Peter Powis provides a point-by-point checklist of symptoms, causes and cures of the phenomenon of burnout
When I started working at the Children's Home, I immediately noticed that the staff seemed to be obeying an unwritten rule. This 'rule' seemed to say that the proper execution of a child care worker's job required a lot of self-sacrifice. Any houseparent who dared to try to arrange her life so that she could fulfil her own needs as well as those of the children, was regarded as not doing a good job. Adherence to this 'rule' was part of a process whereby many careworkers were becoming increasingly isolated from the outside community. Not surprisingly, burnout was a consequence.
What follows are some checklists of the symptoms of burnout, conditions and attitudes which create burnout, and preventive measures. It should be mentioned that resistance should be expected by anyone aiming to introduce measures to alleviate burnout. This resistance is itself a symptom of a burned-out system, and should be handled sensitively. By fighting it head on, the intervener only creates more resistance (unless he or she has the support of the whole organisation hierarchy). Burnout tends to strike enthusiastic motivated children's home personnel more than those who are relatively apathetic.
Symptoms of burnout
A cynical, negative attitude towards the children, the organisation and one's work. This is accompanied by a rigid resistance to new ideas.
A condescending, critical attitude towards colleagues and others.
A tendency to withdraw from children, colleagues and perhaps family and friends. Sometimes this withdrawal takes the form of collusion with one or more similarly burned-out colleagues.
Possible problems in home and family life - caused by withdrawal and/or over-involvement in work, and/or irritability.
A susceptibility to illness, injury and accident-proneness.
Either a denial of one's own vulnerability - a feeling that one can achieve anything without suffering personally; or a pervasive sense of doubting one's ability to handle situations.
An over-emphasis on authoritarian control and punishment, particularly where one's own hostile feelings are not expressed openly.
Unrealistic expectations accompanied by a negative view of the results of one's efforts.
General fatigue and a feeling of incompetence.
Conditions and attitudes creating burnout
A self-image where one always must see oneself as competent/never failing.
A strong need always to be needed and liked by others (children, colleagues, superiors) and a very strong need always to please these people.
The associated feeling that anyone who disagrees is bad/against one.
The view that there is always only one right answer or way of doing things (your own way); the view that there is a solution to all problems.
The view that all one's own problems are due to the system/organisation.
Over-identifying with the child, often against the organisation, which often leads to over-protectiveness .
The fact that one rarely sees short term, tangible positive results of one's effort.
A clash of ideology and needs between the organisation's policy makers and those doing the work.
Unrealistic expectations of positive results.
The fact that one's work (successes, failures and mistakes) are visible for all to see.
A lack of privacy/private space.
The stress of feeling that one always has to be a perfect role model for colleagues/children /subordinates.
The physical and emotional stress of working with difficult children.
The fact that flexibility, creativity and resourcefulness are constantly required (e.g. to handle crises).
Long hours with inadequate provision for recovery.
The absence of built-in colleague support (e.g .'Cuddle Groups').
Prevention and treatment of burnout
Adequate training and supervision which -
(a) increases understanding of children,
(b) assists in handling of children, and
(c) helps create realistic expectations.
An understanding of the burnout process so that one can recognise the signs and take responsibility for dealing with it. This responsibility also lies with the organisation.
Colleague support whereby one is free to express feelings without fearing criticism, loss of respect or a breach of confidentiality.
Making provision for rotation of responsibilities and for staff growth and development.
Staff awareness of the long and short term goals of the organisation, and their involvement in planning, administration and policy making.
Structure which allows for a balanced life for staff and children, and which ensures that the routine and administrative functions flow smoothly.
Understanding and acceptance of one's own reasons for doing the job, and of one's expectations.
An understanding and acceptance of one's own strengths and weaknesses, and those of the organisation.
An ability to set one's own limits on one's workload, and to maintain a balanced lifestyle.
Open communication between all levels of the organisation whereby different people can discuss issues without feeling threatened/under attack.
Peter Powis is a clinical psychologist who at the time of writing this was on the staff of the Louis Botha Children's Home in Pretoria. Peter was for several years a member of the Editorial Board of Child & Youth Care, and is now clinical director of the Stepping Stones Addictions Clinic in Cape Town.