“You can’t help others until you first help yourself”. “Don’t burn your candle from both ends”.
I used to hate those cliches, but when it comes to therapist wellness, it’s true.
My first experience with burnout happened just 3 short months after graduating with my Master’s degree. I move across the country, and I dived head-first into the real-world of therapy. My eyes were opened to a whole new world of disillusionment that I could never have been prepared for.
I experienced an episode of burnout, and I know it won’t be my last. Along the road to getting my licensure as a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), I encountered things that would make even the most resilient people burn out, if not get a little crispy around the edges.
- I saw ethics violations and fraud that hurt clients and the entire mental health system is full of corruption. I reported a provider to a licensing board, lost my job and relocated.
- I’ve had 5 jobs in just over 2 years. I worked overtime at roughly $15 an hour with student loan debt weighing heavily in the back of my mind. One agency I worked for, closed suddenly overnight after a few weeks of my pay checks bouncing. I also had to pay for weekly supervision in order to keep my associate license.
- I worked in homes with roaches, smells and sights that seemed to be right out of horror movies. I saw the effects of child abuse and sat back and felt hopeless when CPS couldn’t help. Poverty, inequality and suffering were in my face every day.
- I got physically and verbally attacked by clients. I was providing services in rural areas where guns were prevalent and cell-phone service was not.
- I frequently felt undermined by administrators. I was told that the letters after my name didn’t matter, even though I had worked so hard for them. I was told I needed to “earn my stripes” even though I had education, experience, and a license.
- I was on-call for emergencies 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. I came to associate my ringtone with crisis and would cringe when I heard it.
These things do not make me a martyr. These are the typical experiences of a new therapist. I share them in the hopes of increasing awareness, decreasing the isolation and shame other therapists feel. I hope to open the door to discussions about how we can make systematic changes to make things better.
Improving the workplace for counselors, and in turn, improving services for clients with mental health needs will be a forever on-going process. This topic could easily be it’s own post, book, or series of books.
In the mean time, how will you stay healthy, engaged, and able to serve your clients? Here is what has helped me along the way:
- Embracing the inevitable and learning to recognize the signs of burnout. Burnout will happen. Be ready and keep a look-out. It can mean feeling exhausted, numb, hopeless, helpless or depressed. It could mean feeling anxious, panicked and unable to sleep. Other signs include relief when clients cancel sessions, dreading going to work in the morning, client-blaming, or being sarcastic, cynical and resentful.
- Receiving lots of supervision from other therapists. One-on-one direction from therapists with more experience than me was priceless. Group supervision also helped decrease my sense of isolation and boosted my confidence.
- Becoming a regular therapy client. I believe therapy is effective for helping people cope with a stressful life. That is why I’m a counselor, and it is also why I am not afraid to seek counseling for myself.
- Taking steps toward basic self-care. Keep eating, exercising and sleeping habits healthy. Avoid alcohol and drugs.
- Maintaining relationships with family and friends. Build your social support network. Stay connected to your community.
- Taking time off. Get out of town or turning off the phone. It’s ok to un-plug and relax, even if it is just for a few minutes.
- Seeing the big picture. Every therapist has a vision and a reason they entered this field. Remind yourself of it.
Nine Major Causes of Workplace Conflicts and How to Resolve Them
Every organization faces conflicts now and then, even if rules and procedures are strictly in place. Miscommunication, misunderstanding, and disagreement happen. But when they are not resolved immediately, they lead to workplace conflicts. When trivial issues turn into conflicts, they disturb the workplace and affect productivity. Workplace conflicts spread negative vibes in an organization. Effective steps from the management must curb them in the initial stage and restore peace. Here are the causes of workplace conflicts that affect production and bring down the profit for the year.
Resistance to Change
In the workplace, as days go, employees get used to their routine and start to feel comfortable with their assigned jobs. When, for a solid reason, the management restructures the office and enhances the nature of the job to the benefit of the employees, some employees show resistance to adapting to that change. Now, it becomes the responsibility of the management to help employees understand the need for change and accept it to embark on a new beginning.
Poor Working Habits
Employees must know how to work professionally once they are in their workplace. Some employees may be sloppy in their work or some may take extra care of their work. Training programs will help employees to understand their roles in the office and act sensibly while completing their assigned jobs.
Talk in person with the team members or arrange for a meeting with the professional counselor to eliminate negative vibes and bring positive changes in the workplace.
No Clarity in Assigned Jobs
Issues arise when there is no clarity while assigning job profiles to new employees. Frequently changing job expectations can also lead to confusion among employees. Even after having an adequate number of years in service, some employees fail to have a clear picture of their job responsibilities. Though induction programs clearly explain what the organization expects from the employees, it is better to have regular training sessions to help employees understand their roles and responsibilities clearly. This will help to prevent workplace conflicts.
Lack of communication among teams and team members in the organization often leads to workplace conflicts. Management must exhibit transparency and give space for employees to approach them whenever they need clarification to clear their doubts. Team leaders must communicate effectively with their team members so that every team member understands assignments and instructions thoroughly. Poor communication between peers and colleagues can also trigger problems.
