Frontline Initiative Stress and Burnout

Helping Newcomers Handle Stress

For three years (from 1993 to 1996), I collected information from 139 new Direct Support Professionals in 110 different small group homes in Minnesota to find out why some people stay and others leave during the first year on the job. I collected information from new workers when they started, after 30 days, after six months, and after 12 months. Only 33% of new workers in the study stayed in the same position for 12 months. The most common reasons for wanting to leave were problems with co-workers, inadequate pay or benefits, and problems with supervisors. The most stressful things for newcomers were—

  • Getting to know the people in the home and their behaviors and traits.
  • Learning the routines and completing my duties.
  • Getting to know the other staff members.
  • Finding out that not everyone gets along with one another.
  • Adjusting to the schedule.
  • Learning and remembering everything.

One way to help newcomers handle stress is to let them know what to expect in these areas, and that it is normal to find these things difficult at first.

Since turnover is hard on everyone and can increase stress, finding ways to reduce stress for new workers is very important. A study done in 1994 by Lynn Bachelder at the University of Illinois at Chicago tested whether the way co-workers treated newcomers made a difference in whether they stayed or left their jobs. She reported that newcomers were more likely to stay in their jobs when experience workers —

  • Go out of their way to help a new staff member adjust to the job.
  • Take responsibility for advising or training newcomers.
  • Guide newcomers in how to perform the job.

Since most people who leave direct support work leave in the first three to six months, current workers can have a direct impact on turnover by supporting their new colleagues during this time.

Other studies have identified strategies for all workers who are feeling stressed. In his 1992 book called Organizational Entry, John Wanous described an intervention called Realistic Orientation Programs for New Employee Stress (ROPES). He recommended giving newcomers realistic information about initial job stresses (such as those listed above), providing general support and assurance to newcomers, and teaching staff members various coping strategies.

The coping strategies Wanous described are applicable both to new and long-term workers who are feeling stressed out. Those strategies include—

  1. Deal directly with the stress. For example, if you are stressed out because you don’t know what you are supposed to be doing, ask for a written schedule so you will know what needs to be done. Likewise, if you are stressed out because you don’t know how to communicate with a particular person, ask people who know the person well (parents, co-workers, a supervisor) to give you some pointers about how to “hear” what the person is telling you.
  2. Change how you are thinking about the stress. Sometimes the messages we give ourselves about the situation increases our stress. For example, when we are new or are learning a new task we will make mistakes. Instead of telling yourself “I am a bad person because I made a mistake” think instead “Everyone makes mistakes at the beginning. Next time I will do better.”
  3. Manage your stress. When we are feeling stressed, our body often tenses as we prepare for “fight or flight.” Simple ways to manage the symptoms of stress include: exercise, systematic relaxation, and deep breathing. Taking a walk, tensing and then relaxing each muscle set in your body, or taking a series of very slow deep breaths (in through your nose, out through your mouth) can help us to reduce the tension in our bodies.