As a Clinical Assistant for Michael Griffin in Group 3 at Evoke Cascades, I work primarily with young adult males with substance abuse and addiction issues through a 12-step lens.
Burnout! For employees, this is a hot topic in the Wilderness Therapy Industry. Although it is ever prevalent, it is often not given the attention it deserves. I was given the opportunity to address this topic head on at the 2017 OBH Regional Wilderness Symposium, in Asheville, NC, in April. This gathering allows an array of clinicians and other professionals to come together to share research, insights, and explore ideas for improvements industry wide.
The intention for the presentation was to provide an inclusive definition of burnout from both the field staff and management perspective, discuss signs and symptoms, as well as address tangible and intangible methods of employee support leading to staff longevity.
As former field instructors, it was important to myself and my co-presenters to address longevity, due to its prevalence, and the taboo that accompanies discussing the struggles that come with this line of work. So, out of support for our wilderness community, rose the topic of Burnout.
This topic hit close to home, as it was something I personally struggled with toward the end of my time as a field instructor, and more importantly, I struggled to understand the underlying causes. This added to my excitement for the opportunity to present, with my colleagues Mike and Katelyn, qualitative research on the topic gathered from current staff and exit interviews.
We opened with short filmed interview sessions of current field instructors that were asked to elaborate on their experiences in the industry and pinpoint the contributing factors to their feeling recharged or drained from time in the field. The definition of burnout; exhaustion of physical or emotional strength, or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress of frustration, aligned closely with the responses from the field staff.
Themes that came from the interviews included, community and support, self-care, boundaries, feedback, and transparency. These themes were placed into two categories, Signs and Symptoms, and Hazards. The themes were re-framed as signs and symptoms to aid the prevention of burnout. Hazards, to identify the importance in being proactive with prevention.
Signs and Symptoms
If field staff are feeling “stuck”, "burnout”, or a lack of motivation to meet work related goals, and those feelings (and emotions) go unaddressed, it is likely that the feedback provided on performance evaluations will reflect this in the field.
Boundaries. Given the nature of the investment it takes to work in the therapeutic industry it is important for field staff to be able to work through their own struggles separately from work, as well as be able to hold firm boundaries with participants in the program. Fluctuation in an instructor’s ability to perform this task can be a sign of burnout. This can be measured through recorded feedback on evaluations and conversations with instructors regarding their practices in the field. How much vacation are staff taking? This may look different for each instructor, and a deficiency in personal time or excess in vacation requests can be a sign that an employee may have feelings of burnout. When employees are feeling burned out, who are they talking to? As part of feeling supported, field staff mentioned that being able to talk to their supervisors openly and honestly about their feelings of exhaustion, is helpful to their rejuvenation.
Community was mentioned in multiple interview responses. With the amount of time that field staff spend working together, it is almost inevitable that they form a close-knit community and use that as a resource for support. Each individual experience with the community will be different, and what has shown to be helpful in identifying a person’s struggle is a significant change in their interaction with their community, a change in their baseline.
It has been over twenty-two years since I first began working as a wilderness therapist. While the spirit and dedication of practitioners remains the foundation for quality wilderness-based therapy, many things have changed in that time: family support services, clinical sophistication, whole health curriculum, and a dedication to outcome research. Twenty years ago, when we began on our own adventure to establish the new standard in wilderness therapy, we knew that many would follow suit. We often stated, what makes our program great is not what we did yesterday, but what we are willing to imagine for tomorrow. At Evoke, one of our founding principles is our commitment to continually innovate where we see a need.
Group One, our adolescent boy’s group in Evoke's Wilderness program, recently completed another successful trip to Smith Rock State Park for a day of rock climbing.
I have spent this week reflecting on the messages from the 2017 Forum for Innovative Treatment Solutions’ [FITS] Keynote Speakers. Dr. Nim Tottenham shared her research on attachment and the impact on brain circuitry. Dr. Gabor Maté followed with an illuminating message about how fractured attachments are at the root of many mental health and addictive disorders. Dr. Maté challenged the audience, sharing observations from his practice and life, suggesting that the only important variable we ought to study is the stress (trauma) on our clients—genetics taking a back seat or maybe being kicked out of the car altogether in the pursuit of understanding that the root cause of addiction and mental health is the events in a person’s life and the pain and turmoil where they originate. Addiction, he explained, is not the problem. It is the addict’s attempted solution to the problem. Lastly, Dr. Jami Gill reviewed attachment theory and encouraged therapists by suggesting that we have the capacity to repair attachment trauma by providing a safe container (or context) for others. That safe context, she explained, was the mind of the therapist, consultant, friend, or parent, and their capacity to listen and really hear the one with the attachment trauma.
In January, I got an email from my friend Brad, inviting me to come and see his awesome wilderness program in Utah, Evoke Therapy Programs. "What a fun opportunity!" I thought to myself, and quickly, and rather impulsively, said yes.
A loud noise happens on a crowded street. Many people are startled for a moment and then, after recognizing that it was a car backfiring, they go on with their day. But there is a teenaged girl and a forty-year-old man who are having very different experiences. The loud noise initiated a startle response and then the re-experiencing of vivid memories. These two are transported to entirely different places and times that have become defining characteristics of their lives. They are trauma survivors, one of whom is remembering a gunshot and the other the slamming of a door.
Many people hear words like research, statistics, and outcome and quickly become disinterested or stare blankly into space! Others get excited to hear about MANOVAS or degrees of freedom or significance levels. Research in psychology tends to be a bit more interesting, especially since it relates to human conditions that many of us can identify with in our own lives.
A close friend of mine experienced intense body image and eating issues when we were teens. One day, years later, she confided in me how much it meant to her that I always saw her as a person, never as a disorder. She described our friendship as a lifeline that helped her survive those extremely difficult years. When everyone else was worried about how much she did or didn’t eat, or if she went to the bathroom soon after a meal, she knew that I would talk, play, and savor life’s adventure with her. Years later, after having read many books, attended the best seminars exploring everything from the biology of refeeding syndrome to sociological factors, and after working with many people who struggle with body image and eating issues, I still remind myself that I am interacting with a person, NOT a disorder.
One of Evoke Therapy Program’s founding principles is a commitment to being a conscientious company, making the health and well-being of our programs, employees, and communities a top priority. This commitment includes contributing to our local and larger communities via service projects, and encouraging our employees and clients to feel the value of giving back to others.