Of Burnout and Band-Aids

photo credit, Per Ola Wiberg, via Flickr

It’s been awhile since I wrote about burnout, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking about it.

I think about burnout whenever I see exhaustion, instead of mere fatigue, on the faces of my students, most of whom haven’t even started their careers yet.

I think about burnout whenever I reflect on my own work life, and how I’m able to work very long hours, many times, without undue stress, because I get to control the parameters, and choose the issues, and decide the tactics. It’s a daily reminder that burnout isn’t related to actual work effort.

And yet burnout continues to plague our profession and, especially disturbing to me, to stand as a barrier between social workers and the social activism on which their voices are so needed. We know that, if every social worker lifted his/her voice about the injustices we see every day, things would start to change. And we know that burnout is a part of the reason why we so often don’t.

So I read with great interest the sections in Soul of a Citizen related to burnout, and I’ve been talking, even more than usual, with my students and colleagues about what burnout looks like in their own lives, more urgently, how we combat it.

Here are some of my thoughts, collected from these sources and percolating in my brain for the past couple of weeks (or maybe even months!). What I’d love is to hear from you all about burnout–how do you recognize it, how do you resist it, how do we restructure our professions so that we reduce it?

It’s essential that we dedicate some of our collective wisdom and energy to this struggle, not just because we care about the well-being of individual social workers and the future of our profession, and not just because we know that clients suffer when their workers are burned out.

We must address burnout because it hinders our activism, as individuals and as a united force for social justice.

And none of us can afford that silence.

My most recent thoughts on burnout:

  • Part of the answer may be in finding the nexus between self-interest and selfless social action. I don’t have any empirical evidence of this, but it seems that social workers whose professional interests dovetail somewhat with their own personal passions can withstand the pressures a bit more than those whose lives pull them in two divergent directions, no matter how great their commitment to “the cause”.
  • We’ve got to find a balance between a humility that gives us permission to fail and a smallness of thought that can become futility. The reality is that it may always feel more than a little absurd to think that we might be able to change history, and this perspective can relieve us of the fear of failure that paralyzes action. Whether it’s in direct service or in social change work (which, of course, are not mutually-exclusive categories!), we must celebrate our victories, even though they’re always partial (and later than we’d like!).
  • The aspects of our work that most prompt burnout (the unsolvable problems, the work speedups, the too-large caseloads) can only be changed by social reforms–but, when we spend so much of our lives on our jobs, this paradoxically reduces the time and energy we have to engage in activism which could make those jobs easier and more rewarding, as well as enrich our own souls. This means that paying attention to the power we hold in our own places of work, and actively working to increase the control we hold over the arrangements of that work, isn’t just about our own welfare, or even our ability to serve our clients, but also about how well we can take our place in the struggle for justice.
  • We have to overcome burnout, at least partially, to get to activism, and yet it’s also the experience of joining with other social workers that will help us to combat burnout. Committed activists repeatedly say that they stay not because of the issues but because activism feeds their souls, and all of us can point to some hard-working social workers we know whose souls could use some feeding.
  • Yes, we have to put on band-aids, when people are bleeding around us, but we get tired of trying to staunch the flow, when the cutting hasn’t stopped. As one of the activists in Soul of a Citizen emphasized, “charity must not be allowed to go bail for justice” (p. 207). If we’re to stop the cycle of endless triage, not to mention build the kind of society in which we all long to live, we have to break out of our rather private laments and find a way to compelling collective action.

    Please, share your stories. What burns you out? How can social action combat this? And how do we grieve, together, the many hurts in this world, so that, again together, we can really begin to heal (p. 243)?

  • 2 responses to “Of Burnout and Band-Aids

    1. Funny that you’ve chosen this time to write about burnout. Because during the last few months, I have been struggling greatly with this issue. Mostly my burnout has occured in realm of education (budget cuts, school closings, curriculum changes). After working for 10 plus years and seeing little changes, it does get discouraging. Especially now with the current KS administration and economy.

      Sometimes the outlook is so bleak that we become paralized and feel nothing that we will make a difference. So I look for small victories and actions. Maybe just one way to improve my small world in my neighborhood like organizing a park clean up or a dinner for our overworked teachers and staff.

      Also I find it so important to surround myself with others who are like minded and sometimes just have fun. For instance, last month an organization that I am involved with hosted a night of music from a local band and good food and a board of sticky notes where we could express our fustrations as well as our hopes. It helped us greatly. We’re hoping to do it again this summer.
      Thanks for bringing this important subject. I agree if all social workers raised their voices, changes will occur. Perhaps we need to find ways to connect with each other.

      • That evening of music and venting sounds great, Lesa! Especially when you’re connecting it, in people’s minds, with a rejuvenation, so we don’t think of it as just a release, but more like a recharge. And looking for measurable goals is absolutely key–if we build celebration into every part of our work, we’ll find that we do have things to celebrate, even when the overall context is overwhelming. Hang in there!

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