So, at a recent presentation I gave, someone asked me, “What would you have done differently to avoid burnout in public mental health?” That question stopped me in my tracks. I have had ideas and philosophical ponderings about what others can do to avoid the burnout they experience. But what led me to Sacrificial Helping and burnout within my own helping career?
The biggest things I can point to: my excessive worry about other’s problems, my taking on others’ emotions, and uncountable extra hours at the job, while I sacrificed for my clients and my staff.
So, here are the three things I could have told myself, to avoid that massive amount of burnout:
- Not my crisis. So often, I was facing crises at the last moment from clients who were hesitant to bring things to my attention until they couldn’t wait any more. At first, I rewarded this behavior by jumping into action. I would drop everything and run. I would find housing or food or medicine for someone whose other options had run out. Over time, I realized that these crises were not mine. There were notifications and other resources that my clients had access to. I should have said: “I can talk with you about this tomorrow. Let’s set up an appointment.” Or: “Do you have the number of the person you need to call?” If I could have set these limits, I would have preserved my energy and focus on the work I was doing in the moment. If I could have set these limits, I would have been able to serve more clients while experiencing less stress and burnout.
- Not my emotions. When you work with clients as a mental health provider (or manage mental health providers as a supervisor or manager), you come face to face with a lot of powerful emotions. I mean a lot. What I’ve found out since leaving public mental health is that one of the ways that we understand and process emotions is through mirror neurons. We duplicate what we see from others in our own bodies to try to understand it. The problem: when we physically display sadness or anxiety, our body and brain start to think that we are sad or anxious and then augment that emotion. We physically take on the emotions of others when we’re just trying to be empathic. That is (literally) emotionally exhausting. Fortunately, we can neutralize our bodies (keep ourselves from frowning or tensing, taking deep breaths), to avoid this. Had I been more emotionally and physically self-aware, I might not have constantly felt emotionally depleted. I mean I was constantly fantasizing about taking time off (even when I had just returned from vacation). That’s not a sign of health.
- Not my responsibility. Since the great recession, nonprofits have had very small margins. As a result, everyone has to run at full tilt to accomplish more with way less money. This shows up in unfunded mandates for government funded contracts, higher productivity standards for service providers in county-contracted agencies, and leaner staff at all agencies who depend on government contracts or charitable contributions. In reality, this looks like people wearing more hats than ever and having “to do” lists that are impossible to complete in any sort of reasonable amount of time. There was never an end to my to do list, but I kept working as though an extra hour after I was exhausted would make a difference. I would stare blankly into my computer screen (or actually the window behind it) and not accomplish much, but think that the financial crisis was somehow my problem to manage, even if in this small way. If I had realized that this was “not my responsibility,” I could have gone home and rested. I could have returned in the morning rejuvenated and ready to go. I could have lasted much longer if I would have only kept to a reasonable, livable schedule.
But I didn’t do these things. I didn’t tell myself these things. At least not until it was too late. I was wrung out after 15 years in public mental health. I had given my time to the nonprofits I supported and was left feeling exhausted and miserable.
I’m so glad that I have been able to move in a direction that feeds my passion to help and keeps me healthy. But so many are toiling in these systems without knowing what to do to keep themselves from being the next victim to Sacrificial Helping. It feels like our nonprofit system preys on these altruistic people, knowing that there will be more to fill in after they’ve used these folks up. I want to stop this system, but it takes each person taking a deep breath and saying: “Let’s schedule a meeting for later this week.” Or “I have to go home, but let’s address this first thing tomorrow.” It takes all of us caring for ourselves so we don’t find ourselves caught in someone else’s crisis.
It takes facing Sacrificial Helping head on.
It’s hard. But we can do this. One breath at a time.