Are You Burned Out?

Written by Cris Loesser, Supervisor, Mecklenburg County CDSA

Do you feel like there’s never enough time to do everything you have to?  Are you overwhelmed?  Exhausted?  Stressed out?  If so, you’re not the only one!  Researchers claim that more people in America feel this way than ever before. In fact, one poll says that 59% of those surveyed claimed they were just too busy – others put that figure at 67%!

Several years ago, I was a graduate student in Education working a full-time job in Early Intervention with two kids in college and a husband who was also working 50 or 60 hours a week. Needless to say, I was feeling a little overwhelmed, exhausted, and stressed-out myself.  AND I needed a thesis topic!  Not surprisingly, I found the idea of Burnout in Early Intervention intriguing. I wasn’t the only exhausted person; my co-workers were telling me how “burned-out” they were too. So, I was pretty sure of what my research question would uncover: a high prevalence of burned-out early interventionists working here at the Mecklenburg County Children’s Developmental Services Agency.

The concept of job burnout in the social sciences has been around for a very long time and studied in many fields, including nursing, medicine, law enforcement, teaching, and social work; however, very little had been done in the area of Early Intervention.  Previous studies found significant levels of stress in similar “helping professions,” such as nurses who treat children with chronic conditions and social workers in the child protection field. Because early interventionists work with families of children who have diagnosed developmental disabilities, delays, or are at risk for developmental delays, I thought it was reasonable to assume that burnout was at play in my field as well and set out to prove it.

Avoiding burn out and encouraging its opposite – work engagement – is important in any field. However, it is particularly important when employees work directly with clients, as we do in early intervention, because families receiving important services will be impacted.  Burned-out, emotionally exhausted, cynical employees can impact families’ lives negatively – the exact opposite of what we, as service coordinators, therapists, and others strive to do when working with families and children. On the other hand, highly engaged, personally fulfilled employees positively impact families’ lives.

So… how likely is it that we’re actually suffering from burn out when we’re feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, and stressed-out?  Back in 2009, I set out to discover the answer to that question using employees at my own place of employment as my research subjects.  I was looking at three main research questions, but since my thesis was 7,671 words, and the recommended number of words for this blog article is 750, I’ll provide a very abridged version of my findings. You may see yourself in the results – I did.

Contrary to what I thought I’d find, only one person out of the 65 staff surveyed was classified as burned-out (and that individual left the job a few months after the survey).  A significant number of employees demonstrated an “unconventional pattern” consisting of scores high in both emotional exhaustion and personal accomplishment. This is a pattern occasionally seen in the literature among employees in high stress jobs who are also very dedicated to the work they do (Does this sound like you?).  Researchers felt the ability to juggle the inconsistent pattern of high emotional exhaustion and high personal accomplishment was due, at least in part, to an individual’s ability to find meaning and compensation in helping people.  And this is perhaps the key to staying focused and engaged on the job.  Early Interventionists understand that their job is fast-paced and often stressful, but it ebbs and flows and offers something that a lot of other jobs don’t – an opportunity to feel useful and find meaning in what they do.

Given that work in Early Intervention can be challenging as well as fulfilling, how can we control stress to prevent actual burnout, which is rather rare and more about a lack of (fulfillment, motivation, meaning…) rather than too much.  Experts offer a variety of tips including:

  • Eat healthy, get enough sleep and plenty of exercise.  Research shows that stressed-out people rarely get enough sleep or exercise and tend to eat on the run (be careful that exercise does not become another “have to”).
  • Start your day off with meditation or some other grounding or relaxing activity rather than grabbing a cup of coffee on the way out the door to help steel yourself for the morning traffic.
  • Set realistic goals and don’t over schedule yourself.  Seriously, learn to say “No, thank-you.”
  • Stop multitasking! Multi-tasking is the devil!  According to Clifford Nass, who was a Stanford professor and renowned multitasking researcher, people who multi-task show “an enormous range of deficits.” He said that, “today’s nonstop multitasking actually wastes more time than it saves… and there’s evidence that it may be killing our concentration and creativity too.”
  • Start “chunking” your time. In her book, Overwhelmed, author Brigid Shulte says that chunking time minimizes constant multitasking or role switching.  She suggests creating periods of time where you can work without interruptions – maybe just 90 minutes – time to be focused and less-distracted.
  • Make time for your priorities – what’s really most important?
  • Have a creative outlet, a way to unwind.
  • Take your vacation time! Research indicates that people in stressful jobs actually need time away to be most effective.
  • Use your support systems. Let your partner take the kids to the doctor even if he/she doesn’t remember all the details later.
  • Time is power. Value yours!

There’s a saying I heard once that I recall whenever I’m tempted to blame my “busyness” on someone or something else: There is no such thing as a stressful job, only people working stressfully at it.

2 Responses to Are You Burned Out?

  1. Dana Childress June 23, 2014 at 3:06 pm #

    Great article, Cris! It’s fascinating to think about burnout as rare when it’s a phrase we use so easily. Your strategies are simple and powerful and include things we think we don’t have time to do, like stopping multi-tasking – that’s one I’ve been hearing more and more about regarding the negative effects on the brain. I really like the quote you ended with too. A neuroscientist I heard speak once said something very similar to me – that situations are only stressful if you perceive them that way. It’s all about how we manage things – and we do have a lot to manage in EI but most of it is such great stuff!

  2. Cris Loesser June 25, 2014 at 11:27 am #

    Thanks Dana,

    We do toss the idea of “burn out” around lightly when it’s really much more serious. I think multi-tasking contributes to the feeling that we’re burned out too – it just makes you feel scattered. I have tried “chunking time” as Brigid Schulte suggested, and it’s great for concentrating – it increases productivity and you just feel better (when you can do it :).

Leave a Reply