I have started this post about burnout about five different times. I'm having a hard time figuring out where to begin, partly because I've been considering burnout since before I even became a social worker. In fact, I sort of decided to become a social worker because I read an article about burnout when I was fifteen years old. Seriously.
The internet was such a new thing when I was in high school that an offered elective was something called "Electronic Fiction." For real. The basic point of the class was to look things up online and write about them. (This seems hilarious now but it was the late 90s!) One of our assignments was to pick a future career (a daunting task for a 15 year old, by the way) and do some research about it. I took this task way too seriously. In fact, I distinctly remember a classmate telling me it was just an assignment; I didn't have to make a lifetime decision in that moment. But apparently that was lost on me; I had to decide right that second what I wanted to be when I grew up. I put a lot of consideration into what kind of work would appeal to me. As I mentioned last week, doctoring was not for me; too much science. Professional acting seemed good but, you know, really hard. My teacher asked me what I thought I liked doing and I said, earnestly and honestly, "I like to help people." She told me to look up social worker.
It is very telling that the first article I came across after I searched (I swear this class was even pre-Google, I think I used Lycos) was an article about burnout. I was immediately drawn to this concept. It hadn't occurred to me that doing something good could make you feel bad. I was enthralled by this article. I printed it out and highlighted it. It stayed in my mind for years. And so, I started my social work career thinking I had all the tools to combat burnout. I read an article when I was 15! I'm ready!
There are many ways to combat burnout. Blind optimism is not enough, it turns out.
Part of the reason burnout creeps in, despite the walls we build as professionals to keep it out, is that it's systemic. As social workers, we work within systems that are lacking: lacking in funding, in staff, in resources. We spend a lot of time, no matter if we work in a big health system or for a small non-profit, struggling against a system that mostly says no. That is exhausting.
Add on to that the stresses of bearing the weight of other people's struggles. It is virtually impossible to spend all of your working day listening to people explore loss and pain and sadness without starting to feel like you have heard enough. I can always tell that I'm getting crispy around the edges when other people's emotional pain starts to seem... irritating. Like, I get it, you're sad. I am always startled when I have that thought but when I do, it's an eye opener: I am tired. I need a break.
Breaks are good! They are a vital part of preventing burnout and recovering from the stress of this very difficult work. But if you don't have any precious vacation time right this second, there are other options. You can Google (we've come a long way from Lycos, guys) tons of lists and articles about how to avoid burnout. What follows are some of my favorite tips.
One is to have a real life. I've been asked many times over the years how I do this job and one answer is that I have created a beautiful life outside of work for myself. I learned how to cook (do not listen to my old roommates about my culinary abilities, please. I've gotten much better!); I have lovely friends who live all over the place and are happy to have weekend visitors; I like to read and still go to the library to borrow books. There are lots of ways I spend my time that have nothing to do with social work.
Burnout needs to be combatted at work as well. To that end, another invaluable way of keeping yourself sane is having a work best friend. It is imperative that you have someone at work you can call or someone whose office door you can close and say, "holy shit, this day." Having a partner you can share your frustrations and successes with is key. When I worked in hospice, I did a lot of joint visits with nurses and developed some great friendships. They helped me feel less isolated when I was driving all over creation. I also appointed myself as the social chair of the social workers and demanded monthly happy hours. Amazingly, this worked, and a good sized group of us got together monthly over drinks. We even managed to talk about stuff besides work a lot of the time! Thus I managed to combine having a life with having work friends.
Finally, another very important tool to combat burnout (and also the whole point of this blog): supervision. Sometimes we don't have the answers, especially when it comes to ourselves. We can't see what's holding us back with a particular client or why we're so frustrated with our work. It takes the objectivity of a supervisor combined with a good working relationship to help us clarify not just cases but our own feelings and struggles at work. Something I've always valued in supervision is having someone say to me, "Yes. These are valid feelings. You are entitled to them. Now what can we do with them?"
There are so many articles like this blog post, that give you advice on how to avoid, recognize, and address the symptoms of burnout. I added to them because I believe it's important to keep talking about it. But the fact of the matter is, you have to find the tools that work for you. And you have to do that work so that you can survive doing this work. Take care; it's the best thing you can do for yourself and for your clients.