Tips for Burnt-Toast Social Workers

Social workers, police officers, psychiatrists, nurses, teachers, counselors and other caregivers are victims. Authoritative institutions tend to become entrenched power-structures and are notoriously impervious to change and criticism from below. This puts them in the middle between a whining, uncaring public and a ceiling that resembles a bed of nails. Burnout is an everyday threat.

Providing care is often a difficult process. Emotional outlets for the burnt-out include hostility, fear, impatience and empathy:

Hostility- Feelings of anger and irritation will be frequent. Seeking a scapegoat, helpers may express hostility toward others to boost their self-esteem by putting others down. Remember the Kathy Bates as the nurse in “Misery”?

Fear- Police officers and prison guards have to work knowing that they might be suddenly attacked, injured or killed. Avoidance or denial through psychic numbing does not allow one to come to terms with fear. It’s a huge challenge to be effective and maintain emotional health.

Impatience- Emotional exhaustion is high in those who are impulsive, impatient or intolerant. Time to reflect or gain perspective is minimal. Making decisions without a cool head is a bottomless pit of frustration.

Empathy- Understanding someone’s problem from his or her point of view should enhance one’s ability to serve. But repeated vicarious experience of another person’s emotional turmoil will ultimately lead to a hard heart.

Although personality does play some part in burn out, job-related, interpersonal stress comes from situational sources. The phenomenon is so widespread, the people affected by it are so numerous, and their personalities and backgrounds are so varied, that it does not make sense to identify “Bad People” as the cause for an undesirable outcome. Rather we should be trying to identify and analyze the critical components of “Bad Situations” in which many good people function. Imagine investigating the personality of a piece of toast to discover why it had burned without analyzing the toaster!

People who care for people interpret their bad experience as a reflection of some basic personality malfunction. Negative interpretations propel many people into self-condemnation. Some seek therapy to understand their inadequacy, but more battle the problem with booze or rush it away with drugs. A tendency to overestimate the importance of personal factors is the cause. What they need is a new philosophy, Situationism.

The main thrust of Situationism is rejection of traditional, legalistic, anti-humanist morality. Situationism is concerned with the nature of authentic moral choice, denial of intrinsically wrong acts, and has a positive emphasis on human subjectivity. It is criticized for an excessive reliance on intuitive, quasi-mystical responses to the facts of the situation; confusing the realms of faith and reason. Moonflowers likes this aspect immensely.

Purity of intention is the only criterion for evaluating decisions. Suppose God comes to you in the guise of Dick Weber and commands you to throw a “7-10 split”. Before you can obey, you must come to believe that throwing splits is good. Fear of punishment or promise of reward is not to act morally. That would be phony.

Recently mathematicians have begun to formalize the part that situations play in the formula of cause and effect. Situations are abstract objects in their own right. Just like numbers or people, they are part of the equation.

Information can be divided into to two forms, analog and digital. Perception of information is the first stage, where it becomes directly accessible to the eye, nose, ear or other sensor. The flow of information at this point is analog. “A picture is worth a thousand words”. The second stage is extraction of a item of information from this continuum. It involves the conversion from analog to digital information. This stage is cognition and a huge amount of information is lost. For example, after looking at this picture, I tell you, “In this picture, someone is holding a powder blue bowling bag”.

Often we simply discriminate situations without any act of individuation going on. Individuate means to see situations as a whole, not just as a collection of sights and words. Discrimination is just being aware that two objects, or situations are different, without analyzing how or why. Changing your behavior depending on the situation is not evil or flighty, as long as it is not phony.

Because social workers, police officers, psychiatrists, nurses and teachers work inside the establishment, a philosophy based on authentic moral choice and human subjectivity may seem impossible. You could lose your job. “Within” is exactly where changes need to begin. Understand your situation along with the other factors and carefully conquer it in tiny baby steps.

Here’s a list of suggestions on how to head off hostility, fear, impatience and empathy, the emotional outlets of burnout.
1. Think of work and home as two very different places, a special transition is needed to get from one to the other. Skin divers decompress to avoid the bends, you need a cooling off period to ensure a pleasant time with the ones you care about the most and to make your problems seem less immediate and intense. Bowling is the perfect release.
2. Physical activity will get your dophins swimming. Care for yourself, your health and keep strong. Taking things less personally and reminding yourself that “their pain is their pain” is a good way to keep your distance without being cold. Think of your patients or students as pins.
3. Always take your breaks. Getting away serves as an emotional breather. Even built in pauses in your routine will let you set a pace. Being alone is good, but socializing is necessary too. Counterbalance your work environment with positive experiences with healthy happy people outside of your primary area of work. Join a bowling league.
4. Set goals that have a reasonable chance of being reached to take the frustration factor out of your life. Accentuate the positive, restructuring a situation will make your work more rewarding. Ask for positive feedback. To combat the feeling of being directed totally by an institutional power-structure, do the same thing differently and increase the chance of stumbling on a Eureka!

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