Avoiding Burnout in Youth Work
What does burnout look like and how can it be avoided?
Burnout was recognised by the World Health Organisation in 1993 as a work-related condition that is caused by poor management and overwork. We are all, whether youth workers or not, more susceptible to burnout than we have ever been before and this is even pre-pandemic. Human beings were made for connection with others: real genuine connection with just a handful of people in our immediate vicinity. We were made for work that tires our muscles and our brains that had a start point and a stop point, early mornings meant early nights too. We were made for creativity that was beautiful as well as useful, sometimes even just beautiful for the sake of it. We were made for physical exertion and fresh air, whether we got that by the nature of the work or by using our leisure time for being outdoors.
We were not made to work relentlessly, not made to be a slave to keeping up appearances or keeping up with every person we’ve ever crossed paths with and some we haven’t, not made to digest news 24-7 or even 18-7 and try to fathom what is ‘true’ and what is ‘fake news’. We were not made to pour ourselves out for the wellbeing of others whilst having no time to look after ourselves, not made for carrying heightened stress levels due to unrealistic demands or expectations either of ourselves or from our employers.
Burnout is real. It creeps up on us. Those of us who work with people, taking on a lot of their stresses and strains are especially susceptible, especially those of us with a desire to help, that can turn into a ‘saviour complex’ where it seems that we are the only one capable of saving someone, or where we might be susceptible to a relationship becoming co-dependent: how much do you need to be needed?
What can we do to avoid burning out in youth work?
For those of us who have worked in or been around churches for a long time this is something that can be an issue. Putting in healthy boundaries such as blocking out time off in your diary or not answering the phone after a certain time in the evening or not answering emails on your day off sounds really dull and unnecessary, after all, if you’re needed then you’re needed, right? It took me a long time to really learn about this, partly because the church settings I’ve been part of were not very good at this but also partly because of my own need to be needed. I can tell you confidently now, you are not indispensable. You cannot do everything for everyone at the time that they want you to do it. When you’re working with adolescents in particular it can feel like you are the only one invested in their lives, you are not. You might feel like you are the only one they will open up to or want by their side at 3am in A&E, you are not. Boundaries will help you avoid burnout, take it from one who has been there!
This is such a vital resource that’s often overlooked and can prove very elusive! Good sleep habits include ensuring the room is at the right temperature, keeping the bedroom clear of work habits or activity, limiting screen use immediately before bedtime, limiting your caffeine intake especially in the evenings, and have a wind-down routine that might include things like washing your face, cleaning your teeth and brushing your hair, reading a book or writing in a journal can also help your brain to prepare for sleep. With high anxiety levels being rife at the moment, making sure you do spend some time outdoors each day, getting some exercise and fresh air will really help, all the better if you do something which helps to tire your body out.
I’ll be writing about imposter syndrome elsewhere this week because it’s a real problem, one which is likely to lead to burnout because of all the energy used up by the anxiety created. Lift yourself out of these thought patterns by finding out more about it and following the advice. Look out for my blog post about it later in the week.
Find someone you can talk to regularly – preferably someone from outside your work situation who will listen carefully and be able to reflect your thoughts back to you. This might be a friend but better still is someone who has some training in listening and coaching who can be a ‘critical friend’, able to ask you some hard questions about your own expectations and actions when needed. There are a lot of people offering coaching for youth workers, find someone who you’d like to have this kind of working relationship with and go from there! This is something that I offer so do check out this page for more information on this.
Looking after yourself and others
This is a really important thing to do, recognising the signs of burnout or overwhelm before they do overtake you entirely is good: excessive tiredness, excessive grumpiness with others around you, a strong desire to retreat but feeling like you can’t let everyone down, a strong sense of being the only one who can help ‘But if I don’t do this, who will?!’. If this is hard to do for yourself, and actually it is harder to spot signs in yourself than in others, then ask a friend or loved one to help by speaking up when they see the signs.
We need to look after ourselves and others during these challenging times.
Boundaries are key: You are not indispensable
I can tell you confidently now, you are not indispensable.
You cannot do everything for everyone at the time that they want you to do it.
Boundaries will help you avoid burnout, take it from one who has been there.