Staff Longevity: Working as a Team to Help Prevent Burnout
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.
Lastly, if professional development meetings are a part of a company's practice, asking about an instructor’s self-care practice can give insight to the risk in feelings of burnout. If an instructor is unable to clearly identify how they take care of themselves, or a creative outlet outside of work, place burnout on the radar.
Why are we concerned about burnout? Therapist Mike Mein, a former field staff, featured in the short film, says “field staff are hearing the stories, the trauma, and tragedy and doing the daily work…I tell them to call me if they’re struggling”. According to the interviewed staff, when directors, managers, and therapist can show their staff the same compassion and support that instructors show the participants, it leads to a more hospitable work environment, coming full circle where they are able to be their “best selves” in the field. The field staff are an integral part of what makes this industry successful! The higher quality support companies can give their employees, it seems the more staff are able to go above and beyond what is expected of them in the field, which can increase the quality of care for the participants.
“The Hazard” of burn out is what is at stake if the feelings go unaddressed.
Employee turnover can be influenced, as mentioned prior, by how an individual perceives their value and receives support in the workplace. The quality of care for participants can diminish with diminished quality of performance at work. And lastly, community culture and the sense of unity within a company can change when instructors feel burned out, which can result in a lack of professional growth for the company.
Katelyn and Mike referenced The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, and how the triangle of dysfunction relates to the field. The instability of Trust, Conflict, Commitment, and Accountability ultimately contributes to the demise of a team and the influence on results or quality of care in the field. This book is a potential resource for individuals and companies to reference, as encouragement for a continued journey of improvement and support for field instructors.
They also listed some tangible and intangible ways that companies can work to support staff and promote longevity.
Katelyn, Mike and I are excited to present on this topic once more at the 2017 National Symposium in Park City in August. We hope to have more perspectives from people outside of Evoke and within the industry, discuss the influence of diversity in the industry in relation to burnout, and develop tangible resources created by field staff for field staff, related to self-care that include development packets and specific suggestions. We hope to see some new faces and revive this discussion with our audience on continued support for field staff and how to function as a team!
Image 2: Patrick Lencioni’s “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”