Frontline Initiative Stress and Burnout

A Day in the Life:
DSP Shares her Stress Relievers


Julie Allwin was selected by the St. Charles County Developmental Disabilities Board as the Outstanding Direct Support Worker of the Year for 1997 and works at Emmaus Homes in St. Charles, Missouri

One day as I was driving to work, lost deep in thought about what I would accomplish with the women I support, Debbie and Kelly, when I noticed flashing lights from a police car in my rearview mirror. I was horrified to realize he was trying to pull me over. I pulled over. As I waited nervously, I realized that I did not have my proof of insurance with me. I had just received the new card, and it was still on my desk at home.

I was most unhappy as the officer walked up to my door and said, “Did you know that you were speeding?” He asked to see my driver’s license and proof of insurance.

I told him I didn’t have my insurance card and explained why. He went back to his car. Finally, he returned my license, along with my ticket, wished me a good day, and kindly reminded me to watch my speed. All I could think was, “Yeah, watch my speed now that I’m late for work; and after getting a ticket, I’m sure to have a nice day!”

When I finally arrived at my job, where the women and their ride home were waiting for me. I apologized profusely for being late. The driver glared at me and drove off.

One of the women, Kelly, then proceeded to tell me the details of her horrible day. She didn’t have enough time to eat lunch, she didn’t want to work the next day because she didn’t like her job, and so on. As I tried to talk to her about her job, she started to complain about how her aunt had not come to pick her up a couple of weeks before. I listen half-heartedly, thinking about my own rotten morning and went into the house.

To my horror, I discovered that there was water all over the floor, leaking from a pipe under the kitchen sink. I hate plumbing problems! When I called the apartment manager, he said he could come out in two days to fix it, and that until then I could use a bucket to catch the water.

This is just a small sampling of the many frustrations I experience daily as a Direct Support Professional. I have to deal with coworkers, supervisors, families, and all the other circumstances of life that are thrown my way. It causes ongoing frustration—not to mention burnout, loss of imagination, and waning enthusiasm. Nevertheless, I continue to love what I do despite the frustrations.

I can think of many reasons I choose to stay in direct support work and of ways to cope with the stress it brings. For one, I can truly help people, which gives me great satisfaction. There are other jobs that would be less stressful; but for me, I need to know that what I am doing is worthwhile. 

Here are a few ways I try to reduce stress at work— 

To manage my work day I have a list on paper, or at least in my mind, of the things I want to accomplish. Every shift I try to have some goals to meet that evening. Besides the regular cooking, cleaning, and data collection, I try to have another project to work on in case we run out of things to do (this rarely happens).

I find it helpful to visit with the women’s families in person and on the phone. It helps me to get to know them better. When I talk to families, I feel more connected to their lives. Our agency offers a lot of in-service training and workshops which help me keep up to date on changing methods and provides ideas that help me better serve the people I support. There is always something new to learn.

I have learned to keep things in perspective. Sometimes I have to remember that when the women I work with have a problem that I think is no big deal, such as not having time to eat lunch, it is a big deal to them. I must respect their concerns and realize they seem as insurmountable to them as my problems do to me.

Just like any other job, there are days when I just don’t want to go, and could almost talk myself into staying home. But then I remember that I can make a difference for these women. I listen to them, and support them by helping them to participate in activities they really enjoy.

As support staff, we truly affect those we support. Sometimes it’s hard to believe what a positive influence we can have, but if we have fun and stay positive, our everyday frustrations are easier to handle, and life for the people we support will be enhanced.