Sunday, February 12, 2012

So what is burnout and what can I do to avoid it?

Burnout, we know it's bad and that we for sure don't want to get it but what exactly is it and how can I make sure I don't end up with a case of it myself?

        I've spent a lot of time reflecting on burnout after having seen what I thought was that issue in a colleague. This was a pretty major event in my professional life and it left me asking big questions about what we can expect from a supervisor or from our colleagues and it led me down a deep path of questioning. In reality I may never know what happened for that person but the more I talk with colleagues about it, the more it sounds like burnout.

So, let me be clear: burnout is bad, I don't want it and I'm sure you don't either. How do we identify burnout though? According Maslach & Leiter on burnout:

"It represents an erosion in values, dignity, spirit and will.. an erosion of the human soul. It is a malady that spreads gradually and continuously over time, putting people into a downward spiral."

Okay, that sounds awful; I mean "an erosion of the human soul" is serious. Realistically do social workers really experience this? I argue yes, social workers meet all the criteria of burnout: overloaded case loads (read an insurmountable number of cases), long work hours, performing work that can conflict with our values, a lack of control in a fast paced environment that destroys a sense of community amongst coworkers. Social workers constantly face issues of downsizing in economies that tend to undervalue or cutback social programs. Ultimately what this comes down to in my opinion is social workers operating in an environment where they try to empower clients but they themselves do not feel empowered much of the time. Let's face it, social workers, nurses, psychologists, doctors, police officers, etc. all experience high expectations from the public - from our clients but how do we feel when can't live up to those expectations or can't fulfill them in a way that we know will be a positive outcome for the client.

Burnout manifests itself in a variety of ways including physical, mental and emotional exhaustion, mistrust and anger can also be product of burnout. Interestingly I found that feelings typically associated with impostor syndrome also become a part of the burnout experience, feelings of vulnerability and uncertainty in areas where confidence was formerly the norm. This according to Mike Gorkin (LCSW), leads to an attitude that is entrenched in cynicism and callousness; here the burned out individual exhibits hostility or are easily provoked. 

Through my research the last few days, there are some deeper issues related to burnout that I've come to understand. Burnout it's not for the faint of heart; I recognize that those who get it, have it because they're sticking it out and not quitting. I don't mean to glorify this but I understand it, these individuals have been exposed to the conditions I discussed above for a long period of time. It can't be easy.

The prescription for avoiding burnout and overcoming it self care; a bit of a buzz word in social work schools - but what is it really? I found a lovely article on the Public Health Agency of Canada website which had some great ideas about recognizing stressors in caregivers and some "stress-relieving activities" which appeared to be moderately helpful in my opinion the best I found online were here in a somewhat sentimental article from The New Social Worker Online but I appreciate the sentiment, perhaps because I'm a student and the article is focused on social workers achieving their degrees but one of the most important concepts - don't do it alone. I really appreciate that. Having my friends and colleagues as well as the academic supervisor to debrief with gave me an incredible amount of insight into what I experienced and my own reactions to it. It was validating and helpful, I didn't feel alone.

So does self-care mean not being alone or seeking out supervision? I really don't think so. I think it's the culmination of all the activities that you participate in to secure your mental health. For me, yoga is a big part of me avoiding stressors and keeping myself physically feeling good which has a direct affect on my emotional balance. My twenty minutes of yoga every morning supercharges me for the day (more about my morning yoga here). After a stressful day, talking with friends and colleagues, being social helps but turning the lights down low, sitting on a block and meditating for a few minutes after a run, long bike ride or good run of sun salutations really helps calm my mind.

I told you about me, how do you practice self care?


  1. Great article on burnout. Indeed, it is something that I feel most social workers encounter at one point or another in their careers.

    I suppose my favorite things to do when I feel fried is travel, surf the internet, and shop. Two of the three aren't exactly the cheapest things.

    I suppose here's my list of more affordable things I do to prevent burnout: Enjoy!

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read the post! We should collaborate sometime on a post, I really enjoy your writing.

      Thanks again,