We can hardly explore the joy-pain spectrum in helping roles without looking at the pointy end. While previous blogs in this 5-part series explored the positive, protective factors, this post examines the risks in empathic connection when working with those who are suffering. Here, we will consider the symptoms, contributing factors and the differences between empathic strain (compassion fatigue), burnout, secondary traumatic stress and vicarious trauma.
What causes burnout?
Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.
With ever-increasing levels of burnout amongst helping professionals and amongst those in caring roles in their personal lives, gaining clarity around the causes of burnout is essential.
What causes burnout?
There are a number of environmental and individual factors that contribute to burnout.
However, the World Health Organisation has identified that burnout is an "occupational phenomenon", rather than a medical condition.
This is an important distinction, as it acknowledges toxic work environments and systems as being at the heart of burnout.
Let's have a look at the research to understand this more.
In 1999, Christina Maslach et al found six areas of worklife that contributed to burnout:
Whether it's formal work (where you are paid for your work in a professional capacity, informal work (where you care for family or friends in your personal life), or a combination of both, the sheer volume of work that you do is a massive contributing factor to burnout.
It makes perfect sense that if you work long hours, and have more work than you can successfully complete, you will become exhausted, anxious, irritable, struggle to cope and generally experience other core symptoms of burnout.
Whether its a lack of autonomy, inadequate access to resources, an inability to make decisions in relation to your role, or a limited capacity to influence your environment, none of us like to feel like our lives are out of our control.
Aspects which are likely to excerbate a lack of control are environments that have high levels of uncertainty, including:
- unpredictability (in the environment, team, client group)
- ongoing organisational change
- ambiguity regarding the worker's role
- insecure roles (lack of clarity around employment; short-term contracts; changing contracts)
No surprises that working hard without sufficient reward can increase risk of burnout.
This can include:
- working in a system that essentially 'sets you up' to fail (ie unrealistic deadlines; impossible targets; inadequate supports)
- a lack of acknowledgement
- inequity in the administration of rewards and punishments
- injustice in the workplace
- feelings of deprivation - a sense of feeling that you are missing out compared to other colleagues in your own workplace or compared to the workplace down the road
If you've been in this Tempo community for any amount of time, you will know how highly we value community and collective care!
In my experience, team dynamics can make or break any job.
Supportive, fun and collegial teammates can make work:
- somewhere you want be
- a place that you feel safe to share your wins, your challenges and your vulnerablilites
- a healthy learning environment
- which usually leads to better outcomes for everyone.
Conversely, a toxic workplace culture feels unsafe at best and can be dangerous at worst; and can lead to the opposite of all the above. When working with people who need support, the last thing workers need is to feel that they are operating in survival mode.
Good support from supervisors, managers, coworkers and family members act as buffers in helping roles, and mitigate the potential risks in these roles.
There are a number of similarities between a sense of inequity and the third potential cause of burnout listed above: reward and punishment. Feeling that we are not being treated fairly, that we are receiving fewer opportunities than our colleagues, or that we are working more than others, can erode workplace relationships, create resentment and build distrust.
6. Incongruence in values
If you are working within an orgnisation whose values, goals and / or motivations are at odds with your own , this can significantly increase your chance of becoming burnt out. Incongruence in the environment can be interpreted by our brain as a threat. This can be particularly difficult when an organisation goes through a change process that creates a shift in values
Burnout is over-represented in dutiful, reliable, caring people … such as ... health professionals and teachers. That is part of its tragedy... that burnout is over-represented in good people.
7. Individual factors
As identified by Parker et al in 'Burnout: a guide to identifying burnout and pathways to recovery', there are also a range of predisposing factors that have been identified as increasing a person's risk of burnout.
- younger workers
- gender - women are burning out at higher rates than men
- people who are single
- higher levels of education
- feeling that things are out of one's control and / or ability
- perfectionistic tendencies
- 'sensitive types' who are more prone to being worried, anxious or emotional
- 'Type A' personalities - those who are achievement-focused, competitive and driven to succeed
- lower levels of emotional intelligence - challenges in understanding one's own emotional states and being able to read those of others
These are some of the potential contributing factors to causing burnout.
So, where does leave us and what can be done about it?
Here at Tempo, the 10 week burnout recovery program, 'Replenish' has been especially designed to support all kinds of helpers to make a sustainable recovery through a nourishing, connected and embodied approach, grounded in trauma-informed practice.
The next program commences on Thursday 27 April. If you would like to chat to see how this program can support you, please send your query through to Minky here, or book your initial 30 minute appointment here.
When we are burnt out it is hard to take the steps we need to begin to recover. In this blog you will find short summaries and links to podcasts on burnout. There is a range of information here from different professions, including doctors, naturopaths, psychologists and therapists. Understand the stress response cycle, hear personal stories from those who have experienced burnout in relation to work and home, hear why listening to your body is important and even what we can learn from dancing to our own rhythm!