” while driving, and I found it really handy, often dictating Voice articles or AUSU reports while I drove, to be written up later. I would also try to do paperwork in between, or make telephone calls, and I unfortunately started to run up extremely high cell phone bills with daytime minutes.

Being on call meant being available after hours and alternate weekends. This is much harder and more time consuming than it sounds – even if you aren’t paged for a crisis, you still have to gear your whole life around the possibility that you might be called out at any time. A small monetary compensation was provided for the on-call weekends, but the weekday stress is considered just part of the job. You are expected to be available to clients (and supervisors) when they page. Calls are to be returned promptly and if a client is in crisis – you drop everything and go. I grew to hate that pager!

For several months I managed very well. Even when I had an on-call weekend, I would plan in advance and could cope for the most part. My first rough week came over the Remembrance Day weekend. I was on call for the weekend, and had a teenage client who was suicidal, then within hours found myself also dealing with a suicidal seven year old. By the end of that week I had put in over 60 hours, and had worked the holiday without compensation. I was exhausted by week’s end, barely able to manage all my other responsibilities.

According to their employee policies, if you worked a holiday you were to receive another day off in return, but this never happened. The same was true of the on-call weekends – although we were instructed to take some time off during the week after an on-call weekend to compensate for having worked the weekend, this rarely happened. If you did take time off, your weekly hours would drop, and the moment your hours gave the appearance of being below 37.5, you would be assigned another client intake. And of course, when you have a full client workload of anywhere from 8-12 clients that you must spend at least 4 hours with each week, there is little room for time off.

I tried to take some time off after that first 60-hour week, but to my surprise my supervisor called me on Monday with a new intake. She told me my hours were low, so I was next on the list for intakes. When I protested that I had, in fact, put in 60 hours the week previous, she realized that the individual who had input my timesheet had erred and only counted some 20 hours. No matter. I still had to take the new intake regardless, since we were short staffed. As I wrote down the information she gave me about the new intake, exhausted beyond words, I took my first step toward burnout.

Over the next few months, the pace of new intakes slowed, and I settled into a client workload that was relatively manageable and predictable, with weekly hours back to “normal,” averaging between 32-38. I even managed to catch up on my paperwork and client reports. This was another difficult aspect of the job, one which required a significant investment of uncompensated time. Reports were to be done monthly for each client, and required a lot of thought and careful wording. Since these reports might eventually end up in a court custody hearing for child welfare, and since they become part of a family’s permanent record, every word, every sentence, had to be carefully constructed. We were allotted a maximum of two hours per report, which was completely unrealistic. Most of mine took twice that time, and writing them was hugely stressful in itself. In addition, every client file had to be kept updated following a strict protocol. This process took several hours a month for each client, yet we were only allowed to claim one hour a month total for all filing! Just filling out weekly timesheets took several hours, since all client work had to be carefully itemized.

Another stressor was the required training. Although time consuming, this was one aspect of the job that I really appreciated. We were constantly being given training sessions and refresher courses. This was incredibly helpful in providing us with the up-to-date skills we needed. Unfortunately, it added to the workload, and much of the training was done on our own time. During December we were required to attend eight consecutive training days. This would not have been too difficult, except that we were also expected to attend to our client’s needs at the same time. After a full day of training we would have to go out on client visits, making for a very long day (with no such thing as overtime). On the very first morning I set out for the training session, only to have a client page me frantically. By the time I had calmed her down and helped manage her crisis, I was an hour late for the workshop. This occurred several times during that week, and my late attendance was reported to my supervisor. I explained what had occurred and was told that I had acted properly, since client pages were to be answered immediately, even if it meant arriving late for required training.

I had another pager problem that appeared to be unique to my particular pager. Whenever the batteries were low it began to behave unpredictably. Sometimes it did not go off at all, and often it would not sound when a message was waiting. A co-worker who was training me had finally become so frustrated with that pager’s idiosyncrasies that he opted instead to use his cell phone. After one incident where the pager did not go off and I missed a page from the on-call supervisor, I became quite paranoid. I began to compulsively check it every few minutes in case it had gone off, keeping it on the pillow next to me when I slept, worried sick that I might miss an important page from a client in crisis. This never occurred, thankfully. Because I had come to care so much for my clients, I didn’t ever want to let them down.

Even though the agency was short staffed, they had been putting off hiring anyone, stating that they would not approve a new hire unless everyone was operating with a “full” client load. What this meant in real terms was everyone needed to be working the maximum hours each week. It didn’t take much to upset the balance and push everyone into overload, however, and at the beginning of March all hell broke loose. I was assigned three new clients in one week, as were all my co-workers. Everyone was suddenly putting in 40-50 hours a week or more. I had a major mid-term assignment due, and had requested a couple of vacation days to ensure I would be able to get it done. However, before these vacation days would be approved, I had to get my co-workers to cover all my clients. With everyone in overload situation there was no one I could even ask, so I ended up forfeiting two of my vacation days, instead putting in 15 hours each day to see every one of my ten clients. After working 30 hours I stayed up all night for three days working on my assignment. Needless to say, the end result was not my best effort, and my professor took me to task on it. He returned the assignment, refusing to mark it unless I re-wrote a good portion of it. Although I appreciated the second chance, I shed tears of frustration over the next few days as I struggled to meet his expectations.

It was all I could do to drag myself around, day after day. I was so tired, so stressed, so worried. Week after week this went on, 55 hours one week, 58 the next, with no end in sight. My client workload became a blur, and I found myself starting to doze off while driving from one home to another. The chronic pain I already deal with daily intensified, my headaches became constant, back pain agonizing, and the stress caused my skin to erupt in unsightly welts that refused to heal. I did not see or speak to my daughters for days at a time, nor did I have a moment to spend with my beautiful new little grandson. My co-workers were all in a similar condition, except none of them were also trying to be a fulltime student and president of AUSU, being torn in several different directions with demands and expectations.

During this overload period, at one of our biweekly team meetings, our supervisor announced that this situation had turned out really well for the agency. How so? Since everyone had been putting in far more than 37.5 hours for a long time, it made our branch appear to be operating at capacity overall, and this made it easier to get more funding approval to hire additional staff. I found this statement deeply disturbing. How could you justify exhausting and overloading all your employees because it would make it easier to get more money for the agency? It seemed all wrong, somehow. Just how far would they go in cutting corners financially to get more funding? And what would be the consequences for those of us out there “working on the front lines”? Now, added to my complete exhaustion, was a sense of vague disquiet and worry; and I took yet another step toward burnout.

Next week: I finally snap.

Debbie is a native Edmontonian, and a single parent with four daughters. She has worked as a professional musician for most of her life, and has enjoyed a rich variety of life experiences – with many more to come! Debbie is working towards an eventual doctorate in psychology, and currently serves as the president of the Athabasca University Students Union.

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