This article is a little different from my others.
It’s primarily addressed to those who work in the area of Human Services. You might be a social worker, psychologist, registered nurse, occupational therapist or youth worker; it may be particularly helpful if you come from a mental health or child protection domain, as these environments tend to involve both high-risk situations and high rates of worker stress.
As an experienced supervisor I continue to offer supervision to counsellors, social workers, and others in the human services professions. In doing so, there are two key challenges that keep emerging that I’d like to discuss below.
One is organisational in nature, whilst the other is personal, and both lend themselves to worker burnout.
Challenge 1: Bureaucratic Burnout
It has been my experience as a clinical supervisor, that many of the concerns raised in supervision are of an organisational nature.
Clinical and therapeutic issues are indeed raised. However, experience has shown that supervisees almost always bring organisational stressors to the supervision session; some of which can be more personally traumatic that the clinical issues. Hence, I make a distinction between clinical burnout and bureaucratic burnout (both of course often being intertwined). Let me explain what I mean.
Similar to a warring couple or family, an organisation can split off its stress by triangulation; in this case, via its bureaucracy. The higher the levels of anxiety and stress in the workplace, the more bureaucratic it may become to contain this anxiety. Paradoxically, the more entrenched this behaviour becomes, the therapeutic capacity of the organisation actually decreases. A common example is an increase in paperwork to ensure processes are followed to ward off any negative events such as self-harm, suicide attempts or complaints by the clients.
This bureaucratic focus is frustrating to front-line staff who often find themselves discussing policy and procedure more than actual client contact time.
The organisation then becomes rather autistic over time. That is, it develops a poor theory of mind and capacity for self-reflection, and a deepening rigidity that focuses on KPIs at the expense of the staff.
Should the workers not be adequately supported and buffered from the stress of organisational life, their emotional capacity to help their clients will be limited and will often fall back on ‘surviving the job’ to pay the bills.
Challenge 2: The Worker’s own Unresolved Issues
This second challenge I believe, is also related to burnout and stress for human service workers: If our own psychological foundation has cracks (as we all have!) then we need to be aware of them.
Farragher and Bloom (2011) have written extensively about organisational life in the helping professions, and point out that many staff to varying degrees, may have their own personal history of trauma or loss. I agree with their observation that it would be naive to think that such a personal history could not interfere with one’s work (particularly in settings with hurting young people or residential care):
This does not suggest that these social service workers are ill equipped to do their jobs, but it might suggest that they could be prone to having reactions to stress not unlike the clients that they serve. Add to this the reality that the work in residential care and virtually all social service settings is routinely stressful, and it is not always clear who is triggering whom when we unpack incidents. Making the assumption that the clients are the most volatile ingredient in these situations is often wishful thinking. (Bloom and Farragher, 2011, p.66).
I agree with their observation; sometimes as professionals our own ‘unresolved stuff’ intrudes into our workplace. At the end of the day, we are imperfect beings.
In Vîrga et al’s study (2018) there was a demonstrated link between pre-existing attachment-related anxiety, and reduced work performance which could lead to burnout. This study (n = 379) replicated previous research that suggests staff with anxious attachment, experience ‘a loss of energy, cognitive liveliness and physical strength in stressful situations’ (p.13).
If this is the attachment foundation for those dealing with complex clients, not only do staff in such organisations need to be ‘trauma-informed’, they must also be ‘attachment-informed’ – about their own attachment style!
When we add in the disturbing figures of sexual assault in Australia, (1 in 5 women – that’s 1.7 million; and 1 in 20 men – or 428,000; who have been sexually assaulted and/or threatened since age 15*), we start to get a picture of the emotional wounding some of our colleagues have experienced.
We are all wounded to varying degrees; we just need to be aware of how this may impact our work.
I’d like to finish this article by a final point. As professionals, we like to think that we can neatly separate our work from our personal lives – and so we should.
But sometimes it’s not that easy. Is this a supervision issue or is it a therapy issue? When the stressors of the workplace dovetail into our own developmental and personal challenges, things can get uncomfortable. That’s not wrong, it’s human. If you would like to discuss ways to navigate this complex journey, I’d love to hear from you.
Author: Dr David Ward, BSocWk, BA., Grad Dip (Couple Thpy), M.Couns., MPhil., PhD.
Dr David Ward is a psychotherapist with over 25 years’ experience, providing therapy to adults, adolescents, children, couples, and families. His areas of professional interest include the use of EMDR therapy to help with recovery from domestic violence, child abuse, PTSD, depression and anxiety; family therapy; and working with victims of spiritual and ritual abuse.
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- Bloom, S.L, & Farragher, B. (2011). Destroying Sanctuary: The Crisis in Human Service Delivery Systems. New York: Oxford University.
- Vîrga, D., Schaufeli, W.B., Taris, T.W., van Beek, I., Sulea, C. (2018). Attachment Styles and Employee Performance: The Mediating Role of Burnout. The Journal of Psychology, (4)1-19.
- *Family, domestic and sexual violence in Australia, 2018, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.