Causes and Prevention of Burnout in Human Services

By: Isatou Susso

Causes and Prevention of Burnout in Human Services

The term “burnout” was coinedby Herbert Freudenberger in 1981 and initially defined as”a debilitating psychological condition brought about by unrelieved work stress, resulting in depleted energy and emotional exhaustion, lowered resistance to illness, increased depersonalization in interpersonal relationships, increased dissatisfaction and pessimism, and increased, and work inefficiency”(Freudenberger & Richelson, 1981, p. 4).  It occurs when professional are overwhelmedand unable to meet constant demands.  As the stress continues, professional begin to lose the interest or motivation in human service profession as caregivers.

Social workers burnout:

Job stress is estimated to cost the U.S.economy $300 billion in sick time, long-term disability, and excessive job turnover. Stressful jobs have been identified as equally harmful to women as smoking and obesity (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 1998).  Caring for a sick member or disabled child can cause burnout especially if the situation is chronic and professional have little support.  Big case loads.  Dealing with difficult clients in agencies.  Lack of teamwork and poor management supervision can cause job burnout.

Physical signs and symptoms of burnout in human services: the social worker is always tried and feels drained most of the time, the immunity system is low; he or she feels sick most of the time, and body pain such as headaches, back pain, and muscle aches. Also the social worker sees different in appetite or sleep habits, eating too much, and less sleep at night. Emotional signs and symptoms of burnout in human services: the social worker feels a sense of failure in his or her job and most of times doubt him or herself, social worker begin to feel helpless, trapped in the situation, and defeated, and detachment, feeling alone in the world finding it hard to socialize with friends and family

Behavioral signs of burnout:

1. Withdrawing from responsibilities

2. Isolating self from others

3. Procrastinating, taking longer to get things done

4. Using food, drugs, alcohol to cope

5. Taking out frustrations on others and skipping work or coming in late and leaving early.

Steps to get life back on balance are:

As social workers it is important to begin the day with a relaxing ritual, stay in bed for few minutes just don’tjump out of bed as soon as wake up, mediate for at least 15 minutes, journal writing, gentle stretches the body, and reading something that inspires you.

The social worker should develop healthy eating habits, exercise regularly, and good sleeping habits.  Social workers report chronically experiencing a lack of clarity about the roles they play with clients, teams, systems, and organizations (Powell, 1994), prevent the feeling of overwhelming one’s self, efficient management of job tasks, and bring structure and planning in life, and manage time well as an individual and in an organization.

Set boundaries are important social workers do not have to overextend oneself to cause job burnout in supervisory position.  As social workers should have ways to accommodate time for fun and say yes on things and ideas that will work out for the organization. Social worker should take daily breaks from technology, turn off phone or laptop for three hours and relax the body and mind.

Social worker needs to nourish his or her creative side, try to do something new, start a fun project that can make the mind think cognitively example crosswords puzzles, make a timetable playing a favorite hobby once or twice weekly.  Learn to do activities that have nothing to do with the human services profession.  At the individual level, staff development interventions such as in-service training, on time management, and peer support groups for problems solving and resource exchange can provide symptomatic relief from burnout (Lewis, 2007). Learn how to manage stress will help human service professionals control emotional and physical damage.  As social workers it is important to slow down or take a break.  Find time to rest, reflect, and heal.


“Changing lifestyle, thinking pattern help coping with burnout.”,PPI – Pakistan Press International, Sept 14 2009 Issue Retrieved June 11,2011

Developing and Managing Human Resources Judith A Lewis, Thomas Packard, Michael D. Lewis copyright 2007Brooks Cole


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