August 12, 2009

Compassion Fatigue

It is Wednesday of my week long vacation. Today is the first day I did not begin the day by checking my work email or the office calendar. Although; I admit, I did eventually find myself doing so, I am happy to report that a majority of the events were sent to my “to do” folder. As I pen this entry I am glad to say that I am at the pool watching my son boy-bond via the cannon ball.

When I am with him I often wonder if I could do this full time, if being an at home mom was even in the cards for me. I know I am among the fortunate working mother’s as I have usually worked for an employer who allowed me enough flexibility in my schedule to still be an active mom. He is my priority. I think being an involved mom makes me a better human and that translates into my being a productive employee.

I travel the country making presentations. The most sought after topic is probably on burnout. I have had many counselors tell me horror stories about their places of employment where supervisors or systems insist on work obligations being the only priority. I understand that I hear stories from only one perspective, but it does cause me some concern. In a helping field where we dispense wisdom to clients related to balance why would we fail to do the same for our employees? For ourselves?

Now, I have had difficult employees who, even when given the time and tools to get the job done still do not. And they could very well be in workshops in some place telling a presenter about a crazed supervisor who expects too much of them.

Given the need for counselors but the complaints of so many employees and agencies I am brainstorming sensible ideas for the employee and the employer.

What does it take to be a successful employee and have longevity in this field? It is only my opinion but I believe first and foremost we must take care of ourselves. Even when working 40-50 hours each week there is time to take care of ourselves. A simple prayer, meditation or 12-step meeting could fit into a busy or rigid schedule.

As a working mother of an 8 year old I am still actively involved in my son’s life. I insist on it. I am a room mother in his school, I frequently take him somewhere overnight on the weekends, even if it is only to visit family. The change of scenery is an environmental impact that helps me see the difference between work and home.

I also stay committed to my involvement with my local professional association. I attend a monthly CEU luncheon for one hour. It is a recurring event on my office calendar. Many months I could easily skip it because of the business in my office but I attend anyway. I noticed each month that no one dies while I am out of the office for that short time and all of the obligations are still there for me when I get back. Being away is a much needed break and being with my peers is filling to me. Listening to the speaker adds information to my professional life and the bonus is a free CEU!

I also continue with supervision and consultation. Even when it is not a requirement, I find setting aside a few minutes to gain another perspective is enlightening. One of my favorite sayings is, “I already know everything I know. I need to know what you know”. I don’t know other ways to grow more quickly. Interestingly, two people I have learned a lot from in the last year aren’t even counselors. They are Executive Management members on the business side of the company I work. They bring a perspective that at one time I may not have had interest.

Therapy is another significant component of self-care I gift myself. Even when I have no “active issue” I go. Because I am busy I often go with a list. I jot things on the list from time to time that I want to cover and when I get there I get right to work. Writing is a cathartic event for me. Why wait? I tell clients to feel the fear and work it out anyway. Why shouldn’t I do the same? Leaving my issues at home is a must for my work. I don’t want my banker talking to the teller next to her about her problems with her marriage. Our clients deserve the same respect, courtesy, and energy from us.

As an employer there are several things I have found successful where I currently work. First is having a set schedule for counselors. That includes arrival and departure times. We also have scheduled lunches, scheduled preparation time before groups and scheduled time for paperwork afterward. To expect someone to get everything done in a day that is the state standard and not allow them time within their day is not productive.

Employers need also be considerate to allow their staff time within their work hours to attend an occasional training or simple CEU networking event. From a business point of view it really will pay off in productivity. A happy and balanced employee is generally more valuable in the long run. Besides, your employees are representing your agency while at these events. Marketing through employees who appreciate their employer is probably second in line to clients who are grateful for the services they received.

I also think it is a good idea to have an occasional “feel good” meeting where a staff member is openly valued and asked to contribute their ideas. Even sending the intermittent email praising something well done is helpful. Depart from the old idea that their paycheck is the appreciation. A kind word of praise will go a long way for most. Many in the workforce like the idea of a holiday party or even donuts at a staff meeting. It isn’t expensive or labor intensive to show thanks.

While time management can be an issue for counselors who favor client contact over client documentation, providing the tools and time needed to complete the job is paramount. All counselors know, at some level, that there will always be more work than hours in the day. When reasonable time is allowed to complete a task a more fair assessment of the counselors’ ability can be made.

Balance remains the key, personally and professionally.

Now I think I see a need for another participant in a game of sharks and minnows.

No comments: