Stress and Burnout: A Hidden Occupational Hazard

by Kristen Paquette
January 31, 2011

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We all throw around terms like “stress” and “burnout” as though they should be regular parts of everyday life. We might say, “Oh man, am I stressed out!” Or, “Did you see Tom during today’s staff meeting? He totally snapped! He is really burnt out.”

Sure, we all have stress at work. In fact, some stress is healthy for us. But we need to be careful not to ignore the dangers of stress and burnout. Recently, I had the opportunity to research these issues. What I found honestly surprised me.

Chronic stress and burnout can lead to devastating health and mental health conditions. These can include heart disease, musculoskeletal disorders, depression, anxiety, and emotional exhaustion.

In the homelessness field, service providers face a unique risk factor for burnout known as vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue. This occurs as a result of regular exposure to clients who are dealing with trauma. Among people who are homeless, their life stories often consist of violence, loss, despair, and family separations. As the caregivers, providers absorb these trauma stories. As a result, providers may begin to exhibit signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. Or they may feel powerless, angry, and have a sense that their expectations for helping others have gone away. Vicarious trauma is a serious concern that can impact how providers view themselves, others, and the world around them. It can also severely impact providers’ quality of life.

What is most striking about this information is that issues such as burnout and vicarious trauma are preventable. With proper training and supports, individuals can minimize the dangers associated with these occupational hazards.

One way to do this is to adopt self-care practices. Both individuals and organizations play a role in self-care. In fact, it is essential that self-care is supported by both the individual and the organization.

Individuals can create self-care plans to help create a healthy work-life balance. Activities might include deep breathing or meditation, exercise, proper nutrition, spiritual activities, social activities, or even just making the time to take a lunch break. Organizations can create healthier cultures by talking about the importance of self-care, allowing time for staff to take breaks and seek out peer support, encouraging staff to take vacation time, and providing physical and mental health benefits.

For some HRC community members, this is not news. Perhaps for anyone who works, the dangers of job stress and burnout are not news. However, what may be news to you is just how dangerous stress and burnout can be when left unaddressed. For homeless service providers, the challenges are even greater as we walk alongside people who are struggling with trauma.

Even if you start small, start today. Strike up a conversation about self-care in your office. Take a walk at lunchtime. Breathe.

Please don’t forget to take care of yourself as you take care of others. Visit the HRC’s Self Care Topic Page to learn more about how to practice individual and organizational self care.

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Category: HRC Insight