Ashera is a Marriage and Family Therapist with an extensive background in sexual health education. You can ask her stuff anonymously and she won’t get weirded out. Seriously, try her. Send your queries through our anonymous contact form here.
I’m not reaching out regarding any romantic relationships, but instead, my relationship with my job. I’m a social worker and have been working in the field for several years now. I left my last job due to the insane scheduling and workload that made it nearly impossible to see my family due to an ever-changing schedule that required overnights and lots and lots of overtime. My new job as a counselor has a more traditional schedule, but the workload is insane. I’m drowning in paperwork and find myself feeling more and more overwhelmed. Everyone seems to come in early and stay late, and we’re not compensated for that. I keep getting handed more and more responsibility and I’m starting to question myself and my abilities. I don’t want to quit prematurely, but I don’t know how much longer I can do this. Is there anything I can do, or am I just not cut out for this?
I’m going to be super upfront about my biases and politics here and tell you that I’m angry for you and the many others like you. I’m about to have a real “I am the Lorax and I speak for the trees!” moment before I put my therapist hat back on, so buckle up.
Social workers, therapists, and counselors fall squarely under the “helper profession” umbrella, as do teachers, nurses, and any profession that sets out to better others. Personally and professionally, I’ve seen lots of wonderful helpers enter their fields with idealism in their eyes and fires in their bellies, hoping to leave the world a little better than they’ve found it. These sweet people are often funneled into jobs that swallow them up in piles of paperwork and unmanageable caseloads, leaving them burnt-out and jaded, sometimes when they’re still interns. It’s cruel and disheartening.
Wanting to better the human condition and help your fellow person is a beautiful thing. Kindness and compassion are not weaknesses and it takes a special kind of strength to channel empathy into action. I don’t have a clear timeline for how the system got so rigged against helpers, but I have some working theories. Compassion seems to be colored as both a trait of youth and inherently feminine, and thus of little value in a cut-throat, capitalistic, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” kind of culture. If compassion is seen as a renewable resource with every crop of college graduates, why not pay the helpers little and work them to the bone? If we’re monetizing the skillset it takes to help then it’s easy to lose sight of how precious our helpers are.
And I get it: the agencies themselves that people turn to in their darkest times are stretched to the max. There’s too little funding, an overabundance of need, and those who are able to “hack it” and gain any seniority in helper professions are cut from stone. I do not diminish the senior helpers’ strength at all. However, I think that in the most toxic of work environments, a culture of destructive entitlement can sometimes creep in. “Oh, you’re burnt out and you want to see your family? Well, in my day all the recruits put in 16 hours per week of unpaid overtime and we were HAPPY to do it!”
Of course, this is not all or even the majority of supervisors or workplaces. Most people in helper professions want to be (you’ll never believe it) helpers. A strong supervision and support team can make all of the difference in fielding burn out amongst its ranks, which allows people to actually do their job.
While no helper alone can change the system, we are not without hope. It’s time to practice what you preach as a counselor: be gentle with yourself, communicate directly, breathe.
While some people skirt responsibility, others hold themselves to superhuman standards. They forget the sage advice of airplane oxygen masks: secure your air supply before you help someone else. It’s easy to get lost advocating and helping others and forget that you, yourself are worth advocating for. You have limits because you’re a human and that’s okay!
To curtail the burnout you’re feeling, it’s time to do a scary thing and talk about it. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed sometimes, especially in a job transition, and a good supervisor will help you find steps to alleviate this. This is, of course, reliant upon your supervisor being a good one, so let’s unpack that a bit. A good supervisor will hear your concerns and help you find a more supportive path. They might empathize a bit or pass down wisdom to help you not feel so alone. If they laugh or scoff at your concerns, that’s a red flag. If their follow through does not match what is promised, be wary.
I’m not going to throw career advice out irresponsibly and advise anyone to quit their job willy-nilly. However, if you’re finding yourself consistently crying before, during, or after work, even after seeking support, it’s time to look at your options. If you find yourself losing your values and your faith in yourself, take some time for introspection. There are lots of agencies, practices, and options out there. If you come to the decision that it’s time to move on, mobilize your connections and keep your ear to the ground. There’s no shame in self-preservation, and not every placement will be a fit for every person, nor should it be.
In the meantime, develop a self-care plan and stick to it. Evaluate your internal responses to practicing self-care, especially if they’re negative. If you’re feeling guilty for taking a full lunch break, unpack that with your supervisor, coworker, or personal therapist. It’s easy to commoditize yourself unduly, but remember, your worth is not inherently tied to the work that you do. You’re good enough all on your own, your work should just add to that.
No matter what happens, this situation has the potential to make you into a better helper. Experience brings wisdom, and one day, you may find yourself in a supervisory position, uniquely qualified to help a colleague through the difficulties of the job. Remember, there will always be need, but that doesn’t mean the work must feel Sisyphean. You deserve to feel fulfilled and supported in your calling. You deserve downtime to recharge so you can wake back up and continue to do the hard work. You deserve happiness.
Stock photography borrowed from the Interweb.