From My Perspective – Burnout, pt.3 Conclusion

The conclusion of Debbie’s three part article on burnout. In previous instalments Debbie spoke about her challenging job as a family support worker, and the gruelling on-call schedule that left her exhausted and disillusioned.

Throughout this whole time, in spite of my exhaustion, I absolutely loved the work I was doing. This was what I trained to do during my years at university, an important step towards my career goal of becoming a psychologist. I felt I was making a difference in the lives of my clients, and it was deeply satisfying. As much as I felt I was helping my clients, they in return were helping me – I was learning from them and having a first-hand opportunity to develop my skills as a counsellor. Unfortunately, this aspect of the job was used as a way to short-change employees. Because we all loved the work itself and came to care so much about our clients, the expectations were that we would be willing to expend our time for free without complaint.

My first major disappointment came in December, when all the other workers received the promised bonus and I received nothing. My supervisor expressed her surprise, claiming she had no idea why this was the case. I did not find out why until after I had finally given my notice. As I had suspected, they had hired me after the cut-off for the bonus, and I missed it by three months. Although disappointed, I consoled myself with the realization that my six month review was not that far off, at which time I would be eligible for an increment increase.

I was already into my seventh month of employment before my supervisor finally set up an appointment for this review, to be done in conjunction with my bi-monthly supervision. We had individual and group supervision, and these were opportunities to discuss each of our clients and get feedback on ways we could improve. Group supervision was extremely helpful, since we had a chartered psychologist come in and we would take turns at presenting different client situations in order to get her feedback. It was also an excellent chance to hear what everyone else was up to. Our supervisor tried to assign clients to us based on the particular areas of strength that we displayed. One worker was exceptionally good with sexual abuse situations, another with mental health issues. My supervisor often assigned some of the more complex cases to me, since she considered one of my strengths to be my life experience and ability to understand complicated family dynamics and behaviour. A common comment I heard from my clients was that they really appreciated being able to work with someone who had some maturity, rather than a young person fresh out of university.

One of my most challenging clients involved a child custody dispute between parents, where I was placed in a position where I had to work separately with each, acting as an impartial mediator. Another client, who had her children apprehended because of ongoing substance abuse issues, said upon meeting me for the first time, “at last, someone my own age who understands me.” Some of my work also involved being present when children in foster care would visit with their parents, and this could be emotionally very stressful. When the visit would end, and the children would have to say goodbye, it was heartbreaking. Even though the parents may have had problems that interfered with their ability to be effective as parents – their children loved them and wanted to be back home. On a first unforgettable visit with one client, the two little ones ran and hid when I arrived, terrified that they would be taken away again. Then one came out with a plastic bow and arrow and aimed it at me, stating that she would shoot me so that I would go away!

It was frustrating at times, dealing with child welfare. Most of the workers were excellent, compassionate, caring people who really wanted the best for the children and families they were involved with. Many were very young, and it seemed to me that their lack of experience often prevented them from really understanding what was going on with families. A few appeared to be on a power trip, making all kinds of unrealistic demands on families, knowing that the family had no choice but comply or lose their children, and I found this very disturbing. Don’t misunderstand me, in many situations the children really were better off outside of the home, and I saw and heard some horrible stories. But for the most part these families were people who were having a hard time coping with life, and often just needed some encouragement and help to be able to be good parents. They just wanted things to get better and have child welfare go away. And child welfare really had all the power. When I would see progress made and families healing, it was deeply satisfying, and my goal was always to help my clients get to the point where I was no longer needed.

By the time my performance review came around, the agency was also in the middle of an accreditation process. Pressure was on to get all the paperwork done, and everyone was becoming even more stressed as they tried to juggle their overworked schedule and still find time to get the files in order. Our supervisor told us to not schedule any client visits and instead come in to the office to just do paperwork for several days – but this was impossible to do when clients in crisis kept paging you.

The importance of paperwork was brought home to me by a co-worker who told me that they had held back her first increment raise because she was behind on her files. She had been hired during a month very much like the one we had just endured, and after spending 50 and 60 hour weeks for the first several months of employment, had not managed sufficient time to take care of the filing, so that when her performance review came around, this was used as an excuse to not move her up to the promised next level. I was very disturbed at hearing this, and it should have been a warning to me.

The afternoon of my review, I had just finished a very difficult session with one of my clients. I had been paged by the father, the mother, then the child, within the space of a few minutes – all of them extremely upset, seeking my guidance and input. I vented for a bit with my supervisor, then we sat down for our regular supervision session, followed by my performance review. During the review, my supervisor repeatedly expressed what I had been feeling – that I was doing extremely well on the job. She complimented me on my ability to really understand family dynamics and the issues these people were facing, stating that, unlike many of the younger workers – I really “got it,” and could see the whole picture. She told me that feedback had been completely positive from everyone; external agencies, clients, co-workers, and staff. This confirmed my own sense of accomplishment, and I felt really good at hearing these words, knowing I was succeeding in helping people, and in being effective as a counsellor.

Then, at the end of the interview, as I got up to leave, – she delivered the blow. After giving me all this positive and encouraging feedback, after telling me how well I was doing… she added, almost as an afterthought, “oh, but, by the way, I’ve decided to withhold your performance wage increment for a few months.” I was stunned, and asked why. She said there were “issues with my pager response.” I protested, stating that she was well aware that my pager had malfunctioned on a single occasion, and how could I possibly improve on something beyond my control? She then cited further issues with my lateness at workshops. Once again, I was stunned. This was something that had been discussed months previously, when she had told me that it was proper procedure to arrive late at a workshop if you were responding to a client page.

