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124 JUNE 2009
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John Stein

Burnout is a hot topic in the Child and Youth Care profession (yes, that’s a pun.). Much of the stuff I have seen on burnout seems to take burnout as a given, a natural consequence of the stresses associated with jobs that involve long hours and low pay dealing with challenging children, and how workers can deal with burnout and protect themselves from its effects.

I would rather see more about what administrators and supervisors can do to minimize burnout than about what staff can do. There is much they can do to minimize burnout by increasing the job satisfaction of child care staff and minimizing unnecessary stress.

Working long hours does not cause burnout if staff like their jobs and feel good about what they are doing “unless the hours and schedule interfere significantly with their personal and family life. Working with troubled and challenging children does not create burnout for staff who enjoy children. The low pay does not cause burnout unless the pay is so low that it is demeaning and staff cannot meet basic needs and responsibilities.

Staff may eventually leave for better paying jobs with better hours, but this is not burnout. Rather, the burnout comes from not being satisfied with the work they are doing with the children. In my experience, primarily in residential settings, administrators and supervisors contribute more to burnout than do the children.

Hiring of staff
Preventing staff burnout begins with the hiring process. Some people are especially vulnerable to burnout when they work with children. Certain positions in child and youth work may not be appropriate for them. Expectations must be clear. When staff accept a new position, then find that it does not meet their expectations, burnout may occur very quickly.

Hire staff who enjoy children instead of staff who want to help them. Ok. Everybody likes children. And everybody wants to help them. It’s a matter of emphasis. Staff who genuinely enjoy children readily develop good relationships. They are good for children. They almost always end up helping children, no matter what their training and skill level.

Staff who want to help children, who seem to be on a mission, who seem to have a “calling” as it were, sometimes have trouble developing relationships. Their relationships are often conditional, dependent upon the children's response to their efforts to help them. They do not enjoy the process of working with children but rather need to see the results. Results take time, sometimes too much time, so that staff cannot meet their own needs and expectations for helping children. They become frustrated with children who do not respond easily. They end up becoming angry with the children or with the program for not making the children do better. Or both. They find little satisfaction in what they are doing because their satisfaction depends on the children.

It’s pretty obvious in the interview. Some applicants can talk easily about liking children and the things they enjoy doing with children in addition to wanting to help them. Other applicants have difficulty talking about liking children “they want only to help them, to show them the way, so to speak.

I can teach helping skills to people who enjoy children; I am not very good at teaching people to enjoy children, no matter how good their skills or training. So I look for people who genuinely enjoy children.

Make sure the job you hire staff for is the job they end up doing. When we focus too heavily in the interviewing process on relationship and counseling skills and doing things with children, staff develop expectations having to do with developing relationships with children and helping them to grow and develop and having fun with them in activities. Then, after they are on the job, it sometimes seems that all administrators and supervisors care about are reports and log entries and having the beds made and the facility neat and clean and the children neatly dressed and well groomed and wondering about how things got broken and where were staff when it happened?

The reality of child care in a 24-hour facility is that much of staff time is devoted to taking children for appointments, taking them shopping, supervising chores, making log entries, writing reports, and doing errands such as taking vehicles for maintenance or delivering reports and paper work.

Finding out after you start work that the job is not what you expected is a major contributor to burnout. New staff must have realistic expectations; there should be few surprises after they come to work.

Let the children interview and hire their staff. I can’t help but wonder how Child and Youth Care professionals feel about this approach. In four programs in very different settings and circumstances, I have never known it to fail. Children accept this responsibility, well, all I can say is, they accept it with incredible responsibility. In my experience, they have always hired the best applicant to meet their needs. People who respect them. And because they respect them, people who will provide firm limits and set high expectations. They never hire people they can fool or “get over on.” And this process eliminates many problems that new staff might otherwise incur in their first few weeks on the job, problems that may contribute to early burnout.

I should point out that I only allow children to interview finalists, applicants who meet qualifications, who have been interviewed by the supervisor, whose references have been checked, and who we are willing to hire.

