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Care work is an incredibly vital sector. There are around 1.52 million people working in the adult social care industry in the UK and those working within the care sector are predominantly women. The UK is facing a shortage of carers as the number of people who need social care has risen over recent years. This means that many carers are working harder and longer to provide vital support for those who need care.
The result? A huge increase in care workers reporting care worker burnout. But what is care worker burnout? What are the signs and symptoms of burnout? And how can care workers promote their own well-being so that they can avoid the risks of burnout? Here’s everything you need to know:
Introduction to Care Worker Burnout
More than half of health workers report symptoms of burnout; these symptoms include insomnia, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or other mental health challenges. This was clarified by a June 2021 report from the House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee which concluded that burnout is a widespread reality in today’s NHS.
Many people assume that burnout is a colloquial term, but it is actually recognised as a legitimate condition. ‘Burnout’ was recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as an ‘occupational phenomenon’.
There are many factors that contribute to the prevalence of care worker burnout. Care workers work long hours which can lead to physical exhaustion. The emotional demands of care work can also lead to mental and physical exhaustion with care workers regularly exposed to challenging situations. All of this can lead to burnout. Burnout is defined as ruining one’s health or becoming completely exhausted through overwork.
This doesn’t mean that care work isn’t a rewarding and valuable career choice. Care workers play a vital role in society, can see the instant impact they have on the lives of others within their community, and are able to build unique relationships with individuals they might now otherwise meet. But it does mean that care workers should be made aware of the symptoms of care worker burnout, and should be encouraged to proactively ensure that they are focusing on their own wellbeing.
By being vigilant about the risk of care worker burnout, care workers are less likely to suffer from it.
Recognising the Signs and Symptoms
We have briefly outlined some of the most common signs and symptoms of care worker burnout above, but a more extensive list of the signs and symptoms of burnout from the Mental Health UK website includes
- Feeling tired or drained most of the time
- Feeling helpless, trapped and/or defeated
- Feeling detached/alone in the world
- Having a cynical/negative outlook
- Procrastinating and taking longer to get things done
- Feeling overwhelmed
It’s important to recognise what your personal limits are as these will be different for each individual. As soon as you notice any warning signs of burnout it’s important to take a break and take swift action. There are many ways in which care worker burnout might manifest itself, and this may also look different depending on the care setting that you are working in. For example, you might have less energy than you once had which means that you’re less engaged with your patients. You seem to catch every cold, flu or other communicable illness going around your care setting, or maybe you go to work feeling tired every day even if you’ve had a good night’s sleep. These are all direct signs that you’re too busy, that you’re neglecting your own needs, and that you’re suffering from care worker burnout.
Prioritising Self-care And Well-being
Self-care is a fundamental aspect of preventing and managing burnout. Self-care is an overused term that can be used to describe anything from taking a holiday to taking a bath. In reality, self-care is anything you do to take care of yourself so you can stay physically, mentally, and emotionally well. With such a wide-ranging definition there are many things that you can do to practise self-care, prioritise your well-being and minimise burnout.
Some common examples of self-care include: maintaining a regular sleeping routine, eating healthy, spending time in nature, doing a hobby you enjoy, and expressing gratitude. Care workers should establish and maintain regular routines outside of their work environments.
Sometimes practising self-care and incorporating it into your busy schedule can seem simply too time-consuming. When you are feeling overworked and underpaid, you might be tempted to spend your downtime watching tv and eating junk food rather than going for a run or making a healthy meal. But one of these is a better example of self-care than the other and will make you feel better in the long term.
The more sustainable your self-care routine is, the more likely it is that you will be able to maintain it in the long term. Some top tips for incorporating self-care into your busy schedule as a care worker include:
- Establishing a morning and nighttime routine that encourages good sleep hygiene.
- Taking all of your annual leave even if you don’t have holiday plans. Use this for mental health days.
- Ask for help when you need it and accept it when it’s
- Focus on self-awareness. Rather than criticise your progress, celebrate everything you achieve no matter how big or small. Practising daily gratitude is a great way to achieve this.
- Stop and rest whenever your body tells you it needs it. It isn’t always convenient to do this in the middle of a work shift, but even a 5-minute break can be rejuvenating.
