Human service professionals face a wide variety of complex and often distressing problems as a regular part of their job. Because of the excessive amount of stressors related to work in this field, the profession often takes its toll on ill-prepared workers in the form of burnout. For the purposes of this document, a definition of burnout put forth by Dr. Christina Maslach and Dr. Michael Leiter will be utilized. In their book The Truth About Burnout, Dr. Maslach and Dr. Leiter define burnout as,” the index of the dislocation between what people are and what they have to do.
It represents an erosion in values, dignity, spirit, and will — an erosion of the human soul” (Maslach & Leiter, 1997). Multiple factors contribute to a person arriving at a place of professional burnout. Many of these factors are beyond the control of the individual. Some of these are management styles, financial compensation, society’s view of workers in the human services field, and employer expectations. However, the worker can influence and even control many burnout factors. Those factors, and how the individual human services worker can manage them successfully to prevent burnout, will be the topic of this paper.
Human services workers, more than the members of most job groups, entirely involve the emotional, intellectual, and physical aspects of themselves in their work. Due to the variety of skills and knowledge required of them, workers know there is always more to be learned, practiced, and applied to provide the best possible outcomes for the client. The fact that human beings are the central common ingredient in this work guarantees the need for emotional intelligence in social interaction, with customers, personnel from other agencies, and coworkers.
Human services workers must have well developed sensitivity to both verbal and nonverbal communication, and they need to possess nurturing skills. Another required form of emotional intelligence is the ability to accept one’s limitations, and the setting and maintaining of healthy boundaries in all areas of life. Intellectual skills are required for documentation, time management, treatment planning, and successful attainment of required academic degrees. Staying aware of new approaches to treatment through
ongoing formal classroom education, membership in professional organizations, and reading academic journals are also intellectual requirements for the successful worker. The physical demands of the work may go underappreciated, as they are subtle in their nature. Long hours of sitting, working at a computer terminal, the need for accurate listening at all times, and interruptions in biological patterns of sleep and rest due to professional responsibilities arising at the least convenient times, all take their toll.
Because emotional, mental, and physical stressors affect the entire person as a regular part of their professional life, it is vital that a worker seeking to prevent burnout be prepared with skills to address each of these stress factors. ” It is important to note, though, that no matter how one breaks down the dimensions of self-care, in the end, all of these different aspects are interconnected. Failure to take care of oneself in one realm can lead to consequences in another” ( Wilkerson, Ray, Guilbride, H & Clingerman, 1995).
Professional self-care is the term currently in use to express the skills and activities that are burn out preventers. The focus of self-care is on management of those factors within the control of the human service worker. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) makes clear in their policy statement that self-care as realized by education, self-awareness, and commitment is key to a social workers ability to preform his/her job duties in a professional and ethical manner. NASW goes on to express the need for numerous policies to support self-care.
Those that can be realized through one or more employee’s efforts include: •administrative personnel’s role modeling of self care • an atmosphere of support for involvement in decision making and open discussion of differences in organizational values and conflict • group support, supportive supervision • a supportive work environment •development of individual self care plans by all employees (NASW, 2008) The development of an individual self-care plan is of primary importance to the discussion of how the individual human service worker can prevent burnout.
The other listed policies require some degree of cooperation between workers and employers and coordination of efforts on many levels. They merit no further exploration in this exploration of how the individual can prevent burnout through his own actions. A self-care plan is something any worker can create and follow with the help of some guidance from experts and workers that have already been successful in the use of this vital set of self-preservation tools. Emotional, intellectual, and physical well being all need to be addressed in a well designed plan for self- care .
A very worthwhile approach to assist a worker in developing a self-care plan has been provided by the Missouri Training Program for Rural Child Welfare Workers. This daylong training begins and ends with an exercise designed to assist workers in defining what is most important to them. The process requires participants to create a list of twenty completions to the statement, I am …. The participants are instructed to imagine that they have been involved in an accident and have lost some non-specified capacities. Because of the accident, they must eliminate five of their responses.
This process is repeated until only five responses remain. Next, the participants are asked to look over the remaining five responses and to verify that these responses represent the most important aspects of their identity. At day’s end, the trainer informs the participants that if the five things on their list are not a part of their self care plan there is good reason for the individual to question if they are really developing the roles and attributes that they believe will fulfill them( Scherer, Moses & Turner, 2000).
The final five descriptions of one ’s self will contain emotional, intellectual, and physical aspects. Looking at ways to maintain, and/or improve each of these, will help to assist the worker in forming his/her self-care plan. Although there is no universal standard of self-care skills, many studies have been conducted that shed some light on techniques that have proven to be effective for human services workers. A study conducted in Fremantle, Western Australia by Wyn Carr House Women’s Refuge interviewed human services workers that had at least five years of consecutive current employment in the field.
