Frontline Initiative Stress and Burnout

Managing Stress and Preventing Burnout


 Jerry W. Johnson is founder of and consultant for Topeka Mediation and Stress Consultants in Topeka, KS, and a senior consultant at the Menninger Leadership Center

Direct Support Professionals (DSP) are in a unique position to experience stress and burnout. There are several reasons for this. Probably the most notable reason is often feeling caught in the middle of or “trapped” between consumers, parents, supervisors, and administrators regarding issues such as appropriate supports and/or a lack of recognition of professional skills.

Feeling “trapped” by varying expectations diminishes your sense of control over your personal and professional life. A feeling of control is crucial to your happiness, health, and productivity. Lack of control and lack of recognition of your professional skills can lead to a diminished self-esteem, which can also lead to misunderstandings. For instance, concerns about issues, policy changes, or comments from others can get blown out of proportion and be dealt with poorly, which can in turn exaggerate feelings of poor self-esteem. When this kind of stress builds, it can lead to burnout or feelings of distress.

Distress is when stress becomes more than your coping skills can manage. A person feels overwhelmed or out of control. Burnout has some similar resulting behavioral and physical responses but is defined as work-generated distress which results from (1) a perfectionist personality, and (2) lack of a collegial support system. The former occurs when one feels he or she can never give enough no matter how hard he or she tries. The latter happens when there are few or no colleagues in your environment from whom to get good, reliable feedback — no one to conspire with or from whom to get consolation. Thus, a key to reducing distress and preventing burnout is to alter your expectations to make them more realistic and to nurture your collegial support network. The following are suggestions for developing these personal aspects of DSP work as well as ways to recognize signs of distress or burnout.

Realize that you cannot control others

You can control your own attitude, behavior, values, and beliefs. At best, you can influence others, but not control them. DSPs need to think carefully about issues of control, not only with co-workers but with consumers of services as well.

Nurture your collegial and social support

It is essential that DSPs give and receive collegial or peer support. This requires trust, honesty, and caring, and requires a willingness to be receptive to honest feedback. Furthermore, with DSPs becoming increasingly isolated because of the implementation of more individualized services in smaller settings, it is all the more important for agencies to provide more ways for them to meet. Some ways could include more house meetings, parties, group training sessions, and peer mentoring. Social supports are equally important, but for a different purpose. These are friends outside of work who care for you; the people who you trust and who you can talk to and share your feelings with.

Monitor the pain you experience

Pain is a powerful motivator. It shouldn’t be ignored, reduced, or eliminated artificially or prematurely (by pain killers, alcohol, food, whatever might be the case) but must be recognized and heeded. Physical pain such as a tension headache or emotional pain such sadness helps you to: (1) recognize that he or she is under stress, (2) determine where or what the source of stress is, and (3) recognize what can be done to reduce or eliminate that source. If you mask the pain with pain relievers — anything from taking aspirin to drinking too much alcohol — its source may never be discovered. Also, misuse of substances can induce guilt, and self-esteem can become even more problematic. When you recognizes the pain and then the source, however, a real solution can be attempted. You could take a class on stress management, begin an exercise program, develop his or her collegial support system, or seek out retraining, new training, or even new work. Whatever the course taken, the overall idea is to develop a plan on how to appropriately handle future stress whenever pain manifests itself.

Develop a philosophy of life

It is important to keep life in perspective. There are a lot of gray areas in life. There are more questions than answers. There are rights and wrongs. Good parents sometimes have “bad” children, and vice-versa. Some babies are born with disabilities, and some die. All of this is unfair, but it is true. But life, with all of its faults, has a beauty and a flow about it. There is also goodness and love.

Some different approaches to developing your personal philosophy might include connecting or reconnecting with established religion or spirituality, reading that expands your sense of life and history, or talking to an older, wiser person who might be able to provide insight or perspective on an issue.

Keep life in balance

The work DSPs do is important for the people they serve and for themselves. It provides a sense of identity, and feelings of worthiness and altruism. It makes you feel good and important. It gives you a feeling of purpose. But if all our emotional eggs are in the one basket (work), we run a huge risk. If your job is lost or changed — which is always possible — we can be left with nothing for support. Besides, if work is your entire life, you may become one-dimensional. It is important for the Direct Support Professional to have a rich life beyond work. It is important not only to have friends outside of work, but to have hobbies and activities to give us joy. It is important that time be managed so that you have personal time.

In conclusion, the Direct Support Professional does have unique and difficult stressors that will not go away. Thus, they need to be understood and managed. Each Direct Support Professional needs to take personal responsibility to do those things that will maintain good emotional and physical health and happiness.