As May is Mental Health Awareness Month, it’s only right that we talk about a topic that hits really close to home for so many of us in the animal welfare space—BURNOUT!
Burnout is something that any person working too many hours, under too much stress, and in a challenging environment, is likely to experience at some point in their lives. As a social worker, and particularly a social worker in an animal shelter, I’m often asked if burnout is avoidable.
I don’t, unfortunately, have a universal answer to that question—so much depends on the individual; and it’s debatable whether burnout is entirely avoidable.
But I do think there are steps we can all take to mitigate burnout’s effects on us, and our daily lives. Are you ready?
Recognizing the Signs of Burnout
It can be challenging to identify burnout in animal welfare, mostly because by the time we realize we’re struggling, we’re already deep down a rabbit hole of several unnoticed symptoms —but cumulatively can leave us feeling hopeless, and beyond an identifiable resolution.
Alternatively, many of the signs and symptoms of burnout are similar to mental illnesses, such as depression or anxiety.
Because burnout has a lot to do with our work environment, people working in animal services are highly susceptible to experiencing it at some point in their careers. Unfortunately, many animal shelters just aren’t spaces that allow for us to show up as our best selves, often working long hours, outside in the elements, surrounded by the smell of urine and feces—and the literal life and death stakes.
Another important component of what contributes to burnout is organizational culture. Shelters across the nation are constantly understaffed, underfunded, and under-resourced, adding more stress to systems that are already at or more likely are over capacity.
This often leads to staff who work longer shifts, can’t or won’t take lunch breaks, have limited opportunities to build meaningful support systems with each other, and no time to find the joy in their work because they need to run from one task to the next.
While people need to be responsible for caring for themselves, organizations also need to continue to improve structural changes that contribute to burnout. For those of us in leadership positions, trying to manage all of that is just as taxing.
And I’ll take this moment to remind you that even if you’ve probably been working in this field for a long time, you are not immune to burnout.
People don’t experience burnout overnight, it can be months before the symptoms we’re feeling are severe enough to qualify as burnout or before we realize that this is not just the result of having a bad day.
Some of the symptoms of burnout include, but are not limited to:
- extreme exhaustion/sense of fogginess
- a sense of emptiness and/or unfulfillment
- feelings of cynicism or desensitization
- recurring headaches
- poor immune function
- difficulty concentrating
- feeling unable to cope with daily life (outside of your work)
- loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities you typically enjoy
- in extreme cases suicidal thoughts and/or ideation.
Sound familiar? Well, now that you’re aware of what burnout could look like, let’s focus on addressing it head on.
How to Build Resilience and Address Burnout
Building resilience, our capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, is key to ensuring that burnout doesn’t get the best of us.
There are five pillars of resiliency that we can build on to combat burnout:
- Self-Awareness: Being self-aware allows us to honor our individual needs and emotions. That could look like paying attention to our bodies, being honest with ourselves—even when the truth is hard to admit—recognizing our triggers, and taking time to reflect back on our actions and behaviors.
- Moving With Purpose and Intention: When we act intentionally, our decisions (big and small) are planned, move us towards our goals, and allow for accountability. These are the actions we take in the present. Focusing instead on things that don’t move us towards our goals (i.e., distractions), leave us susceptible to falling into a monotonous routine and working towards things that aren’t meaningful to us.
- Practicing Mindfulness: By practicing mindfulness we’re able to tune out distractions, improve our attention skills, slow ourselves down, and live in the moment.
- Cultivating Healthy Relationships: Surrounding ourselves with people who love and support us, taking time to nurture those relationships, and setting appropriate boundaries help us stay connected to things outside of work that are important to us.
- Self-Care: Self-care is the pillar that everyone knows about. Self-care means attending to our emotional, spiritual, physical, and social well-being. Emotional self-care is being aware of our feelings, honoring who we are, and our emotions. Spiritual self-care is engaging in practices that connect us with our higher self. Think walking in nature, or visiting our place of worship. Physical self-care is caring for our body. Yes, that can mean exercising regularly, but it also means getting your annual physical, going to the dentist, or going to check on that knee pain that’s been bothering you for the last six months!
You may be asking yourself, what do these pillars look like in practice? Here are some concrete examples of how you can take action for each of the five pillars of resiliency.
- Check in with yourself. Ask yourself how you’re doing, take a beat to think about how things that occurred throughout the day made you feel.
- Carve out alone time for yourself.
- Sit in silence.
- Practice gratitude, such as through journaling, or thinking about or saying out loud what you are grateful for.
Moving with Purpose and Intention
- Use a planner. Plan out your day, and commit to that plan (to the extent possible).
- Set goals for yourself, and make a plan to meet your goals.
- Make a realistic to-do list.
- Turn off unnecessary notifications on your phone.
- Stay hydrated.
- Establish a nighttime routine to unwind.
- Delegate when you can. Do you have to be the person that does a specific task? Maybe you do, but maybe you don’t.
- Clean your physical space.
- Cut down on caffeine.
- Practice yoga, meditation, or breathwork.
- Complete chores or weekly tasks.
- Establish a transitional period between work and home. This could mean coming home, and taking a shower to signal to your body that one part of your day is over; you’re now beginning the next part of your day. For some folks, it’s the drive home to or from work.
Cultivating Healthy Relationships
- Spend time with friends and family.
- Dedicate less time, or none at all, to people who drain you of your energy, don’t understand why you continue to do this work, or don’t respect you.
- Spend time around people who are joyful and fun.
- Show up for people who love and support you.
- Practice active listening.
- Establish relationships with colleagues both inside and outside of work.
- Share how you’re feeling and what you’re experiencing with people you trust.
- Say no! Or yes, depending on the item in question.
- Limit your intake of news and social media.
- Go for a nature walk or visit your place of worship, or wherever you connect with others of the same faith or values.
- If you have access to PTO, use it.
- Take your lunch break or shorter breaks throughout the day.
- Use a diffuser with lavender oil to help you sleep better at night.
- Schedule doctor appointments.
- Leave work at work.
- Engage in outside or professional help such as therapy or support groups.
- Speak with your managers and human resources department if you are feeling overwhelmed, and are struggling.
It’s important to recognize that building resiliency is work, every single day. It won’t always make you feel good, and it likely won’t feel good right away. Consistency is really key.
We also need to take stock of ourselves and see what pillars, or areas, need more work than others. We might be doing great with engaging in self-care, but struggling to cultivate healthy relationships. Only you can determine what areas you need to focus on.
Our needs also change over time, so what worked for us a year ago, may not be working for us now, and that’s OK. It means it’s time to check in with ourselves. This is another reason why self-awareness is so critical.
If you are experiencing burnout, it probably took months before you realized it. Fixing it won’t happen in a day or even a week. It can sometimes take months before you no longer feel the symptoms of burnout, so you must remain consistent in building your resilience. It will often feel like work, not something enjoyable. It’s part of the process, trust it.
Alexis Telfair-Garcia is a licensed Master level social worker with over 17 years of professional experience and currently serves as the Social Work Program Development Manager for Austin Pets Alive!.