You’ve probably heard of burnout – if you haven’t suffered from it yourself, you’ll no doubt know someone who has. It’s especially common among those in caring roles. Figures in the UK suggest almost 25% of healthcare workers will experience burnout. Not to mention the hundreds of other helping professionals like coaches, teachers, and carers. So why is burnout more common in the helping professions, and what we can do to prevent and heal it?
Understanding the background of burnout as a concept gives us some powerful clues as to what it is and how we can tackle it. Burnout was first described in the 1970s by a researcher called Herbert Freudenberger, who worked at a clinic for drug addicts. He observed volunteers and staff at the clinic experiencing the symptoms we now commonly recognise as burnout:
● Cynicism/demotivation relating to work
● Signs of depression or anxiety
● Reduced performance
What’s interesting is that this phenomenon was first described among people whose work was all about helping others. Although we now talk about burnout occurring in all sorts of careers, right from the start it seems to have been a particular issue for people in these types of roles. Why might that be?
Contributing factors to burnout
When our work is helping, we’re often motivated by a deep desire to care for those in need; a sense of altruism is what drives us. It’s a wonderful thing, but that idealism can also be a challenge. After all, it can be hard to “switch off” at the end of the day, or keep a sense of perspective, when your identity and core values are so bound up in your day to day activities. Boundaries between work, home and self care quickly unravel in these circumstances, and that can lead to overwhelm and burnout.
2. The nature of the work
Working with people is unpredictable. It can be frustrating, and sometimes chaotic. What’s more, in roles which involve caring for people, mistakes can have serious consequences. Although some caring roles are given low status by society, they carry huge responsibility for the health and wellbeing of vulnerable people, placing additional stress on those who work in them.
Healthcare workers especially are often under pressure to meet targets and be mindful of cost implications as well as the responsibility for the interests of the patient. Stress and anxiety flourish in these contexts, and can lead to a sense of lack of control or apathy – key features of burnout.
Even if you’re in a helping profession like coaching where you get to set your own hours, it doesn’t mean your clients are any more predictable. Our phones go at every hour of the day, and our urge to be of service makes it hard to carve out uninterrupted time or to “switch off” our care and concern.
3. Greater sensitivity
Whether you work in the helping professions or not, you might be able to recognise some of these factors in your own experience. If you’re someone who tends to put other peoples’ needs ahead of your own; if you’re highly tuned in and sensitive to the emotions and environment around you, you might identify – like me– as a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) as defined in Elaine Aron’s (highly recommended!) book.
HSP’s aren’t necessarily introverts or people who are emotionally fragile, but we do find ourselves reacting differently to environments with a lot of sensory input, especially when there’s a lot going on combined with pressure to conform to deadlines and targets. Being sensitive to other’s needs can make us highly effective and skilled helping professionals, but it also increases the likelihood of us becoming overwhelmed by the context we’re working in.
So how can we prevent it?
At One of many, we use a tool called the Women’s PowerTypes™ to explore the different “roles” we play in our lives. These have been developed specifically for women, and reflect underlying traits which allow us to understand the different ways we can approach the challenges in our lives: they’re the Warrioress, Queen, Sorceress, Mother and Lover.
It’s those last two which are the lens through which we can look at the issue of burnout and gain a greater understanding of what it is and how we can prevent it.
Why is burnout more common in the helping professions? The PowerTypes answer
When we look at these five PowerTypes, two are especially relevant here. The first is the Mother.
The Mother PowerType is above all nurturing, caring and driven by a desire to take care of others. These are all values which are really important for women working in helping professions. The best teachers, coaches, nurses and doctors are those who really care about the people they look after.
However, as with all the PowerTypes, there are elements of the Mother that can be unhealthy if this PowerType becomes too dominant, and isn’t balanced out by the other elements of female power.
The Mother’s shadow side is the Martyr. Aggrieved, angry and hurt, the Martyr feels put upon and resentful. It’s a deeply negative state to be in, and left unchecked can easily spiral into what we’d recognise as burnout: exhausted, demotivated and depressed.
The clue to avoiding this lies in the second relevant PowerType when talking about burnout:
The Lover is the PowerType associated with love, desire and sexuality. This relates not only to our partners, but also to ourselves. The Lover is the PowerType who most powerfully embodies the practice of self care.
Sensual, relaxed and deeply motivated by the desire to honour herself and create sublime experiences, she is the PowerType who tells us to rest, to play and to take care of ourselves so that we can take better care of others.
For Highly Sensitive People, having pleasurable sensory experiences is vital to allow us to calm, ground and “reset” ourselves.
The Soft Powertypes and burnout
Understanding the PowerTypes can help us to make sense of the statistics from a very practical standpoint. We can see how likely it is that women who are drawn to the helping professions might have overdeveloped Mother profiles, and might need support in expressing their Lover side.
The Lover can be nurtured through activities like:
● Making a list of things you’d love to do and working through it (putting your needs first, for once)
● Taking yourself on trips alone to explore new things
● Giving yourself experiences to delight the senses: a soft scarf, a delicious perfume, your favourite food
Using the PowerTypes gives us clues to our innate tendencies, enabling us to act before we reach crisis point. If we know we tend to be over-expressed in our Mother, we can remember to give more focus to the Lover before we reach the stage of burnout, allowing us to thrive in a more healthy balance.
How about you? Have you experienced burnout in you or someone close to you, and can you see the factors that caused it? We love to know your experiences and advice – leave a comment below, let us know.
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