Emotionally exhausted, detached, going through the motions, insensitive, irritable – not exactly what we thought we would be feeling when we first imagined a life in human services!

What seemed like a great idea – going into human services because we wanted to make the world a better place – has left us feeling tired, disappointed, frustrated, and depressed.

Does this sound familiar? It is our old enemy, BURNOUT!

Burnout has been identified as one key factor driving the “major problem” of retaining competent staff in human services, a problem for program managers and policy makers alike.

On the system level, burnout is considered to be costly and economically wasteful, because of the expense of recruiting and training staff. We see the high cost of recruiting and training when people become SSI/SSDI Outreach, Access, and Recovery (SOAR) case workers.  Because SOAR case workers undergo a specialized training process that includes a significant investment of both time and money, when they exit a program for any number of reasons the cost of this exit is extremely high.

This blog will review the root causes of burnout and, more importantly, about the ways front line workers and their supervisors can implement proactive strategies for avoiding the number one reason people decide to leave the human service field.

Burnout Symptoms Experienced by Human Services Workers

Below is a list of symptoms most commonly experienced by individuals who are experiencing workplace burnout:

  • Every day seems to be a ”bad” day
  • Reduced empathy towards those you serve
  • General apathy towards work or home life
  • You are exhausted all the time
  • The majority of your day is spent on tasks you find either mind-numbingly boring or, in contrast, overwhelming
  • You feel like nothing you do makes a difference

Causes of Burnout in Human Services Workers

There are a number of different reasons why people may start to experience burnout. Some of the common causes are listed below:

  • Vicarious traumatization – Because most of the individuals we encounter in our work have experienced trauma of some kind, many times we start to experience vicarious traumatization. Vicarious traumatization is a process of change that comes from the empathy we have towards the ones we serve. The symptoms are similar to burnout and can serve as the basis for why we suffer from burnout.
  • Pay – Feelings of being unappreciated combined with the stress of struggling to support basic needs (e.g., housing, food, and shelter).
  • Workload – Because the demand for most services is so high and capacity is so low, staff struggle to perform services on larger than ideal caseloads.
  • Hours – Working longer hours to be able to complete tasks for a larger number of clients (because of large caseloads).
  • Reduction in Wellness Activities – Because of long work hours and a reduction in energy, the failure to engage in activities that would benefit our physical or mental wellness (e.g. fishing, exercising, hiking, spiritual practices, intimacy, proper nutrition).

Personal Ways to Combat Burnout

Fortunately, there are proven ways to prevent the perils of burnout. If you make a conscious effort to recognize its warning signs, you may be able to avoid burnout completely, or at least stop its effects. Below is a list of things that front line workers can do to fight burnout. Additionally, these activities can be supported and encouraged by supervisors.

  • Create a Satisfaction Inventory – Go through and make an inventory of all of your work duties and environment that is presently satisfying. Maybe it is meeting with clients and helping them ”tell their story” by writing a Medical Summary Report. Maybe it’s the great lunches your office provides once a month. Consider factors such as scheduling, flexibility, wages, and benefits. The list should include the things you enjoy. The process of writing this list will help you think deeply about the things that are working right in your current position helping people.
  • Start the Day with a Relaxing Ritual – Instead of jumping out of bed as soon as you wake up, spend time meditating, writing in your journal, or reading something that inspires you.  A simple thing to do is to start each day with 10 diaphragmatic breaths – also known as deep breathing or belly breathing; and differs from shallow the breaths that expand the chest.
  • Adopt Healthy Eating, Exercising, and Sleeping Habits – When you eat right, engage in regular physical activity, and get plenty of rest, you have the energy and resilience to better deal with life’s hassles and demands. It helps you feel better! Make sure to take the time for these three essential items; and consume fruits and vegetables each day, strive for 150 minutes of aerobic activity each week, and aim for 8 hours of sleep each night.
  • Set Boundaries – Don’t overextend yourself. Learn how to say “no” to requests on your time. Self-care isn’t the same as being selfish.
  • Take Daily Breaks from Technology – Set a time to stay off of social media networks, and shut off your laptop, phone, and other electronic devices. Instead, pick up a book, take a walk, try deep breathing or meeting with friends.
  • Nourish Your Creative Side – Try something new like a fun project, or resume a favorite hobby. There are no rules about what to choose as long as it has nothing to do with your work!
  • Humor – Laughter really is the “best medicine” – actually triggering the release of endorphins!  Numerous studies have documented laughter’s ability to lower blood pressure, reduce stress, and boost immune system. Take time each day to read jokes, watch funny YouTube videos or try switching up your usual diet of horror flicks for comedies!

Ways Supervisors Can Help!

  • Developing a Supportive Environment – We all know it is not easy to support a “positive” working environment. Office politics, difficult personalities, and scarce resources can greatly affect staff morale.  It is important for supervisors to have a great deal of communication with staff, so that they can be knowledgeable about what is working and what is not so plans can be made to improve morale.  Because money is usually a barrier, remember that you can implement things that are not going to affect your program budget. For example, schedule flexibility, vacation time, and other perks like the ability to work at home for at least part of the time are all things that you can do to make the work environment more “worker friendly”. Think outside the box: Bring your pet to work day? Pizza Fridays? Office field trips?
  • Mentoring – One way to decrease isolation and to enhance overall supportiveness is to engage in mentoring. SOAR can be stressful for workers, especially newer ones. It makes sense to have more seasoned SOAR workers be paired with newer ones. This not only helps the newer employee but it also helps the one providing support feel more valued! With that said, remember that seasoned professionals will sometimes benefit from being mentored.
  • Recognition – Another means of making your environment more positive and supportive is to recognize the achievements of colleagues. How do you celebrate SOAR approvals? Do you have monthly or yearly awards ceremonies for staff?
  • Plan for Professional Growth – One of the reasons that people feel burned out is that they may feel “stuck” because of the lack of growth opportunity in your agency. Create opportunities for staff to be able to strive towards career goals. Remember, if people have nowhere to “reach” at your agency, they may decide to move elsewhere.


Preventing Burnout – Signs, Symptoms, Causes, and Coping Strategies

Burnout in Mental Health Services: A Review of the Problem and Its Remediation