By Alexander Waitt, co-project director, Central East ATTC
As we recognize Recovery Month, let’s take a moment to talk about burnout in the helping profession, and what we can do to help Behavioral Health Professionals “recover” from the pandemic and its fallout.
People are leaving the helping profession left and right, and there isn’t a consensus as to why. Nor, more importantly, what is needed to close the floodgates. Is it higher pay? Better work conditions? More training?
While COVID-19 was responsible for added burnout and compassion fatigue leading to individuals leaving the helping profession (Elsevier, 2022). The healthcare sector has been at a breaking point for many years. COVID-19 was the straw that broke the camel’s back, leaving community leaders, stakeholders, and organizational administrators wondering how we get back to a place of retaining and developing a solid workforce.
My response to the question, “What can be done to keep professionals in the field?” involves the follow-up question, “What is your organization currently doing to help your workforce establish a healthy relationship with their work?”
In my years of working in the healthcare sector, as a counselor, consultant, and administrator, what I believe to be true is that people long for their work to be meaningful and for their work contribution to be noticed and acknowledged. The tangible things like a competitive wage, a supportive and safe work environment, and the tools to be successful at one’s job are of utmost importance. And, if the environment around them doesn’t allow professionals to connect and continuously reconnect with the why that brought them to the field, people will become burnt out, exhausted, and leave that much faster.
I don’t offer a simple answer because the problem is multi-faceted. It requires a solution as dynamic as the problem itself.
I would never advocate for anyone to stay in a profession that isn’t healthy for them. But perhaps what is needed for a struggling behavioral health professional is a different type of support, not an exit.
For the last 10 years of my career, I’ve had my professional ups and downs. What’s helped me get through my hard times is developing a healthier relationship with self-care. Self-care is a topic that is talked about a lot, identified as needing to be taken seriously, and that many professionals struggle to engage. I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out what taking care of myself truly means and it’s something that is always evolving.
Taking care of myself in my twenties is different than taking care of myself now.
If you’re in the healthcare profession, examine these resources that have the potential to build a healthier relationship with your self-care practices.
While better pay and safer work conditions are not just band-aids and will serve to keep some frontline workers in the field, it leaves me wondering: what else is contributing to the mass exodus of individuals leaving the helping profession?
I wish I had the opportunity to ask anyone leaving the helping profession, “What drove you to decide to have a career in this field, to begin with?” I feel confident that most responses to the above question do not include financial compensation and safe work conditions. Why? Because what drives most people to the helping profession is personal. It’s as simple for most as a desire to help. Many in the field are driven by their own experiences of being helped.
Professional wages and safe working conditions are not things that drive people to this vocation. They are the things that ensure a quality of life that allows a helper the opportunity to continue to give to others without having to worry about themselves.
If you could go back and do the last 10 years of your professional career again, would you?
At times, I think it is natural in one’s career to explore where you are. To reflect on both the work you’ve done and how you feel about the work you’ve done.
I had a wonderful mentor in my career express to me that people who find personal meaning in their professional work tend to do it better, get more fulfillment out of it, and experience joy when working. Can you imagine that; on a daily basis, experiencing joy while working!? Those of us who can say yes to that question consider ourselves fortunate.
We owe it to ourselves to engage in self-reflection and exploration, even more so if we’re struggling. For those considering leaving the helping profession but haven’t yet, please reconsider. Take some time away to think through your change.
I would encourage you to reflect on and reconnect with the personal experiences you had during your formative years that contributed to your decision to take this career path. Spend time reflecting on or connecting with the mentors who inspired you to keep going early on in your career. Remember those you’ve helped and think of those you’ll help in the future.
While we advocate for the value of our profession to be reflected in certain tangible things, we must also never lose touch with what brought us and has kept us here. It will serve the well-being of all of us and our professions to remember what brought us here, to reconnect with your passion.
Editor's note: SAMHSA just released a new product, "Addressing Burnout in the Behavioral Health Workforce through Organizational Strategies."
Elsevier, March 15, 2022. Doctors and nurses worldwide point to a roadmap to future-proof healthcare, [Press release] https://www.elsevier.com/about/press-releases/corporate/doctors-and-nurses-worldwide-point-to-roadmap-to-future-proof-healthcare