Burnout: A collective responsibility

Burnout. It happens even to the kindest, warmest hearted people. In fact they are possibly the most vulnerable to it. Those in the caring professions: nurses, doctors, teachers, social workers. Those with caring responsibilities at home. What do I mean by burnout? When your energy is sapped and stretched to the limit. When demands exceed your capacity. When you have no time for you, to replenish yourself. When you put others before yourself so often you are in danger of making yourself ill. When you feel that you have no choice but to carry on, everyone else’s needs are so important. You might not see the early warning signs. You build a hard but brittle shell around your psyche. You begin to get impatient, irritable. You begin to not care. The shell starts to crack. When you’re surprised to find you hate your job that you once put your heart and soul into, when it feels like everyone wants a piece of you, when you begin to turn upon the very people you wanted to help, then it has gone too far.

We are so fortunate in the UK to have free healthcare, social services and free education for our children. Ok well not technically free, although free at the point of access; we pay for it through taxation and we have the right to expect a decent standard of care and respect. On the other hand, when not required to hand over cash on delivery, does this lead to a sense of entitlement? Does it lead to an undervaluing of the effort of professionals? We know those professionals are paid, in some cases handsomely, while others graft for little pay but with great devotion. Family members care for each other with no expectation of pay or reward. In a materialist culture, when money exchange does not take place, do we value the effort of those who serve us? In traditional societies healers may give care without demanding payment, but gratitude is always given. Some form of exchange takes place. Both parties benefit from this.

Should we assume that because someone is paid by the state, we do not owe them anything? A simple “thank you so much for your time” costs us nothing but gives much in return. A value that makes the job worthwhile. A few words that show we do not take them for granted. A direct and personal exchange of energy, that in fact is nourishing to both. Gratitude is awesomely transformative to the giver and receiver.

This applies not only in the caring professions but in all walks of life, across all generations.

Gratitude makes the world a softer, kinder place. It softens that brittle shell of defense. There is always something to be grateful for. Even when your care has not been all that you had hoped for, there is something, some spark of effort, of love, of time that someone has put in for you. Behind that air of professionalism is a vulnerable, fallible human just like you.

What of those who are burning out? This works for them too. To remember gratitude. To look for things to be grateful for every day. To be thankful for patients, students or customers whose need gives us our job, who teach us as much as we teach them, who challenge us to be better people, whose own courage and strength is humbling. For supportive colleagues and family. Gratitude even to our own bodies and minds for the work we have done, and also even for the urgent messages of breakdown that tell us when we have had enough. Gratitude alone is not always enough. Carers need care also, and rest. Rest without guilt or pressure. Even healers get sick. The helper needs to know when to ask for help. In this modern world we have high expectations of ourselves and each other. The pressure is on, even for those who are ill.

“No time to be ill, take a pill.”

How about a big dose of compassion.

© Janey Colbourne 2016

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