As many of us are experiencing trying times right now, I wanted to address the experience of burnout. My experience of this is pre-COVID and specific to mental health and human services. The levels of burnout described by first responders and medical personnel exceeds this and is of another level I have never experienced. I mean to shed some light on the more common experience of burnout in the workplace rather than the extraordinary levels seen right now among essential personnel.
The thing to remember about burnout is those around you will likely notice it before you do. Supervisors, particularly those in the mental health field, typically encourage their teams to talk about challenging cases and difficult feelings around them. I think what confounds many new to the industry is we don’t always know what to talk about. Supervisors can work with what we discuss with them, but what if it is unclear about what is concerning or troubling? What if we don’t know what is troubling and worthy of discussion?
Burnout rarely takes care of itself in my experience. Genuine rest and recharging is necessary and our “do everything” style of work does not always lend itself to that. I don’t think I was especially good at discussing triggering events with supervisors, I just a higher than average capacity for being around emotional trauma. This is by no means a boast on my part. I would wait until my trauma receptacle was overflowing and then some sort of explosion would occur to signal I needed a break. Don’t do what I did, there is a better way.
I remember not talking about warning signs because I didn’t know they were warning signs. Some warning signs are universal, such as repeated emotional outbursts that do not match the severity of a given situation. For example, If I had known near-constant angry thoughts were a warning sign for me, I would have talked about them much sooner. I thought that was just how I was wired and the thoughts would diminish after I left the office or over the weekend. Not so. Angry thoughts bordering on the intrusive is a gigantic red flag for me, one that I didn’t truly notice until I was many years into my career as a therapist. Feeling intense anger on a daily basis, whether it is intermittent or not, can lead to burnout. So if you happen upon me IRL and I am scowling and seem preoccupied, it is likely you have caught me doing just that.
Some of this may seem obvious, but obvious depends on how your individual operating system works. My operating system says drive on, keep going, I can’t help anyone if I go to pieces, etc. For others, it may be trouble sleeping or road raging (full disclosure: I’ve experienced plenty of both, sometimes concurrently.) For a variety of reasons, I grew up having angry thoughts and I believed we were supposed to use them as fuel. This is actually extremely unhealthy, but no one told me. How could they? I rarely spoke them out loud. This would catch up with me and I learned there was a healthier way.
I began to schedule breaks and adding an extra day to my weekends at the urging of a supervisor. The idea being I take a little extra time off at regular intervals whether I think I need it or not. This way I don’t hit critical mass, which is better for me, my family, my clients, and my coworkers. In short it’s better for everybody. The key detail with this method is don’t assume when your scheduled day off arrives that you don’t need it because you feel “ok.” You need it. Take it. Extending yourself further for “just one more week” will blow up in your face. This is especially true in mental health and human services circles. Take the break, trust me.
To heal a wound, you need to stop touching it. I’ll leave you with that bit of wisdom that found it’s way into my inbox recently. Be well, and take care of yourselves.