Tag Archives: burnout

Inspiration for the Journey

On this last day of February, this is my last post (for now) about my plans for the Advanced Advocacy and Community Practice course.

I’m ending the semester with a sort of ‘sending off’.

One of the hardest parts of advocacy practice–in my life, and, I believe, in the lives of many social work practitioners–is sustaining oneself for the journey.

It’s not just about preventing burnout, although that is, of course, important. It’s also about finding a sort of group of colleagues–a team–even when, in many organizations and fields of practice, there are relatively few social workers and/or relatively few practitioners engaged in advocacy practice in a concerted way.

It’s about finding sources of inspiration to give perspective during difficult fights. It requires the ability to center oneself on an animating vision–the world as it should be–without giving up in despair when we fall so short of that ideal. It requires taking care of oneself without retreating to the exclusively private sphere.

It is, of course, a very tall order for a 2.75-hour class period.

I’m going to show some film clips and share some poetry and have them do some journaling. We’re going to utilize some online forums to connect ourselves. I will, as I do every year, offer myself as a mentor and cheerleader.

There may be tears.

And, I’m hoping to crowd-source it a bit.

What sustains you?

What examples are inspiring to you? What do you do to take care of yourself? How do you stay connected with peers? How do you keep going during difficult times?

What advice would you offer to my students, as they begin their own advocacy careers?

What lights would you offer for their journey?

The Most Dangerous Burnout?

Several conversations lately have me worried about burnout.

Not the individual “I’ve had it with social work and think I’ll open a bakery instead” kind of burnout (I have this thought occasionally, but I really, really don’t like waking up early. And I don’t think my customers would necessarily appreciate running political commentary. So I stay.), but the whole movement “maybe this whole social justice thing is too hard and times are tough so maybe we just can’t do this” kind of burnout.

And, truthfully, this kind scares me a lot more.

In a comment to a blog post awhile back, a colleague talked about how hard it has been to stay engaged in the political debate, since many progressives felt like it was “our” moment in 2008, and there’s a sense of whiplash in the intervening 3 years.

In some of my consulting work with nonprofit advocates, I had a very experienced lobbyist with a well-respected organization tell me that her greatest concern, looking forward, is how many of those alongside whom she has advocated are already giving up, saying that the more conservative legislature and Governor we have in Kansas today is simply more than they can stand.

And, perhaps most chilling are the conversations I’ve had with a few elected officials in our state recently, none of whom have answered my, “so, can we count on you to run again in 2012?” question with anything close to an adamant affirmation.

And I don’t blame them. Any of them.

It’s tough to spend every day advocating on what seem like lost causes, and so many of our dearest struggles seem that way these days: budgets that protect the most vulnerable, progressive civil rights legislation, adequate supports for families, equal rights for women, strong environmental standards, a solid regulatory framework for health care reform…fill in your own “lost cause”.

I wish we were winning more, too.

But the reason that I’m so concerned about these signs of movement burnout is that we will surely lose, and likely lose more ground than we even fear (and, perhaps, more than we’ve even won!), if we step away. If we wait for a better day, or someone else to take up the charge, it will likely never come.

But, lest this post turn into some inspirational poster with an odd animal photograph (is my kid’s classroom the only one to feature those?), here’s a quote from one of my all-time favorite social work advocates. Ever.

“We are all being told that we have to be pragmatic and recognize that this is not a “good” year for social issues, especially if they cost money. That implies that there may yet be a good year for social issues, if only we have patience. But no Congress has ever come to Washington vowing to make things right for the poor, the vulnerable, for workers, or for the environment. In that sense, this year is different only in degree.”

The advocate? Nancy Amidei, the woman behind the “ketchup is not a vegetable” campaign.

The year?


It’s always an uphill climb, no matter who sits in the White House or even how many votes we control in Congress. Trying to vanquish injustice is like that.

And, while I don’t have the answers to how we guard against this burnout and how we collectively care for each other so that we can continue on, I’d argue that the stakes have never been higher than in the next 13 months, at least.

Our causes are no less noble for being long shots. Our clients’ and communities’ needs are no less urgent. And our roles are no less critical. And, together, we can not just hang on, but even carve out some victories.

And maybe even turn some tides.

Have you SEEN a chicken with its head cut off?

I am NOT going to show you a chicken with its head cut off!

I once worked at a nonprofit organization where, EVERY TIME someone asked, “how’s it going?” the answer, seemingly by rote, was something along the lines of “unbelievably busy,” or “drowning, as always,” or, my personal least favorite, “running around like a chicken with my head cut off.”

