This year I quit a job running a harm reduction program in a homeless shelter. We went from dealing with a fight or overdose or some kid screaming, “Ya fucking bitch!” at us to, “Oh shit it’s six; we have to serve dinner.” Our to-do lists were an arm-length long and we delayed them constantly to attend to the urgent needs of young people with no family support. Sometimes we didn’t have time to pee.
PIC description: A woman in a striped shirt with curly hair looking very sad and tired. This is me after a tough day!
I am burned out and some days I think I might not have even one minute left of juice to go back to working in homelessness. I went on leave, got a part-time group facilitation job that isn’t as hard, and started therapy. I am not 100% yet, and I don’t know what it will take. I haven’t tried all the things, but I just can’t imagine yoga or forest bathing or workouts or journaling actually doing enough for my broken heart and altered brain. Maybe it’s just my level of burnout, but it feels like work to do these things — not just in the sense that it requires effort, but that it feels like an extension of my workday. I resent that feeling, and so too often I do easy avoidance activities (Netflix) instead.
Where I have landed in thinking about this, is that self-care should not feel like a second job that you have to do after your work day, in order to survive your job. In activism and social services, our trainers teach us “self-care is part of the work.” I say if it’s part of the work, then it should be part of the work day. There is a difference between having a “work/life balance” and having to be extremely intentional about self-care one day in order to get up for your job the next day. “Life” should be about spending time with loved ones and doing other things that are important to us. “Balance” is about not centering all of our energy, identity and self-worth around work. Having a “life” is hugely protective and healing, but it’s not going to entirely counteract vicarious trauma. I personally believe every minute spent outside of work hours dealing with work trauma cuts into your “life.”
Burnout is a structural, not individual problem. We would not have so much compassion fatigue if our workplaces better addressed systemic issues. Too often, counsellors and social workers are being treated as disposable. I don’t know if I can continue to do this work at all, but I know for sure I won’t be able to do it for long in workplaces that don’t build in better strategies for protecting their employees from burnout.
Bosses are like “self-care, self-care, self-care.” Then we say, “Okay well I need to have flexibility in my schedule,” and they say “Not like that.” Then we say, “Okay, well I need to be doing less of these tasks” and they say, “Not like that.” Then we say, “Well I want to be paid for work events” and they say, “Not like that.” We say, “I need help so that I can take breaks” and they say, “Not like that.” We say, “I need a new desk chair/space to work/computer that works,” and they’re like, “Not like that.” The answer is often something about the budget, and “You know how it is, working in a non-profit.” Of course we know.
We take a few sick days in a row and are directed to get a doctor’s note. Our union negotiates a self-care day, and the managers say, “Great, but schedule it in advance.” We are asked why such-and-such didn’t get done. We talk about how busy we have been, the additional things that have been placed on our workload. Managers respond with something about time management. It’s probably well-meant; it’s probably because they actually don’t know how to reduce our workloads. But it feels patronizing — not only are we pointing to a systemic problem and they are making it individual, but they imply the issue is our level of competence. It’s insulting.
Shelter work is increasingly dangerous, high-stress, busy work. There is probably a crisis per day now: a suicidal youth, a fight, an overdose intervention, police officers showing up to charge a kid for murder, an incident where we have to lock ourselves in an office for safety. Too often, no-one follows up. Not to ask how we’re doing, to compliment our skills, to encourage a day off, to debrief, to ask what would make us feel safer at work, or to suggest we talk to a counsellor. As frontline workers, all we have is each other, and we’re all maxed out.
In health centres and universities, counsellors are often asked to see 20–25 clients, plus run a weekly group, plus do mental health awareness activities and events. The managers have done some kind of math to come up with this expectation, but it doesn’t fit the reality. At a university, a friend of mine once suggested some solutions to create a more reasonable workload. The administrator said, “I just don’t think you understand the extent of the student mental health crisis right now.” The number of times we have been intentionally or unintentionally guilted into taking on more tasks at our own expense is uncountable. Do they actually think that somehow taking our breaks and having a bath when we get home is going to protect us from becoming part of the mental health crisis?
There’s always a reason why bosses think it’s reasonable to extract more work from us. Likely they don’t see self-care as additional work. Perhaps they actually believe that the structure and stresses of the workplace are normal and inevitable, so individual self-care is the only way to survive. But I don’t actually believe that self-care is a solution to compassion fatigue. I think preventing it is the solution.
When managers raise self-care when you ask for workplace change, it’s a form of gaslighting. It’s telling you, “You’re wrong; you’re the one that needs to change; you are seeing systemic problems that don’t exist or aren’t relevant.” An impact of gaslighting is that we become exhausted by advocating for ourselves, and that we begin to believe we are the problem. When we try to cure our own vicarious trauma and don’t succeed, we feel inadequate. Then we leave the workplace and try our hand at slinging coffee or making cakes.
We need to really ask ourselves if this is all we have the capacity for — working carers to the bone, and then replacing them with keen kind young people that are just getting started?
There’s gotta be a better way.