Frontline Initiative Stress and Burnout

Three Strikes and You're Out or at Least you Should Be!


James Meadours is a self-advocate with SABE and co-chair of the NADSP, and resides in Baton Rouge, LA

Many things about direct support work can be stressful, but I know from experience that the one thing that has the biggest affect on a consumer’s life is when the relationship between the Direct Support Professional (DSP) and the person with a disability is not going well. When this happens, there can be a lot of tension, frustration, and bad feelings between the support person and the person receiving supports. This can happen for a number of reasons, such as problems outside of the relationship, like illness, money problems, or trouble with family members or other people. Or sometimes, as in my case, there is not a good match in terms of values, needs, or personalities between the two people.

I want to tell you my story. I had decided to take a new job offered to me, and my support person was already working in the organization that offered me the job. As time went on, I felt like I was striving to prove myself to my support person and the administration. This caused me a great deal of frustration and stress. My support person and I would try to talk through the stressful issues, but I still did not feel that I was getting the support that I was asking for and needed to do my job well. I want to do my work in the best way possible so that the people who fund my work will be happy with my work and know that they can trust me for future projects. Also, due to the situation, I was afraid I would get a reputation of being a difficult person.

So, I started talking to others about what I should do. I knew what kinds of support I needed, but I needed to talk to my friends and colleagues about how to make it happen. After many discussions, the administration listened and realized that my support person and I could not work together. I interviewed and hired my new support person, explaining up front the specific supports I needed to do my job well. I feel good about the work I am doing and the support I am getting now.

Not everyone is able to be as assertive as I was to resolve this issue. DSPs and the agencies that employ them need to understand that supporting people with disabilities is not the same as assembly line work. Every person you support is different and has unique feelings, values, and needs. A relationship will develop because two people come together. To foster and maintain positive relationships with the people to whom you provide supports, try to remember these things—

  • Take your cue from the person receiving supports. The agency who hired you has ideas about what people with disabilities need, but now go to the person and find out what he or she expects and needs. For example, talk about supports needed before, during, and after meetings.
  • Ask the person you support, and people who care about him or her, how you are doing and take the feedback to heart.
  • Find ways to minimize stress in the relationship. Ask a supervisor or experienced coworkers what might work to improve the relationship. Maybe you need time with the person outside of the work atmosphere to understand each other’s values. Try role-playing to see what frustrates the other person. Or maybe you just need a change of scenery, or less time together for a while.
  • Know when and how to call it quits. Sometimes two people just don’t like each other. Their lives and perspectives are too different to mesh productively. If you have tried changing your behavior or seeking advice, and the relationship is still not good, it’s time to ask for a transfer. Also, if the person you are supporting feels that it is not working, bow out and ask for a transfer gracefully.

Right now DSPs have too much control over people with disabilities. Often, when there is a problem in the relationship, the person receiving supports is seen as “difficult,” or may get a bad reputation. Meanwhile, the DSP may feel trapped by the administration to make things better, no matter what. These pressures are not good for anyone. My hope is that people with disabilities will gain more say in who provides their support and that DSPs can be supported by their agencies in making positive working relationships with those they support. It is stressful to admit that you can’t make something work. But if you have tried your best and it is still not working, it is better to end the relationship in the most positive way possible so that both the DSP and the person with a disability will experience less stress and dissatisfaction in their lives.