Working through burnout

We often see two roads for staff experiencing professional ‘burnout’ in the helping sector. One common, but dangerous, path is for staff members to continue to work despite experiencing the current effects of professional and emotional burnout; the other is to ‘work through the burnout’ – as in, working it out. Moving through it, and past it. Organisations committed to excellence must examine these circumstances and work to create cultures which recognise the signs of burnout, and support staff to recover.


‘Burnt out’ is a term applied to staff who are grossly misunderstood. Presenting as disengaged, angry and frustrated, their performance has often dropped off, and sometimes their decision making is questionable. They are seen as poor performers, who bring down the team. Working with staff experiencing burnout is challenging to say the least – at a time when clients require a professional with emotional intelligence and attunement, they are instead met with someone who is dismissive, unresponsive or at worst damaging. Team mates who observe poor practice often feel distressed by it and powerless to make it stop. Left unchecked, it can lead to a breakdown in trust within the team and poor perception of management.

“Vicarious trauma, or secondary trauma, refers to the emotional stress experienced by staff who are working with traumatised people or traumatic situations. Often referred to as compassion fatigue, it is common to staff working in the child protection or social welfare space.”

When we look at the exposure of front line staff to repeated vicarious trauma experiences in the workplace, we can begin to shift our view of those affected by ‘burnout’ from blame to compassion. How often have we heard the phrases “She’s done” or “His time is up, he needs to get out”? We may have even used these phrases ourselves. Conversely, how often do we demonstrate compassion towards our colleagues in those circumstances? How often do we hear or voice respect for the many times our colleagues have faced up to difficulties, for the times they have pushed aside their physiological responses of fight or flight when working with an aggressive client? Do we honestly situate our judgment of decreased productivity in the context of our colleagues’ history and personal experience? We may have witnessed staff members receive abusive phone calls whilst working to a deadline, visit children living in unfathomable situations, watch perpetrators walk free, be asked to close down cases they remain worried about. We may know all this about them, yet not extend our sympathy, our friendship, our compassion when we see them go down.

sean-brown-2380.jpgMoving to a place of understanding, not blame, shifts the focus from looking at ‘burnout’ as a performance issue to a wellbeing issue. Most contemporary front line and non-profit organisations have well documented human resource policies around the provision of welfare support to staff. What is often missing is an empathic workplace culture, where the signs of ‘burnout’ are recognised, and the wellbeing of staff members is supported from the ground up. Empathic workplace cultures recognise that shutting down, disengaging and protecting oneself from ongoing exposure to triggering situations is a normal human response. They believe in each person’s inherent resilience and see the organisation as responsible for helping people recover after times of work-related stress.

Empathic workplace cultures recognise that shutting down, disengaging and protecting oneself from ongoing exposure to triggering situations is a normal human response.

Seeing vicarious trauma responses as a wellbeing issue means that the focus becomes on giving the staff member permission to heal. Time out from the role is not always the only solution, and on its own is usually insufficient. However, when we examine how our brains process information in the context of trauma, we must turn our attention to creating space for people to process their negative experiences and make sense of these. The exploration of personal meaning of the trauma is critical to recovery, as well documented by Van der Kolk et al (1996). He attributes the restorative process of unpacking and exploring experiences as essential to making sense of trauma and moving past it.

Empathic organisations recognise the importance of giving traumatised workers time and space to properly attend to this process. Not only does it assist in staff retention, but also improves the culture of an organisation – a culture where staff understand that their wellbeing is their organisation’s priority and that they will be properly supported in the difficult work that they do.


van der Kolk, B. A., McFarlane, A. C., & Weisaeth, L. (1996). Traumatic Stress: the effects of overwhelming experience on mind, body and society. The Guildford Press: New York

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