I gave up arguing and walked out of the office in a daze. I was close to tears, and when I entered the next room, several of my co-workers were there, congratulating another worker who had just been hired by child welfare at twice the salary. I joined in the congratulations, choked and barely able to keep a calm face. He was talking about his new start date, but said he had pushed it forward in order to complete all his client files. Reeling from the blow I had just received, I advised him to move on quickly and not give anymore free time to this organization, then left the office in a hurry before I broke down completely.

I had four client visits after this, and at each one I was far too distracted and upset to be of any practical use. I was devastated. I had thought I was doing well, feeling so fulfilled and successful in my work with clients. This was my career. This was what I had trained for. I knew I was doing well, making a difference in the lives of my clients. But my supervisor had given me a negative review based on criteria I had no control over!

I did my best with my clients that day, even though I just wanted to break down and cry. After finally arriving home, I called a few of my co-workers. They confirmed that this was nothing unusual, that the company routinely held back merited wage increments for the flimsiest of reasons. The consensus was that this was just another way that they cut corners and reduced their budget. My co-workers suggested I try to talk to higher management (a step I subsequently took with no response), but advised that the grievance process took a long time and that by the time anyone bothered to listen to you, months would pass and you would finally get your increment anyway, so no one ever bothered to fight this. They advised me to just keep working, take care of my clients, and find fulfilment through personal knowledge of a job well done.

I considered this advice, but over the next 24 hours I found myself in such deep distress, so devastated by this turn of events that I could barely function. I could not stop crying, hurt beyond belief. I had thought I was doing so well, that I was helping my clients, that I was making a difference in people’s lives – yet my supervisor had chosen to punish me for a pager response issue that I was not responsible for. How could I ensure that my pager might not fail to go off again? How could I ensure that a client would not call me and make me late for another meeting? It was not possible. So how, then, could I improve my performance? And I took it very personally. Obviously there must have been something terribly wrong with my own performance for them to use such insurmountable excuses to withhold a performance increment. But what? I ran over every word my supervisor had said in that review meeting and could not think of anything that I might have done wrong. I was doing a good job. There was no getting around it. It came down to the fact that my supervisor was withholding the performance increment simply because she had the power to do so. Although I asked what I could do to “earn” this increase, I was left with no goals or objectives, since I would never be able to rely on my pager to “perform” electronically and not let me down, and since I would always be expected to answer client pages even if it made me late for meetings – knowing that I would be punished for doing so.

I snapped. I saw no option but to submit my resignation.

My supervisor called me within hours of receiving my letter of resignation, but I was far too upset to talk with her. Over the next few days, I became so emotionally distraught that I started to worry about my own mental health. I was walking around the house and crying spontaneously with no apparent reason. This was starting to feel way too familiar, and I was terrified that I might slip back into depression. I paced, I cried, and I thought. What to do? I finally bit the bullet and met with my supervisor. At that meeting, I asked her how I could possibly improve my performance so as to finally earn my increment, when the criteria for withholding it were beyond my control. She seemed quite taken aback at this, stating that I was doing the job very well, insisting that withholding the increment wasn’t really a big deal. I pressed her, asking how I was supposed to prevent another pager malfunction. She had no answer, and advised me that I should have just stuck around and waited, and then I would have got my increment a few months from now regardless.

This just confirmed what I had been feeling, what my co-workers had already advised. The company was using any excuse, regardless of how small, or whether it was within employee control. The goal was to withhold pay increases at any excuse. We had already seen the company’s willingness to overwork employees in order to receive additional funding. This was just an extension of the same thinking.

It’s wrong to treat employees this way. It’s wrong to take advantage of people in this profession who are trained to care about others and are therefore vulnerable to exploitation. Its wrong to expect mental health care workers to expend ridiculous hours, to work overtime and holidays without compensation, simply because you know they care about their clients and will not abandon them.

It was heartbreaking to leave my clients, but their response when I broke the news to them made me realize that my work had not been in vain. Several stated that they would refuse to work with anyone else and would be taking steps to have their file closed. Others cried. Some begged me to remain in their lives somehow. One client called me, after my number had inadvertently showed up on his call display. He was very distressed that I was leaving, and asked me to please count on him for a personal reference if I ever needed one, stating that I had been the “one voice of sanity” throughout this whole process.

Saying goodbye to my clients was very hard. Saying goodbye to my dreams was even harder. For several weeks I remained very close to the breaking point, crying at the drop of a hat, unable to think, study, or properly do my job as AUSU president. I wish I could say that my colleagues on AUSU executive were supportive and understanding through this, but I can’t. Pressure from a few on AUSU council made things so much worse. A new council had been elected, and I was trying very hard to help orient the new members, yet I was falling to pieces inside.

Even though I had given my notice, I still felt responsible to take care of my clients and to finish up paperwork. In my last week, I put in another 60 hours just ensuring that my files were brought up to date. I didn’t want to leave the organization on bad terms, and most importantly, I wanted to ensure that my final reports gave my clients all the positive reinforcement and tools they needed to move on successfully.

I’m older and wiser now, as the expression goes. I don’t know if my experience with this particular agency is indicative of how all non-profit mental health organizations operate. I hope I will not find this to be true of my next job. I’ve accepted that, in the mental health care field, I will likely never earn a wage that I deserve. This is wrong, but it is the reality. What I do hope to see change, however, is how employees are treated. Those of us who are working at the front lines of health care, who are working “in the trenches” so to speak, helping families heal and remain intact, helping people function well as members of society – we deserve to be treated well. Family breakdown spirals into every element of our society, at a great cost. I would like to see the day when a government-funded organization such as the one I worked for would be able to pay their workers what they merit and would not have to resort to petty and unfair techniques to withhold pay increases.

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.