As this semester winds down and I send another cohort of graduates off into the social work profession, I just want us to pause for a moment to reflect on this culture of “busy” and what it says about our organizations and, perhaps most importantly, what kind of message it sends to those we serve.

I think I know where this “busy reflex” comes from: nonprofit social service organizations are always squeezed for resources, so there’s a great deal of insecurity and everyone wants to prove that he/she is indispensable to the organization’s work. Besides, we often ARE really busy, even stress-inducingly busy, and it can be hard to break out of crisis mode when we’re often thrust there.


This orientation towards always feeling busy, or even acting busy, is pathological. Below, I’ve outlined some of my biggest concerns about this instinctive busy-ness, and then I’d love to hear your comments about organizational culture, the cult of overwork, and how to break beyond these constraints.

  • There’s a difference between seeming busy, or even actually being “busy” and being productive, of course. While social workers’ days are notoriously unpredictable, I always found that my professional life worked better if I started each day with a commitment to accomplishing at least one really important thing, something that led to a longer-term goal, and saved the “busy work” for the end of the day.
  • When everyone’s complaining about being super-busy, it’s harder for supervisors to hone in on the real problem spots. If you have a concrete complaint about excessive work, make it, in a way that’s designed to lead to corrective action. The rest of the time, come up with a different response to the “how are you?” question.
  • Organizational cultures that expect excessive work become toxic places, where people are ashamed to take vacation or leave at 5PM. While we need to be committed to meeting our clients’ needs, we know that we can’t do that in a climate that denies us the right to meet our own.
  • Our clients hear this kind of talk, too. Who wants to tell a social worker about a new problem, or ask for help with some new concern, when you’ve just heard that same worker say that she’s (actually heard this one) “going to kill herself if she gets any more cases”? It’s disrespectful to our clients to talk as though they are burdens.
  • Social workers who become trapped in a “busy reflex” often miss opportunities to pass work along to others–volunteers, clients, colleagues–because they’re afraid to give up control or afraid of looking as though they’re not doing enough. No one is empowered by you being a martyr, and no one wins bonus points for seeming the busiest.
  • If we’re accustomed to always thinking of ourselves as overwhelmingly busy, then we can miss the warning signs of burnout or overwork in our own lives, too. We need mentors who can objectively help us check our workloads, and how we’re physically and emotionally withstanding them, and who can help us find assistance when we really need it. But if we’re always crying ‘wolf’…

    I was shocked out of this “so busy” culture by a particularly astute boss who called me into his office to ask me which responsibilities I wanted taken off my plate, because I was “so busy.” When I could only, in fact, identify a couple of minor things (serving on one particular committee, I remember), he relieved me of those and then gave me the directive to come directly to him if I felt that I had too much work. I still remember that day as my “stop complaining” meeting, and I am still grateful to him for calling me on unhealthy behavior.

    Now, although I balance three young children, five part-time jobs, several volunteer commitments, and household management, I never respond the way some of my friends and colleagues do when asked how they are (“keeping my head above water, barely!”, “overwhelmed, as usual”). Instead, I reflect on what’s working, and what’s not, and what I need to attend to.

    Besides, people would much rather hear, “I’m fine. How are YOU?”

    Have you worked in a “chickens with their heads cut off” environment? How have you managed, or overcome, that culture? What keeps you productive and not overwhelmed? What advice do you have for soon-to-be-social workers, on time management?

  • Crowdsourcing: your new anti-burnout strategy?

    I don’t deny that there are strains of this all throughout American culture, but social workers and nonprofit folks seem particularly susceptible: the one-up battle of “who is the busiest?”!

    I see it in organizations where people are afraid or embarrassed to leave at 5PM, because they incur the wrath or disdain of their coworkers who take late hours like a badge of honor.

    I see it in my students, who before their careers have even started, are convinced that they are busier than anyone can possibly understand.

    I see it in social work colleagues, who inevitably answer even “how are you?” with something along the lines of “crazy busy, of course!”

    And, of course, I see it in myself, when I complain to my husband about how I’ll be up until midnight again tonight and I can tell he has to bite his tongue not to ask, “um, why?”

    And, so, it was this malady that was on my mind when I read the part in The Networked Nonprofit (thanks, too, for putting it in italics so we overly-busy could notice!): You have too much to do because you do too much.

    I know what you’re thinking: but I HAVE to do all of this.

    But, really, even if it does, indeed, have to get done (and, probably, that’s a question for another day’s post, related to information overload and mission-centered management), do YOU have to be the one to do it?