It is better to check if everyone has received the information correctly. For it will help to build the morale of employees to move on smoothly with no issues.
Handling Differences in Personalities
Every organization has employees from different cultures, backgrounds, experiences, preferences, and temperaments. Personality clashes among team members could lead to workplace conflicts. When there are individual differences between team members, it leads to a lack of mutual respect among them. It will have a drastic impact on workplace relationships and affect productivity.
The managers or team leaders must understand the issue and resolve them in the beginning stage itself. As colleagues, every employee must understand the strengths and weaknesses of the other employee and behave accordingly.
Lack of Supervision
The absence of good supervision in the workplace leads to workplace conflicts. The managers and team leaders must understand their supervisory roles not only to check the completion of assigned jobs but also if there to know if there is smooth interaction within the team. They must be able to identify even trivial issues among team members and be ready to listen to everyone with an unbiased approach while handling issues.
Unacceptable Work Culture
An unhappy workplace has a toxic work culture that supports bullying and abusive behavior among team members. When a trivial issue grows into a serious workplace conflict, the entire work environment turns hostile. It not only affects the productivity but also the mental strength of the employees. Since workplace conflicts have a direct impact on the productivity of an organization, management must pay special attention to maintaining a happy work environment where everyone is content and comfortable while doing their assigned jobs.
No Understanding of Workplace Policies
Every organization follows a set of policies and procedures to be professional while at the workplace. When some employees fail to follow them, there will be no effective implementation of the rules and policies. Management must make every employee understand that rules are there to benefit them and make their working hours peaceful and comfortable.
Following Different Values and Work Styles
Just like different personalities, employees have different workplace values. The workplace values supported by older workers may be different from younger workers. Not accepting the difference between workplace values may lead to workplace conflicts. When a difference of opinion leads to a workplace conflict, it may affect the harmony of the workplace and productivity as well. Similarly, it can lead to unhealthy workplace competition that can affect teamwork and bring down the confidence level of employees.
Workplace conflicts should never go ignored. Even petty complaints can grow into bigger issues if they are not resolved as soon as possible. Managers and team leaders who supervise employees must know to identify workplace issues. They can approach expert mediators to get tips to resolve conflicts in their workplace.
Transparency and interaction with everyone in the organization will help management know every employee. Unbiased in their approach, they must make the correct decision at the right time. If people in their supervisory roles don’t understand the problems faced by the employees, it will ultimately affect the organization negatively. Maintaining a happy environment with positive vibes is the best way to prevent workplace conflicts.
Cultivating an Equitable and Anti-Racist Workplace
2020 was filled with unprecedented events in all facets of life, and, as many have noted across the globe, the year became a landmark for the call to action against racism.
From the incident in Central Park, where a white woman called the police on a black bird watcher, to the murder of George Floyd by police officers, and when the police officers who murdered Breonna Taylor in her home were not indicted for their involvement in her murder, it is clear that racism is still very prevalent and pervasive. It reaches far and wide, including at home and in the workplace, where power dynamics and structural racism can be multiplied.
Through his talk, “Social Work’s Role in Black Lives Matter,” Wayne Reid discussed racism’s reach into social workers’ professional lives. In the workplace, there are certain barriers that people of color face that white people do not. To address these barriers and inequities, equality, diversity, and inclusion advisory groups are often created. Too often, the burden of creating these groups and addressing racism in the workplace falls solely on people of color, when it is a fight that requires everyone’s involvement, especially those in positions of power. This is part of the push for people to go beyond being non-racist and to become anti-racist– actively fighting against racism and advocating for changes against racist policies and practices. It is an active, ongoing process, not only in one’s personal life but in professional environments as well.
Creating an Anti-Racist Workplace
Wayne works for the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), which currently has a goal to create a universal anti-racist framework that is applicable to all aspects of the social work field. This includes creating an anti-racist workplace, and Wayne and the BASW have an idea for how that would look. As Wayne described, an anti-racist workplace would have a very specific anti-racist mission statement, making sure to interview people of color, to integrate an anti-racism mentality into policies and procedures, to provide adequate anti-racism training to all staff, and to conduct annual pay reviews for employees of color to ensure they are being paid fairly relative to their white colleagues. With these steps, workplaces would have to take active steps to ensure they were discussing race within the workplace and enforcing anti-racist policies.
On top of these ideas for an anti-racist workplace, including mandatory professional development courses aimed at educating people on how to be anti-racist, anti-discriminatory, and anti-oppressive would be beneficial. There are already experts in the world of anti-racism who have done the groundwork, and their expertise can be utilized to help implement anti-racist practices within workplaces. For example, Stanford University has created an “Anti-Racism Toolkit” for managers to better equip themselves to address racism in the workplace and move towards a more inclusive environment, and the W.K Kellogg Foundation has created a Racial Equity Resource Guide full of training methods and workshops to provide structure for anti-racist professional development.