Some of the self –care methods they offered included the following: physical exercise, meditation, yoga, massage, occasional allowances for indulgences in food, alcohol, and tobacco. (Alcohol use being the most commonly mentioned. ) Other commonly mentioned strategies were; a sense of humor, a thorough knowledge of one’s personal stressors, knowing and maintaining one’s boundaries, actively detaching from work when one is not at work, and understanding one’s limitations. ( Johnston, and Newbold 1996) Many intellectual, emotional and physical coping tools are available to complete a self-care plan.
Though each tool may have one aspect of the whole person that it is primarily designed to primarily support, it is essential that one appreciate the fact that the following skills and behaviors affect positive change in the entire person. Intellectual pursuits that can enrich a worker include pursuit of knowledge directly related to their work that will lead to better pay, greater personal fulfillment, and/ or a promotion. Others may want to explore an area of study entirely different from their career studies.
Intellectual pursuits may have more to do with contributing than learning, as many workers find it rewarding to become involved in volunteering. Some workers benefit from a transfer to a different set of responsibilities within there agency. Emotional self-care strategies include the pursuit of a spiritual consciousness. Some authorities group spiritual life as a separate category others place spiritual pursuits in the emotional support category. ” Herbert Freudenberger, who brought the concept of burnout to professional and public awareness in 1973, cautioned…, ‘We also need to incorporate a sense of spirituality in our work.
I do not mean institutionalized religion, rather a sense of morality, ethics, shared values and beliefs. Values should help to promote the human good, and help us face frustration, sadness, stress and ultimately death…” (Freudenberger). Regardless of how spiritual and emotional health are separated or combined, many workers find great relief from the emotional burdens associated with regularly facing human crisis in the practice of any number of spiritual disciplines.
Professional counseling is another path that offers substantial returns on the investment for many human services workers. Both face-to-face and online peer support groups are helpful as illustrated by the fact that they are growing in popular use. The role of social and professional support is an important part of self-care for many workers. A trusted confidant can be of great help in the process of letting go of the difficulties of a day’s work. Friends and family that help the worker to pursue personal fulfillment through recreation are also vital.
The lack of physical fitness is a growing problem for sedentary workers. In addition to a regular regime of exercise away from work, many people have found short exercise periods during work breaks to be helpful in both stress and weight reduction. Maintaining healthy sleep patterns, proper nutrition, and regular medical check ups all help in the battle against burnout. There are many burnout initiating factors that cannot be controlled by the individual worker.
As a result, there are cases that require a worker to leave an employer for a healthier work environment. When a worker is doing all that can be done to maintain a burn out prevention program of self-care and is still having difficulties it is important to consider that the worker can only control their part of the equation. Insufficient pay and/or benefits, abusive work environments, unrealistic employer demands, poorly defined roles, poor leadership, and high emotional demands can all lead to employee illness, absenteeism, and burnout ( Borritz, 2010).
The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania conducted an extensive study on organizational respect and its effect on burnout. The findings of this study included the following statement. ”For employees committed to the human service professions, finding an organization that is more respectful might be an avenue of hope in what otherwise could lead to a high burnout situation” (Ramarajan ; Barsade, 2006). The role of burnout in the field of human services is destructive to the individual worker. It costs employers untold millions of dollars in lost productivity.
The entire society suffers from the loss of well-educated, caring, skilled workers from a field where demand for such people is never met. Fortunately, there are specific steps that every human services worker can and should take to prevent burnout. By creating and following a self- care plan every worker is better armed to fight off the many stressors that lead to their inability to function in the human services. This self– care plan needs to address the whole person and their intellectual, emotional, and physical needs.
Although many common needs exist for all people, each plan must be individualized to best serve its creator. One helpful way to assess the viability of a self- care plan is the elimination process exercise offered by Missouri Training Program for Rural Child Welfare Workers. Workers can also benefit from knowledge of what has worked for human services workers that have been able to avoid burnout. Ultimately, the responsibility for the human services workers well being falls on the worker.
If a worker has done everything within his power, at a particular job, to prevent burnout and is still beginning to feel its debilitating effects the problem may be with the work environment. In this case, the answer may be to find another employer. The prevention of burnout is an extraordinarily important exercise that must be undertaken by all human services workers. Failure to address this greatly destructive condition though prevention efforts can lead to poor health, financial insecurity, and loss of self- esteem.
The good news is that with proper use of preventative techniques burnout can be avoided. References Borritz, M. (2010). Work characteristics affect burnout risks in human service workers. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Retrieved from http://www. newswise. com/articles/work-characteristics-affect-burnout-risk-in-human- service-workers Freudenberger , J. Professional burnout in medicine and the helping professions.. (p. 8). New York: The Hayworth Press. Retrieved from occmed. oxfordjournals. org Johnston, Loraine, and Sarah Newbold.
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