Quality Service and Mental Health Care Professionals’ Burnout


All people depend on one another. No man is an island; we all need help to get by day to day. Those of us that don’t need help today may need someone to rely on in the future, just like those who do need help today may be able to offer support tomorrow.

People with developmental disorders have multiple needs. Very early in life, they get used to have trained staff around who can train them and support them in their day-to-day activities. From a staff perspective, this work is full of challenges. The process of treatment, education, and the general day-to-day life of people with developmental disabilities demands certain qualities in a professional career: a desire to learn, awareness, acceptance, and love for fellow man.

Professionals are required to foster in the disabled person a feeling of belonging. They are meant to help him minimize his feelings of isolation and loneliness, and to help him cultivate friendships of his own, as opposed to being surrounded by paid staff alone.

The primary concern for every professional caretaker is to promote and encourage a true life to the person with developmental disabilities. The goal is for the disabled person to have a meaningful daily life, not to preoccupy himself with distractions.

Individual particularities, slow learning, and/or provocative behaviour can challenge even the most experienced professional, who starts out with the best intentions but can soon find himself depleting his psychological resources, inventiveness, and ingenuity. Additionally, people with developmental disabilities with difficult behaviors breed negative emotions in the staff, such as fear, anger, anxiety, stress, and feelings of incompetence. If we add to this the qualities of someone who punishes and negatively criticizes, then the staff may be inclined to silence some of their mistakes and try to hide their inefficiencies.

Professionals who offer support to people with disabilities need constant training and support in many areas. If training is not consistent, it is very possible for the very thing most parents are afraid of to occur, such as negligence, abuse, excessive control, and punishment from the caregiver.

Another reason for loss of joy and motivation to work is the repetitive nature of the job and the discouragement for new programs and initiatives within the field. The worker who is prevented from creating new approaches and participating in new programs often loses interest in his work. If he understands that he has the power to create and to contribute to making important changes in the lives of not only disabled persons but their families as well, then perhaps they will feel they play a greater role in social inclusion.

For the past three decades, extensive research has been conducted in the area of “Professionals’ Burnout” in service industries that offer psychosocial support for people. “Professionals’ Burnout” is characterized by “emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a sense of ineffectiveness”. “Emotional exhaustion” is self-explanatory”. “Depersonalization” means that the people being cared for start being treated like objects by their caregivers and humane treatment towards them disappears, replaced by robotic, mechanical responses. “A sense of ineffectiveness” can also mean indifference to the work. All of these have been studied over the past years by numerous researchers. It appears that young professionals who are ambitious and hopeful, but who have also experienced premature disappointments, can overcome “Professionals’ Burnout”. In contrast, research shows that older workers who suffer from “Professionals’ Burnout” who have lost their sight of the importance of their work, as well as interest and passion for it, struggle immensely to find balance again. It is even possible that because of this they become and/or create obstacles to the proper functioning of an organization.

All people have common needs. These needs motivate behaviour. We need acceptance and attention; we need to have control over our choices and our lives, something which often translates as a need to control others;  we need to be secure and safe, we need to preserve ourselves in an environment that is good biologically, personally, and socially; we need sometimes to belong other times to be alone. All of these needs are completely normal but can often feel extreme depending on morale, education, and our own personal particularities.

Before “Professionals’ Burnout” becomes apparent, what is commonly referred to as “Emotional Intelligence” diminishes. “Emotional Intelligence” includes, amongst others, characteristics such as awareness, empathy, a need for personal development, responsibility, a sense of  accountability, duty and honesty.  Finally, acceptance of self and the constitution of a wholesme personality is of utmost importance, yet it seems that many people struggle to reach this goal – a fact that promotes areas of experiential training to fill in the gaps.

All attributes of emotional intelligence weave through the communication channels we have with ourselves and with others. Whether we are referring to our internal voice or communication with another, the dialogue channels itself through our mental images, thoughts, beliefs, emotions, feelings, bodies, and behaviour. When emotional intelligence improves, our internal and interpersonal communication skills also improve, through all the aforementioned channels.