Children's testing of new staff has been a ritual in many of the programs with which I am familiar. I have even heard children predict that a new staff member won’t last long or boast about how quickly they will run new staff off the job. Children need to know whether a new person will stick with them. It’s the only way they can feel safe and secure. They do not like developing relationships only to have people leave after a few weeks. Especially when turnover is high, children are likely to feel rejected when staff members leave. Their testing has to do with their feeling safe, not with their seeing what they can get away with. Their attempts to run off new staff have to do with their attempting to have some control over their departure. It hurts less when they feel they have driven the staff away than when they do not know why staff have abandoned them. And perhaps on some level, they like to show supervisors that they made a poor choice.

Having children interview staff eliminates their need to test new staff, at least for a while. They get to know the staff in the interview. Sometimes, I have sat in on interviews, other times, I have left the children conduct their interviews alone with applicants. My preference is the latter, but when I have sat in, I have been impressed with the questions they asked.

With this process, relationships have already begun to develop before staff’s first day on the job. And when they come to work, children are helpful, helping them to learn the routines of the facility rather than challenging them, testing them, or trying to show them up as stupid or something. After all, they only hire the best people. They have an investment in the staff they hired. They do not want to run them off.

Employee management
How supervisors, managers, and administrators manage employees can have a lot to do with contributing to or minimizing burnout.

Provide feedback. In too many instances, criticism is the only feedback employees get. Feedback and criticism are not the same thing. Feedback is information that helps us to meet our objectives. Criticism is only feedback if it’s relevant to our objectives. Criticism from supervisors is feedback so long as employees care about their supervisors” opinions. Eventually, criticism stops being feedback because employees no longer care about the opinion of their supervisors.

The same things apply to staff as apply to children. “Catch them being good.” “Provide praise five times to every criticism.” Ok. It’s probably just as demeaning to staff to be praising them all the time as the condescending “Good job!” is to children. But there are other ways to provide feedback than by praising workers. Just let them know that you are aware of what they are doing. “You are always on time.” “I always enjoy reading your reports. They are clear and concise.” “You always seem to be smiling when you are with the kids.” And so many more.

Discipline. I have worked in many jobs besides human services. In my experience, human services is the most punitive. I don’t know whether it’s the fear of law suits or investigations, or our preoccupation with behavioral (punishment) responses, but it seems that there is an obsession to document every little thing with disciplinary or perhaps “corrective” memos.

There have been times when I have felt a need to document something with a “memo of instruction.” And there have been times when I have found it necessary to dismiss staff. But those times were rare. Good staff, like most children, will do the right thing when they know what it is, understand why it’s important, and have the time and opportunity to do it. Disciplinary memos are seldom necessary.

Commendations. I like to write commendations, memos with “commendation” as the subject and a few brief paragraphs describing the performance. Employees like to receive them. Some employees have framed them. I believe that supervisors should write more commendations than disciplinary memos.

There is some danger with this. Employees who are doing their best may wonder why supervisors noticed what someone else is doing and failed to notice what they are doing, so when I write a commendation on a small unit, I try to make sure that everyone else gets something in a reasonable amount of time. After everyone gets something, it’s not so critical.

I once worked in a state psychiatric facility where department heads were actually hesitant to write commendations for fear they would create problems if the need arose to dismiss an employee. Turnover was extraordinary.

Walking around. Some supervisors, when they walk on a unit, seem to feel the need to correct staff for every little thing they notice that is not exactly right. This creates a lot of anxiety among staff. They get tense as soon as a supervisor or an administrator walks on the unit. It seems as if all supervisors notice is what is wrong. This can be extremely demoralizing for staff who do 25 (or a hundred) good things each time they come to work, but who feel that all their supervisors notice is what they didn’t manage to get done.

If I see something that is not exactly right but not critical, I make a mental note and start to look for things that are right to talk about with staff. Then, a few days later, when I return to the unit, I check on the problem. If it’s still a problem, I'll choose a time and place to address it, perhaps then and there, perhaps later.

