When our work involves helping others who face major life struggles, we’re strongly impacted by their struggles. This happens through the close, caring connections we form with those we serve. Those trusting, responsive relationship are are the key to our effectiveness. They also can expose us to a painful level of empathy with others’ distress, which will, over time, lead to the cynicism, despair or illness that are hallmarks of burnout.
We understand the compelling nature of others’ needs. We are deeply motivated to serve and to help. This passion can lead us to take on every request for our time, put in long hours and forgo time off.
As we work ever harder, the mountain of urgent priorities continues to grow. We come to feel ineffective, like we’re trying but failing to make a difference. There may struggles in our own lives to contend with as well, and these take a toll on us too. Given the nature of service-centered work, what can we do to maintain our ability to remain effective in our work and to keep finding satisfaction in it?
The solution to this doesn’t rest solely with us. Our organizations and the larger social, cultural, political and economic systems have important roles to play. When we prioritize time for taking care of ourselves, we create enough quiet in our minds to reflect on what is happening. When our organizations make self-care a valued part of the organization’s culture, both individual staff members and the entire organization are more able to function at their best and to adapt to larger societal changes.
Creating Support for Self-Care
Are you feeling too busy to take care of yourself? Does it seem that your organization has too many pressing issues to deal with to focus on to take up the challenge of creating a culture that reduces the risk of burnout? I suggest that these are the very mindsets that keep reacting to the pressure of the moment while ignoring the real costs of staff burnout – decreased resilience, resulting in lowered capacity to adapt to changes change in the funding, social and political climate; reduced productivity; difficulty reaching programmatic outcomes; disrupted internal and external professional relationships; and the cost associated with recruiting and training new staff.
You can try these ideas to tackle burnout, or use them to inspire your own. This are things you can do for yourself, and encourage team members to do. Others are specifically organizational strategies.
1. Block off at least 30 minutes between meetings, or an hour after several back-to-back meetings.
2. Schedule self-care time. Enter time for self-care in your calendar, and protect that time as you would protect the time for an important meeting.
3. Make use of the time that’s available. Janice takes 15 minutes to close her door, allowing her body to relax as she breathes slowly and deeply. Sam slows down for a minute to take three deep, slow breathes before logging in to lead his webinar. Wendy arrives at work a half hour early, so she can free-write, clearing her mind and preparing for her day.
4. Plan a long weekend at least once every quarter, and use annual leave. Schedule time off it in advance and protect that time as a commitment to self. Team members can cooperate to assure there is enough coverage on site when others are taking time off.
5. Remove some things from your to-do list. List the things you do in a typical day or week. Go through the list to see what you could eliminate, spend less time on, or ask someone else to do.
- Joanne did this and decided to hire a yard service to free her up from some of the home maintenance chores.
- Karen enlisted her family to take on some of the chores she’d been handling, explaining that she needed their support so she could spend some time on her creative projects.
- Jim delegated some of the tasks he’d held onto after his promotion to a larger leadership role. “I realized that it was actually unfair not to delegate,” he explained. “I had become a bottleneck, because I really couldn’t get everything done. My staff members weren’t getting the opportunity to grow, because I wrongly thought I was protecting by not delegating. Instead, I was keeping them from taking on a chance to grow professionally.” It took some time to re-balance everyone’s work load. He and his team ultimately saw the need to create a new position. Jim successfully presented the case for doing this to the agency’s senior management team.
6. Make self-care as a topic on your team meeting agenda. Sandra puts self-care on her team meetings’ agendas.The team talks about self-care strategies and organizational policies and practices that contribute to — or help prevent — burnout. Team members then brainstorm ideas for positive change at the individual and organizational levels.She then carries the organizational ideas to leadership team meetings. Agency leaders learn what staff see as working well, and where they perceive there to be problems. Leaders commit to practical steps for improving burnout prevention practices and policies. As an example, the leadership team decided to collaborate with staff in reviewing caseloads and general job expectations to determine if these should be adjusted.
7. Build trusting workplace relationships. Provide reflective supervision, as well as encouragement, support and mentoring for all staff. When staff members experience such relationships, they will create them with colleagues and with those that they serve. These relationships are the medium through which effective work gets done. Positive connections with others support personal and professional growth, promote resilience and help prevent burnout.
Take a Long-Term Perspective
Of course it’s possible to to power through a too-busy schedule year in and year out, doing for others while seldom tending to our own needs. You may be able to keep that up for quite a while. But we all have our limits. The need for organizations to effectively adapt to change points to the importance of cultivating resilience at the individual and organization-wide levels.
Burnout may seem inevitable, but I believe it can be prevented. When we take a long-term perspective, establishing practices that encourage regular self-care, and providing all staff with needed support, encouragement, and resources we preserve the ability to keep doing what matters most. In the process we strengthen our own and our organization’s capacity to continue building a better world.
Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors (nd). Reflective practice, supervision, and self-care. https://www.counsellingconnection.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/report-4-reflective-practice-supervision-self-care.pdf
Everly, G.S. (2011). Building a resilient organizational culture. Harvard Business Review https://hbr.org/2011/06/building-a-resilient-organizat
Watson, C. (2012). Reflective supervision helps decrease burnout for early interventionists. https://cehdvision2020.umn.edu/blog/reflective-supervision/