Through November – December in late 2021, I met with seventeen helping professionals from the following areas: nursing, teaching, music therapy, pharmacy, counselling, child and family therapy, social work and service management to discuss how they seek help or look after themselves when they are struggling. This infographic summarises key findings.
The Helping Professionals Interview Series (Part 1): What stops helping professionals seeking support?
With the omicron wave pummelling all of our services here in Australia at the moment, it is clear that those in the helping professions are bearing the brunt of this surge.
Through November – December in 2021 I met with seventeen health and education professionals from the following areas: nursing, teaching, music therapy, pharmacy, counselling, child and family therapy, social work and service management to discuss how they seek help or look after themselves when they are struggling.
This was an informal process borne of an interest in hearing directly from these workers how they managed self care, and to discuss what they find gets in the way of them caring for themselves when they most need it.
Please see below for a summary of the key blockages to seeking support as identified by these helping professionals.
When things get stressful I drop everything that feels unnecessary.... which is all my self-care ... all the stuff I need.... We tell other people about self-care. We teach them and get them working on good strategies and then end up being really rubbish at showing up for ourselves. So it feels a bit like ‘how can I do this job if I’m not able to do this myself?’.
1. Lack of time
By far, the biggest barrier to workers either engaging in self care practices, or reaching out for support, was a lack of time.
Working in education and healthcare involves direct service delivery to people, as well as managing the subsequent processes, protocols and paperwork. Whilst work in these sectors has always involved significant time commitments, COVID-19 demands have significantly increased workloads and tasks due to:
- Staff shortages due to resignations, retirement, and staff being unwell or furloughed
- Skills gaps as newer workers come onboard and require support and training from more experienced staff
- Shift work and long hours can make finding the time to attend the gym, meet with friends etc difficult
- Additional tasks in relation to the pandemic such as extra cleaning, donning and doffing PPE, and extra administration in general, are an added time burden
Further, across the board interview participants disclosed the significant imposition that their work made on their own ‘personal time’ due to:
- Being asked to do extra shifts
- Arriving at work early and leaving late to complete tasks, prepare for the day or attend meetings
- Early morning and late night phone calls to coordinate relief and find replacement staff
2. Difficulty in reaching out for help
Perhaps unsurprisingly, interviewees identified that they struggled to care for themselves. The reasons for this are outlined below:
- Workplace culture of ‘pushing on’, ‘soldiering on’, ‘being strong’
- Receiving messages that you always put others first, both via childhood messages and during professional training
- Fear of losing face or being seen as weak, or not coping
- Lack of awareness of, or difficulties in acknowledging they were struggling
- Being unfamiliar with seeking help (where to find help, what help is available)
- Working in a competitive environment where being seen to ask for help may jeopardise your career
- Fear of repercussions such as mandatory reporting requirements for medical practitioners, or 'what might be coming our way if we do ask'
- A fear of 'opening the dam gates' and what might follow
- Not wanting to take time off for fear of letting the team down
Time is the problem. There is too much to do as a teacher. We don't have the time for the mental health stuff. We know how to do wellbeing but we just don’t have time.
It’s just a matter of putting other people first. I should be looking after myself because I’m looking after so many other people. I know it. But when it comes down to it, in the day to day reality, I haven’t been that great at implementing that.
3. Lack of leadership and management support
It is no secret that systems have been overwhelmed for some time, and that this has been exacerbated by the ongoing demands of COVID-19.
- Systemic & policy issues resulting in increased pressure on staff to work longer or extra hours
- Lack of comprehensive supports (several interviewees spoke about ‘lip service’ to ‘tick-a-box’ wellness programs or very limited support)
- Inadequate leadership skills. For example an inability to listen to workers’ expressed needs, or insufficient skills to know how to support workers following violent incidents.
- Lack of practical support, such as being refused time off for mental health appointments, a reduction in workload or a reduction in work hours despite leadership being aware of workers’ struggles.
In defence of management, there is no doubt that managers are having to lead and support staff within overburdened systems. And that they too are feeling significant levels of distress.
4. General overwhelm and exhaustion
The physical and emotional labour of caring for others is exhausting at the best of times. As demonstrated above, the pandemic has made this so much worse. Interviewees spoke of significant fatigue, feeling ‘beyond exhausted’ and ‘weighed down by the burden of helping’.
Further, interview participants shared that intrusive thoughts about work significantly impacted their personal lives. This often makes it difficult for workers to sleep, to enjoy their time with family and friends, and to feel like they get a break.
Many workers are going above and beyond the call of their work due to staff shortages, the nature of their work and the need to serve people in need right in front of them.
Yet, at the same time, it is feeling harder and harder for them to support themselves.
In addition to the points outlined above, it is extremely difficult to know where to start, or to make and act upon a plan of support when you are so overtired you cannot think straight.
Some of those interviewed here have now made the decision to leave the profession about which they were previously so passionate.
In the words of one participant, "I quit because of all the mental health barriers. I couldn't get any help, even when I asked for it, so I needed to get out....... As time goes on, who’s going to do this?"
There's not enough support from the top down. We won't be going there [to senior management] for support... we know we have to self manage and rely on each other.
It's hard to get away. I just want to be away from the hospital in my brain.
I'd like to thank all of the wonderful human beings who so generously gave their time to talk with me at the end of a very difficult year.
Please note: all quotes were used with permission.
I will be sharing more information from these interviews, including some of the positives(!).
If you have found the content of this blog to be distressing, or to have touched into something for you, please feel free to be in touch here.
Alternatively, the following services can be contacted for immediate support:
- Lifeline 13 1114
- Hand n Hand Peer Support (for healthcare workers)
- Beyond Blue 1300 224 636
- Emergency Services 000
In this third piece of the five-part 'Helping Professionals Interview Series' , we explore the misnomer of ‘self care’ and its suggestion that individuals only hold responsibility for our wellbeing. In fact, the challenges are caused by modern Western society, its systems with ever-shifting policies and protocols, large workloads and insufficient support within our working environments. If you're exhausted and overwhelmed, it's not you: it's a set up.
From the first three parts of 'The Helping Professionals Interview Series' we've heard that teachers and health professionals struggle to reach out for support and care for themselves. Why is this? In this penultimate blog in the series, we hear through the voices of participants that the answer is tied up in societal messages that begin in childhood, and continue on through professional training and within workplace cultures.
The first four blogs in this five-part series have illuminated the significant challenges faced by workers in helping roles in Australia, and the need for change if we are going to sustain a stable and healthy workforce in healthcare and education. The statistics are dire, but there is a way forward. This blog explores how we can nurture hope in healthcare and education through presence and connection.
Post-traumatic growth is a familiar concept to many. But what about other positive impacts that workers can experience? Vicarious resilience and compassion satisfaction help us to understand the ways that workers in helping or caring roles can be positively impacted, or even transformed, by witnessing the strength and resilience of others. Holding an awareness of both ends of the spectrum - the joy and the pain in the work - may hold the key for a healthy, successful and durable career.
Within the helping professions we often focus on the more challenging end of the joy - pain spectrum in this work: exhaustion, compassion fatigue, secondary stress and vicarious trauma. This blog series seeks to rectify that, with Part 1 focusing on vicarious resilience, Part 2 unpacking compassion satisfaction, Part 3 looks at suggested changes in terminology and Part 4 addressing the importance of, and risks associated with, connecting with others when in a helping role. Cultivating awareness of both ends of the joy - pain spectrum in the helping professions is essential in supporting worker wellbeing.