Evaluations. There seems to be a belief that, since no one is perfect, everyone has something to improve upon and that this should be addressed in formal evaluations. Evaluations for good employees should be a time to celebrate their strengths and accomplishments. Nothing is more damaging to the morale of good employees who have done their best for six months or a year than to have their supervisor discuss “areas in need of improvement” or “weaknesses” during their formal evaluation. If there are areas in need of improvement, these areas should have been addressed and corrected through ongoing supervision and support.

I like three sections in evaluations:

  1. Strengths the employee brings to the position.
  2. Accomplishments during the evaluation period.
  3. Areas of focus for the future.

Employees like to know that supervisors notice their strengths and accomplishments, and may take the opportunity to remind supervisors if they overlooked something. I prefer to use the last section to look at ways in which we might improve our program, but problems can be addressed here as well (although I rarely do so), not as problems, weaknesses or criticism, but as areas in which employees can grow and develop.

Time off. Staffing a 24-hour facility, especially in small facilities with few staff, may require sacrifices from everyone. Someone has to work overtime when staff take time off for vacation, comp time, sick leave, or when there is a shortage of staff due to turnover. If we expect staff to work without question when the program needs them, we should be prepared to give them time off without question when they need it.

Two sister programs, one for boys and the other for girls, had different approaches. In the girls program, the schedule was set. Staff who wanted time off had to find a replacement to work in their place, get it in writing, and then submit their request for approval. A part time weekend staff, a college student who worked the evening shift every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, requested a Saturday off several weeks in advance to attend the wedding of her best friend. She was told to find a replacement.

Because she normally worked alone, she did not have much of a relationship with other staff. For whatever reasons, she did not find a replacement. At the conclusion of her Friday night shift, she resigned. Instead of having to provide coverage for her requested Saturday evening shift with two weeks” notice, management had to arrange coverage for her Saturday and Sunday shifts with less than a day’s notice, and then arrange coverage for all of her shifts until they found a replacement.

In the boys program, supervisors took responsibility for scheduling. When staff requested time off, supervisors granted it without question, accepting the responsibility for finding a replacement or working themselves if they could not. And knowing that the administrator was willing to work, if necessary. In four years, neither supervisors nor the administrator ever had to work a shift “they were always able to find a staff willing to work even though the agency did not pay overtime. (Staff who worked extra hours were credited with compensatory leave.) Staff took pride in their jobs; they did not want supervisors or administrators working in their place.

In a small program, there is never a good time for staff to take time off, except when they want time off. Scheduling is a two way street. Teamwork starts at the top, not at the bottom.

And when staff take a vacation, they should not be hounded so much before they leave to provide assurances that they have arranged for every possible contingency during their absence that they are so exhausted by the time they leave that they cannot enjoy their time off. And when they return, they should not find so much piled up work that they are immediately overwhelmed. Supervisors should make arrangements to keep up with their work during their absence so that they return to a reasonable rather than an overwhelming workload. Being exhausted before vacation, then being overwhelmed upon return contributes to burnout.

The little things. Just plain stupidity. One day at shift change on an adolescent psychiatric unit, the unit manager decided to hold the day shift over. The kids had been especially rowdy and she wanted extra staff on duty after she went home. One of the better staff “excellent with the kids, well-liked by his coworkers, dependable, excellent attendance, explained that he had to pick up his son after school; there was no one else. He could take him to his grandmother (she did not drive) and return within an hour, but he had to pick up his son. His request was denied. He was not allowed to leave.

Imagine the tension, having to choose between child and job. Failing to pick up children after school is an automatic referral to police and child protection. One of the psychiatrists volunteered to pick up the child and take him to his grandmother. Nevertheless, a few weeks later, this valuable employee found another position and left. He would never be put in that position again.

In another program, after an unusually challenging Sunday evening, staff were exhausted. After finally getting things under control, they had several incident reports to complete before going home. One of the staff left without completing his time sheet. It seems he was more concerned about the children and the necessary reports than about himself.