Wayne also discussed the importance of leadership programs for people of color within their workplaces. In the US, black people only make up 3.2% of senior leadership roles, and only 0.8% of Fortune 500 CEO positions. Employers need to sufficiently invest in leadership training programs and provide the resources to ensure the success of people of color within them. Leadership programs for people of color would help address the lack of people of color in leadership positions within the social work field and beyond. For social work specifically, in conjunction with these leadership programs, employers should create programs allowing social workers of color to mentor senior staff members as well, providing insight for them regarding the challenges people of color face in the workplace. That said, while the benefits of this type of program are important, boundary setting and confidentiality are just as vital and would need to be well thought out prior to implementation.
In order to assist in diversifying leadership, higher education must also be addressed. Despite the increase in people of color attending college, there is still a large imbalance in representation compared to the general US population.
For the social work field, it is important to address the accessibility of social work education programs. Because they are often expensive and have numerous requirements for entry, entry into the field is inaccessible for many. They also need to include a more deliberately anti-racist curriculum, which can be guided by people of color through their lived experiences, as well as experts in the field. The field of social work has long been dominated by white women, and that imbalance has impacted the curriculum that we use today.
As long as people continue to ignore racism and the effects it continues to have, nothing will change. Wayne and the BASW’s work to integrate anti-racist education and policies into the workplace and social work schools is crucial to the future of social work and the progress of anti-racist work. Social work needs to play a large role in the changing of policies and practices to ensure that the future is more equitable for all.
Pain or Pleasure: What do You Feel When You Go to Work
Maybe I am a hopeless romantic, but I believe that workplace environments are akin in many ways to romantic relationships. If we spend the majority of our time in a certain place, doing certain things, we should love it, just as we should love a romantic partner. Both need some degree of give and take and require mutual effort in order to thrive.
Relationship Between Work Environment & Job Satisfaction in an Organization for Employee Turnover by David Ingram defined work environment as follows.
“A work environment is made up of a range of factors, including company culture, management styles, hierarchies and human resources policies.”
Here are four smart questions to help you to determine the quality of your work environment.
Do I feel safe, stable, and secure?
Consider the physical environment of the workplace. Building maintenance and upkeep impacts the feeling of safety. Is the building constructed of strong materials? Is it constructed in a way that limits damage during inclement weather? Does the ventilation system provide adequate fresh breathing air? Does the heating and cooling system provide protection from the temperature fluctuations? Are structural problems repaired immediately? Is the office space clean and pest free?
This question addresses the basic human need for safety. The location, type, and maintenance of the workplace all impact one’s feeling of safety when at work. Many social workers practice in areas of great need. The buildings are often in financially impoverished areas. Some offices are located in places labeled as high crime areas. Many social workers travel to their clients, so the “office” is where the client happens to be at any moment. We meet clients under bridges, in wooded areas, or in homes. The actual location may not be as important as the measures to maintain as much safety as possible for both workers and clients.
Another aspect of safety involves the stability of the employer. This addresses whether the agency or organization is financially sound with strong support, as well as if the leadership has a vision for the work and communicates the vision clearly. The organization’s actions and behaviors toward clients and employees should align with the stated mission, and employees should be assured that they will have longevity in their employment. The sense of security is reinforced when employees receive adequate benefits and paychecks are distributed as scheduled.
Can I be my true self?
This question goes beyond individual personalities. It requires an in-depth assessment of style, mode of operation, as well as personality, on an individual and corporate level. Every workplace environment has its own collective personality. Think about where you currently work. Do you feel as if you fit? Some work environments have suit-and-tie, serious personalities. Others have a looser and more playful character. These descriptions depict opposite ends of the continuum, but most work environments fall somewhere in the middle. Your comfort level plays a role in your effectiveness at work. Comfort promotes confidence.
Think about your interactions with co-workers and colleagues. Do those interactions cause you to feel welcome and important related to the organization’s mission? Are disagreements handled with reasonable discourse and discussion? Does the supervisory team focus on the mission of the organization or on their own professional rise in the organization? Do employees work as a unified team?
Can I realize the full extent of my skills, abilities, and interests?
Before answering this question, social workers should have a clear understanding of their skills, abilities, and interests. We become frustrated when we cannot use or expand upon these aspects of self. A lack of challenge causes boredom and complacency as we resign ourselves to accept the droll of stagnant repetition.
Workplace environments that encourage employee growth cultivate loyalty. Some social workers may only think about how their skills, abilities, or interests enable them to meet the requirements of their jobs. They should, however, think about the impact these qualities have on their capacity to meet and exceed the mission of the organization. Insightful leaders in an organization will understand and use all available resources to meet the organization’s mission. This includes allowing staff members to do what they do best.
Are we working toward the same outcome?
Do you share the vision and mission of your organization? Does the result you are working towards match the result your organization expects? These are crucial questions for social workers who have been on the job for at least five years. You have worked in the organization long enough to know whether your goals align. If you are or have been in a committed relationship, think about the dissonance that occurs when the individuals disagree on joint goals and desires. No one is happy and the relationship suffers. Employment is not very different. You will commit to the organization’s stated outcome and method for achieving it when you work in your ideal work environment.
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