When I first started in Not-For-Profits and health care, I assumed that there would be a deep understanding of the need to manage staff wellbeing, of vicarious trauma and the emotional load of just showing up and being there for their clients day in and day out. Not to mention the additional needs of the many ‘wounded healers’ (not my words but such a beautiful term, I think) that are deeply attracted to the opportunity to make others’ lives better than their own. These are those employees who are there because their lived experience of trauma or disability or marginalisation (or all of those things) has left them deeply committed to others regardless of the toll on themselves. Such employees can be any member of staff in any role.
And there is a genuine desire to support staff as well as an intellectual understanding of the context of the work and its impacts. But … the practicality of supporting people while getting the job done can be more complex. Often I have incredibly caring and capable managers come to me deeply frustrated by a burnt-out staff member; they argue that the person just needs to suck it up, that they knew what they were signing up to when they took the job, and the work just needs to get done. The difficulty is that when you have to be emotionally resilient all day to work with your clients, what you need more than anything else is not to have to be constantly resilient in the other areas of your work. While access to EAP services are pretty standard and many organisations provide debriefing opportunities following critical incidents, there are several strategies employers can put in place to reduce burnout rates.
My top 5 are:
• Professional supervision with trained managers. For some of you, this will seem obvious and indeed, some professionals such as psychologists are obligated to undertake clinical supervision. But all caring professions can benefit from having the opportunity to unload, talk through concerns about how they handled a situation, to seek advice and support from managers or peers trained to hear those things. Best practice is for this not to happen with the manager who also does the staff member’s performance review. It’s hard to talk openly about how frustrated you might have felt with a client when that same person is evaluating your ability to professionally manage complex clients for example. But development areas should be fed back to managers so they can act on them, which leads me to the next point;
• Train people. Training budgets are often the first thing to be cut when money is tight, and as I have touched on previously, small budgets often result in taking whoever you can get when your hire rather than the best of the best. People who feel they have mastery of their roles have much lower stress levels (all other things being equal) than those who feel out of their depth. Greater skill means greater care; greater care reduces risk and increases job and client satisfaction (and arguably most importantly — client outcomes). Greater job satisfaction reduces turnover. Reduced turner reduces costs and expands organisational capability, which increases client outcomes, increasing funding opportunities, which … you get the gist. Investing in training pays off for everyone.
• Ensure you really understand workforce strategy and how to operationalise your services, so you’re managing workload. In my experience, this is not the natural skill set of NFPs and health care providers (obviously a generalisation) so get help if you need it. I can’t tell you how many organisations I have been into where the strategy has been to throw extra hours at things rather than look at how something could be done more efficiently and with better outcomes. The people who really know how to make something more efficient are the ones who do the work; often they’ve just stopped offering up ideas because the ideas get lost in managing the workload. By asking for their input, engaging them in actioning resulting changes and listen to their feedback, you reduce pressure on them; you give them ownership and efficacy over their work. Such accountability might intuitively feel like something that would only add to stress, but actually feeling like you have no control is a huge stressor.
• Hold people to that accountability; feelings of inequity around performance expectations, career opportunities and access to flexible work fuel feelings of resentment and impotence. The impact is perhaps much greater in purpose-driven organisations where equity and justice are critical motivators for people choosing to work in them.
• Finally, understand that people don’t switch off their humanity when they walk in the door; and that excellent client outcomes depend on people not being hardened. The last thing you want is people sucking it up; what you want is for them to work professionally with the client, acknowledge and process the hard stuff, take a breath and legitimately feel like they can give their all to the next client. And to know when they just can’t that that will be respected too. The above steps create cultures where people feel compelled to do their best, where they will feel valued and know their wellbeing is essential. It reduces your workplace stress injury risk, absenteeism and lost time injuries. And it creates a great culture of high performance while improving client outcomes.
Lunchtime yoga and healthy fruit boxes are lovely, but equity, a chance to vent, the feeling you know how to do your job and the knowledge that your humanity is intact and cared for will make the real difference.