All the self-care in the world won’t prevent burnout unless mental health workers stop trying to be superhuman and accept their vulnerabilities, an Australian researcher told Community Care.
Marieke Ledingham, a lecturer in counselling at the University of Notre-Dame, Australia, conducted research with 55 mental health workers to find out why they were suffering burnout in such large numbers, despite understanding its causes.
This research comes as figures from Community Care’s annual stress survey showed 60% of social workers were in danger of burning out if their current situation continued.
Ledingham described a gap between mental health workers’ knowledge of burnout and their ability to recognise it in themselves, which she put down to a false perception that it couldn’t happen to them.
Far from seeing themselves as immune to mental distress because of their occupation, mental health workers should see burnout as a major occupational health risk, she said.
The research consisted of 55 open-ended questionnaires and 12 in-depth interviews. 25% of the respondents were mental health social workers. Other groups included mental health nurses, psychologists and counsellors.
In her research paper, Ledingham said excessive stress caused a reduction in people’s capacity to make decisions and think clearly, but mental health workers were less likely than other caring professions to seek help before it got to this point as they viewed it as a personal failing.
A high proportion of those interviewed said they would be likely to blame themselves for burning out, as they believed their professional identity meant they should be able to withstand stress.
Ledingham said: “An interesting point made was, as burnout reduced their mental and physical health and work competence, it also reduced their ability to recognise that they were suffering from burnout and seek support.
“Organisations should try to help staff recognise their symptoms and seek treatment. They have a duty of care for staff who are unable to see their own situation.”
She suggested reflective supervision and a culture of openness could go some way to helping prevent burnout, things which some social workers told Community Care they were not receiving from their employers.
One Approved Mental Health Practitioner (AMHP) responding to Community Care’s survey described their supervision as “spasmodic”. Another mental health social worker said symptoms of burnout such as stopping caring about cases made them feel “ashamed and inhuman”.
Another added: “I feel as if I am not being listened to regarding my struggles with managing my current caseload. I have not had supervision for the last 3 months and find it difficult to get one booked.”
Ledingham will present her research at a British Psychological Society conference in Glasgow today.