    And, I think, given my infatuation with crowdsourcing, that the answer is most likely “no”.

    I’m not just talking about getting volunteers to do some of your behind-the-scenes work, although I think that’s worth thinking about (yes, I know that it takes longer initially, but you’re bringing people more fully into your organization and building their capacity to take on work in the future, rather than just spending your weekends folding newsletters).

    I mean crowdsourcing the “real” work, the stuff that right now you can’t imagine anyone but you doing. As in, really tapping into the power of your leaders and your networks so that you really, really don’t do as much anymore.

    I would love to hear from people who have tried turning to their crowds to lighten their own loads (or from those who have found paths to organizational simplicity and work management that weed out the nonessential tasks, too, as I think about how I want to approach that topic). What have you tried? What might you consider? What barriers can you anticipate from your boss(es) as you shift your work? What advantages can you imagine, in terms of your leadership development, as a bonus to the workload reduction? And what factors, other than sheer amount of work, contribute to your burnout, that might be more implacable?

    Obviously, every too-busy social worker will have to decide what makes sense in her/his own context, but here are some ideas that I’ve tried, albeit without thinking of them as “crowdsourcing”. I’ve tried to estimate the number of hours of work saved per tactic, too!

  • Report preparation/editing: I don’t mean just proofreading here, although I almost always do that with a crowd, too. When I wrote El Centro’s big research analysis of our surveys into the lives of Latino immigrants, I would often convene a group of immigrants, service providers, and community leaders, prior to report preparation, to share some of the raw findings and get their take on what was most important, what warranted further study, and how to explain seemingly perplexing results. Hours saved: ~10/year
  • Identifying representatives for coalition meetings: People like to be asked to represent your organization/cause at important meetings and, if you explain how the transfer of power and the preparation of the individual is working, your partners can be comfortable with it, too. Hours saved: At least 10/month
  • Constituent “maintenance”: To keep your network engaged, you need to communicate with them often. But it doesn’t have to be you. In today’s digital age, this might mean finding folks who can take on blogging or Twitter updates, but I used extensive phone trees to activate participants for events, keep people informed about legislative updates, and “listen” to rumors and concerns in the community. Hours saved: More than 40/month

    These are all things that I could have done, in fact, used to do, but things that I recognized I didn’t need to do anymore. They are things that others could, in fact, do just as well, leaving me to do, well, other things that others could have done, too, if only I’d figured out a better way to crowdsource those, too!

  • 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)?

  • When do boundaries become excuses?

    This is one of those posts with no real “lesson” to communicate.

    Because it relates to a challenge with which I continue to struggle, pretty much daily.

    Sorry for the disappointment.

    I read Autobiography of an Execution in one stretch, until about 2AM, awhile ago.

    I’m lucky that my husband can sleep with a light on.

    And while the whole book was pretty gripping, there’s one phrase in particular that I haven’t been able to get out of my head.

    The author calls, “there was nothing I could do” the most immoral phrase in history. He makes the further point that, in the realm of capital punishment, “you don’t want your life depending on someone with dinner plans.”

    And that got me.

    Because, while maybe few of us as social workers are frantically filing paperwork to literally keep our clients alive, well, sometimes our work does involve life and death. Or, at least, something just as important, in the lives of the people we serve.

    And, so, does that mean that we’re acting in a morally indefensible way when we put limits on our commitments to our clients, draw boundaries around our work lives, and say, sometimes, that there’s “nothing more we can do”?

    Our Code of Ethics would say no.

    But what do our consciences say?

    What does yours?

    What does mine?

    I once kept my (now) husband waiting to propose for more than an hour because I was on a crisis phone call. And I interrupted my wedding dress fitting and our engagement dinner to take calls from clients. (You’re sensing a pattern here, no doubt; at least he knew what he was getting into!)

    I have an admittedly hard time carving out “me” time.

    And, yet, while I can recognize the unhealthiness, at times, of such focus on our work, I can also think of more than a couple examples, as you likely can too, of social workers (and others) who have used the defense of “professional boundaries” to avoid having to do what they really should have, in order to make a difference.

    And that’s what I think the author was getting at–I mean, even he took time to play catch with his son and have dinner with his wife: how can we protect ourselves against the reality that “there’s always something that needs done?” without abdicating what is our actual (professional) AND moral responsibility?

    When are our boundaries just that–boundaries there to protect ourselves, and our clients, from the destruction that an enmeshed and overworked social worker can wreak–and when are they excuses we hide behind when the messiness of our work intrudes on the rest of our lives?