On Monday morning, the bookkeeper was extremely upset to find an incomplete time sheet. It made extra work for her and she was not in the mood for extra work from negligent staff. She complained to the executive director, who sympathized with her. They decided that the staff would learn his lesson if there were no pay check for him on Friday. A logical consequence, right? No time sheet, no pay. It made perfect sense.

Staff, of course, might see it differently. If I don’t get paid, I don’t work. Also a logical consequence. That, too, makes perfect sense.

When staff give their all to their jobs, placing the children and the job (the reports and the log entries and the meetings) before themselves and their own interests, someone has to look out for the staff. That’s what support staff are for. To provide the support that staff need when they need it. This particular staff needed a little extra support, just like the children needed a little extra from the staff on Sunday night, and the program needed a little extra effort from the staff to document it.

Fortunately, I was able to convince the executive director and the bookkeeper to process his pay. All we had to do was fill in his time and get his signature the next time he worked. A little extra work for us, but nothing compared to what staff had faced on Sunday evening.

That difficult child. I do not believe in discharging difficult children as treatment failures. Once staff accept this philosophy, they begin looking for ways to manage and treat difficult children rather than finding ways to convince the treatment team to discharge them. On the other hand, such children can be difficult to enjoy at times, unpleasant not only for staff but for other children as well. At such times, staff sometimes need a little extra support.

When such a child is having a particularly difficult day and is draining energy from the staff and keeping them away from other children who need their time and attention, I will step in. I simply take the child to my office for a time. I let them bring whatever they might want to entertain themselves. I always have plenty of paperwork to do and let them know I am prepared to spend the evening with them while catching up on my work.

Eventually, they get tired of it. It gets boring. After an hour or two, they will do just about anything to get back to normal activities, which means they become much more reasonable and pleasant to be around for the next few days or even longer. Staff and the other kids have had a break; the formerly difficult child can return to the program with everyone feeling better.
And when staff recognize that I am willing to put in the extra effort such children require, they too become willing to invest whatever it takes. And feel really good about the progress such children eventually begin to make.

Sometimes change can be energizing and exciting, especially when employees feel a part of it. Other times, change can be challenging and demoralizing, making staff feel insecure, never knowing what may be coming next.

Little changes. Little changes in the work environment can do a lot for morale. Getting all the door locks and padlocks keyed the same instead of staff having to carry a huge key ring and fumble through it at every lock. Changing the florescent light tubes from soft white to daylight or full spectrum florescent. Getting a form sorter, a thing sort of like a book case with shelves divided into compartments to hold letter or legal sized forms. It makes forms readily available to staff and it’s easy to tell when you are down to the last form so you can make copies before it’s too late. And upgrading forms that have been photocopied so often that they are skewed and blurred. Perhaps replacing worn or stained toilet seats. Replacing bedspreads can do a lot to improve the appearance of the facility. There’s always something to let staff (and the children) know that you care.

Big changes. Changes that impact employees” jobs can be unnerving, especially when employees have little input, don’t know what’s coming, and don’t fully appreciate or understand the reasons for the changes. When there is no urgency (and there seldom is), I like to let employees know in advance what I’m thinking about doing and why and then give them some time to think about it and talk amongst themselves, as it were. In a week or so, I look for their input. Sometimes, they have a better idea and I welcome it. Other times, they have objections. Sometimes, I accept them. But when I do not, so long as I listen attentively and discuss their objections fully with them, they are likely to accept the changes more readily than if I had just proceeded without giving them any chance for input.

In conclusion
Burnout is not inevitable. Supervisors and managers and administrators can do a lot to minimize it, thereby making their own jobs easier and the treatment program more effective. Staff burnout when unreasonable demands and expectations are placed upon them, especially when administrators and supervisors do not share in meeting those demands and expectations.

Staff who enjoy children do not burn out from working with children. Rather, they burnout from other things, from things that interfere with their enjoyment of children and their jobs. Staff who are properly hired, who have realistic expectations of themselves and their jobs, who get reasonable support, who feel that supervisors and administrators are part of the team, do not burnout. It’s even better when the children are part of the team.

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