Our Mind, full of all these stimuli (thoughts, images, convictions, emotions, etc) can often feel loud and cluttered. In the tragedy “Ajax”, Sophocles says: “Life is sweet that is not bothered by thought.” Research today tells us that every eleven seconds we have a thought or an image. There is an unstoppable and disorganized internal dialogue between our mind and our peace. When this dialogue is negative, pessimistic, and critical, it ends up feeling like torture.

When referring to “awareness”, I imagine that I am gazing into the mirror of my soul, looking at my dark place; the one which instills fear in me. This is the very reason I avoid it. This fear I feel often manifests itself as anger, authoritarianism, or internal shrinking. Professionals working with people with disabilities must be trained in “awareness”. In other words, he must be able to observe himself and familiarize himself with humanity’s weaknesses and strengths. To do this, he must discover his own darkness and his own light.

I often disguise my dark side with kindness, thinking that I can hide the difficulties I feel inside me. We all have light and dark parts. When I’m being trained in “awareness” I discover both my light side and my dark side, and I co-exist with both. This coexistence brings with it the weakening of our dark parts. We become more authentic; we become more human, ready to support another human.

Another skill which is very important is to cultivate is the ability to observe oneself and to listen to oneself. We usually spend way too much time judging others and ignoring how we ourselves communicate with our bodies and our faces – what is known as “non verbal communication”.

“Empathy” is the ability to sense or understand how someone else feels. In other words, to ask yourself: how would I feel if I was him? Obviously this is done with the intention of helping others, not to hastily say whatever goes through our mind without consideration for the other.

If we imagine that that the human experience is like a series of concentric circles, then the external circle represents fear which leads to aggression, escape, or freezing. To reach a functioning level of “Emotional Intelligence” it is possible to require the help of someone else who has already struggled with his immobility and fears, which likely also resulted in aggression, escape or freezing. Someone who wants to acquire a good level of communication will recognize his anger, his intense desire for material gains and social status as well as his arrogance. Discovering these pieces of his soul may liberate him from their burden and he can reach a level of calm and improved communication with himself and those around him.

Despite all this, it is not enough to correct myself to communicate with others. There will always be people who cannot or will not want to communicate in a more authentic way. These people have motives, usually outside of their consciousness and function in a destructive manner.

We all wish to see high-quality services in Greece for people with disabilities. We want to see parents feeling relief and the disabled individuals themselves living a real and good life amongst the rest of society. The organizations we create must promote “Awareness” and be managed by people with “Awareness”. Leadership must have a clear vision and a positive mission. It must appreciate and fully utilize its employees and adapt swiftly to changes in the economic, social, and political climate. The organizations must consistently remind themselves why they are there in the first place: that is, to train, support, and treat people with special needs. In the same way, it must remind itself of the values it serves. The organization must cultivate a culture of honesty and non-punishment where mistakes are made, given that mistakes are part of the learning process and the human condition. Leadership in an organization with a culture of trust is responsible for applying these values in action in order to sustain a better life for those it serves, reasonably encouraging risks that a “real life” includes.

How is a culture of honesty and trust achieved in an organization?

The following are required:

  1. Constant support and supervision regarding the improvement of “Emotional Intelligence”. By supervision, we do not mean “policing”, but rather in terms of helping an employee become more open, honest, and in touch with himself and others.
  2. Consistent support for recognizing both the dark and the light parts of our souls.
  3. The wisdom to know that all of us have inside of us a creator, a destroyer, and a conservator, and that each part is valuable.

The vision therefore is to create social services’ culture of communication, honesty, and trust. It is to encourage employees to help young people with special needs come out of isolation and eclipse loneliness. It is for these young people to lead more meaningful lives, understanding themselves and others. It is to bridge the lives of “special people” with the lives of all of us and to stop them from being alone in the minority.

P. Papanikolopoulou Ph. D.
Psychologist, therapist

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