Human services professionals embark on their career with a burning desire to help others and make a difference in the world.
Over time, as caseloads pile up, demands increase and stress rises, the fire that fueled them may be reduced to a smolder. The prospect of “burnout” is a concern in the human services arena, but professionals can take steps to avoid or overcome it for the benefit of their careers, their clients and their own well-being.
The term burnout describes more than a passing slump. The concept, introduced by Herbert Freudenberger in his 1974 book “Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement,” describes a condition that grows out of increased work stress and can result in energy loss, emotional exhaustion, dissatisfaction and pessimism. This can lower resistance to illness.
Burnout can take a heavy toll in the workplace through excessive absenteeism and tardiness, as well as faltering enthusiasm for duties. Faced with feelings of isolation and withdrawal, sufferers may turn to potentially destructive coping measures such as alcohol or drugs.
What Causes Burnout?
Burnout is considered to be a progressive condition that stems from multiple causes. Human services professionals who handle increasing caseloads, suffer poor supervision or receive little thanks may be at risk of developing syndromes such as:
- Compassion Fatigue – Emotional and physical fatigue caused by a chronic use of empathy when working with clients facing a variety of challenges. This can be complicated by situations where clients don’t get better.
- Vicarious Trauma – Repeated exposure to trauma when working with clients can trigger painful memories of their own past for human services professionals.
Tips for Preventing Burnout
Human services professionals can use multiple strategies to reduce job-related stress and fend off burnout.
- Create a morning ritual – Meditate or stretch before getting ready for work to help with inspiration and relaxation.
- Develop healthy habits – Eat well, exercise and get enough sleep to combat the effects of stress.
- Spotlight satisfaction points – Inventory the aspects of work that are personally gratifying to focus on the positive rather than the negative.
- Seek out support – Take advantage of mentoring and learning opportunities to decrease isolation. Professional development courses can provide effective strategies for helping clients, which can lower stress.
- Take time for humor – Strive to create an enjoyable environment. Studies show links between fun workplaces and higher levels of work quality, productivity and job satisfaction.
The gravity of the work done by human services professionals can gradually take a toll on the body and mind. Strategies that reduce stress, re-frame negative thinking and arm professionals with more practical knowledge can help prevent burnout while keeping the desire to make a difference strong.