What’s in a Word? Burnout


By Al Murdach, LCSW (retired)

This column explores some of the meanings behind words that today have a significant impact upon the social work profession. Our word for today is: burnout.

“Burnout” has been described as a stress disorder characterized by “a psychological state of physical and emotional exhaustion” coupled with “a reduced ability to meet the demands of one’s occupation.” It has been identified in a wide variety of occupations, both secular and religious, and has been studied extensively at least since the 1970s. Its incidence in various occupations is unclear, given the lack of quantitative data collected on the phenomenon. However, a wealth of anecdotal evidence has been compiled about burnout over the past several decades which seems to indicate that the phenomenon is increasing in the human service professions, such as social work.

Given the importance attached to this condition and the interest it has aroused, it might be helpful to review the social work profession’s response. In general, most studies of burnout in social work focus on the organizational, economic, and political causes of burnout. Such factors as high caseloads, increasingly strict deadlines, paperwork, recordkeeping, worker turnover, difficult and demanding clients, funding cutbacks, inadequate staffing, legal restrictions and lack of public appreciation or support have all been put forward as important factors in the increasing degree of burnout among social workers. Typical recommendations of ways to address this problem include such suggestions as improving worker time-management skills, encouraging staff to seek rest and relaxation away from work, increased worker “quality time” with their friends or families, and self-care involvement in leisure time activities such as meditation, walking, hobbies, reading, social media, meeting with friends, attending concerts and films, etc.

Despite the prevalence of such well-intentioned suggestions, it has been observed by a number of authors that, though such efforts may work for a while, they appear to have no long-term effect on burnout. Because of this some authors have pointed out that the social context in which human service professionals live may feature even more significant triggers for burnout. Thus, housing difficulties, marital problems, lack of professional advancement, stalled careers, inadequate financial rewards, and lack of recognition and support in the work setting, may all be of major importance in leading to burnout for the professional.  However, despite the significance of such factors in causing burnout, and because these probable causes are so diverse, no overall strategy has yet been offered for resolving these social and contextual causes of burnout.

Still other authors have put forward the idea that a drift toward burnout can occur when the following client-oriented attitudes on the part of the helping professional begin to manifest themselves:

I am the only one who really understands this (patient, client, situation, problem, etc.). This attitude can show itself in various ways, such as a “go it alone” approach in working with clients, refusal to collaborate with team members on joint solutions to problems, and an over-identification by the worker with the client’s personal life and issues.

 No one but me really cares about this client or what happens to him/her. This approach can lead the worker to grandiose thinking about their own personal importance in the client’s life and an overemphasis on what the worker believes is the significance of their particular helping approach for the client’s well-being. One frequent result of this attitude is the condition labeled “compassion fatigue.”

I am the only one who really knows how, and is able, to help this client. This particular attitude is a prime example of what has been called the “God complex” sometimes manifested by physicians but also adopted at times by other helping professionals. Its dangers have been cited by many authors.

Obviously, the problem of burnout is not amenable to any one grand solution, but because it will continue to be a vexing issue it will always remain a topic of great concern for social work.