We have all heard that those in the helping professions – counselling, social work, continuing care work – are at a high risk for burnout. In education programs and training for many of these professions, burnout is discussed in-depth and individuals are prompted to preemptively plan self-care methods to prevent and combat symptoms of burnout. Burnout is discussed as if it is an inevitable part of working in a helping profession, but is burnout a necessary part of doing meaningful work?
How do we define meaningful work?
Researcher Michael Steger defines meaningful work as work that creates a sense of personal fulfillment as well as a meaningful and positive impact on the world. This sounds good, doesn’t it? And research does agree: people are happier, healthier, more engaged, more committed, and better-performing when their work is meaningful to them.
Why do these jobs often lead to burnout?
The problem lies in compensation. Individuals typically engaging in this type of work are passionate, driven, and committed, and have chosen their profession for bigger and more important reasons than a paycheck. This affects compensation in two ways, according to Steger. One, since individuals are less motivated by money and choose these professions out of passion and drive to do good, they are generally paid less than others as a whole. Two, these types of individuals are more likely to pick up the slack, fill in gaps where work is necessary, and take on other tasks that are not part of their job. This is a good thing in general, but they are unlikely to be appropriately compensated for their extra work.
Protecting ourselves against burnout
So, how do we protect ourselves against this significant downside of engaging in meaningful work? Steger has three suggestions:
1. Recognize that meaningful work can be a renewable resource, but not if only withdrawals are made
If we consider the meaning that we put into our work as a renewable resource that requires being recharged, we will have a better knowledge of our limits. This provides us with the language of understanding self-care. Our meaning requires replenishing like any renewable resource so we must take the time to replenish it. Remember, “It is not selfish to take breaks, say no, ask for greater support, or even step away from a job that has [us] constantly drawing on [our resource of] meaning but doesn’t give [us] the chance to replenish.”
2. Strive for work-life harmony
This is a specific change from the idea of work-life balance. Work-life balance has us thinking about each of the separate areas of our lives that are important to us and putting them all in separate boxes in an attempt to create a balance between them. But it isn’t always possible to separate these things, especially in helping professions. Sometimes we get an urgent work call and we don’t just stop caring because it is outside of work hours.
Harmony suggests finding a way for many aspects of our lives to work together in a similar way an orchestra does. It allows us to be more flexible in achieving comfort in our lives by allowing us to focus more on work sometimes and more on other priorities, like family, at other times. It does not force us to attempt to make everything work at once. This will often just make us feel bad for not being able to achieve balance and that gets us nowhere.
3. Be open to joining collective action
When we talk about burnout we often end up talking about self-care. There are a lot of aspects of working in a helping profession that can feel isolating. And many of the problems that lead us to feeling burnout are not problems that we can manage individually. So not only can joining together to discuss these situations be healing, but together we can advocate for ourselves, for better working conditions, and a more equitable share in the economy.
After all, as Steger beautifully says, “We shouldn’t have to choose between making a living and having a meaningful life.” Consider ways that you can replenish your sense of meaning, strive for work-life harmony, and mobilize supports.
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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published as part of a Globe and Mail “Ask the Psychologist” column authored by Dr. Samra, and has been edited and updated.
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