- Don’t be afraid to say no if saying yes will be detrimental to your physical and mental health. This can mean saying no to extra shifts or extra work responsibilities if you have reached peak levels of fatigue.
- Seek out a therapist for additional support if necessary.
Establishing Boundaries and Managing Workload
We have already established that there is a chronic shortage of care workers in the UK right now. One report suggests that 8.2% of care roles are unfilled. This amounts to a shortage of around 100,000 carers. This means that care workers are increasingly asked to do more or to work longer hours to make up for this shortfall. But this can lead to burnout.
In order to prevent emotional and physical exhaustion, it is important that care workers manage their workload effectively, avoid over-commitment, and aren’t afraid to seek assistance when they need it. Some top tips for managing workload effectively as a care worker include
- Make a to-do list of what you need to achieve each day. Not only will this ensure you don’t miss anything it will also give you a sense of achievement as you tick each task from your list.
- Make the most of any downtime and take breaks when you can. You don’t know when the next busy period or crisis will occur, so don’t feel guilty for resting when you have downtime in your working day.
- Prioritise proper communication. Care work is much easier when you have clear and comprehensive communication with other members of your team. Write clear notes and when you communicate verbally do so in a clear and straightforward manner. Proper communication eliminates misunderstandings and medication errors.
Seeking Support and Connection
When you are feeling stressed and burnt out it’s easy to feel isolated and alone. But in reality, even if you are working in an independent position, you are never alone as a care worker. There are colleagues, managers, supervisors and even support groups available to give you help and advice when you need it. There are many benefits of seeking support in this way. Sharing your feelings with others working in the same or similar role to you is a great way to realise that you are not alone and that others are feeling the same way as you. Your colleagues or supervisors may also be able to share techniques and coping strategies that they have utilised successfully. They will also be more aware of your needs when they are made aware that you are experiencing burnout symptoms.
Open communication and expressing feelings and challenges is incredibly important. If you are in a managerial position then you may wish to consider introducing a mentoring programme or peer support initiative within your care organisation to encourage communication and minimise burnout risk.
Practising Mindfulness and Stress Reduction Techniques
Mindfulness is the practice of purposely bringing one’s attention to the present-moment experience without evaluation. It is a valuable skill that is usually developed via meditation or brain training. When you’re busy with your career as a care worker you may feel you don’t have the time to learn or practice mindfulness. However, it is a valuable stress reduction skill that can be incredibly helpful to care workers who are stressed or feeling burned out.
Some of the best relaxation techniques that you can practise at home that will help you to develop skills in mindfulness include deep breathing exercises, meditation and yoga. All of these have been proven to be effective at reducing stress levels. Yoga has an effective role in reducing stress, anxiety, and depression: so much so that some experts consider it a form of complementary medicine.
Meditation is also valuable as it helps you to build the skills you need to manage stress, gain a new perspective on stressful situations and focus only on what is happening in the present. Much of the stress of care work can come from future worries often referred to as ‘what ifs’. What if my patient’s condition deteriorates, what if I don’t make it to my next appointment because of the traffic, and so on. Eliminating these concerns and focusing only on the now can reduce overall stress levels and the risk of burnout.
The best ways to incorporate mindfulness into your daily routine include:
- Taking time to eat proper meals and to focus on what you are eating. Eating whilst reading or looking at your phone can lead to mindless eating. Instead choose what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat with purpose. This will put you more in tune with what your body actually needs.
- Switching off your internal autopilot. It’s estimated that 95% of our behaviour runs on autopilot, and this works well when you’re trying to work quickly and efficiently. But practising mindfulness encourages us to create new patterns and new ways are working that leave us feeling calmer and more in control.
- Working out regularly. The body and mind are linked, so when you are working out your body you are also working out your mind. Exercise releases endorphins and reduces stress levels, ultimately leading to higher levels of mindfulness.
Emphasising the Importance of Rest and Rejuvenation
It’s important to note that it doesn’t matter how much you meditate or focus on your diet and exercise routine. If you don’t take regular breaks and time off from your career as a care worker then you remain at increased risk of suffering from burnout. Breaks, holiday time, and other time away from work are massively important.
Hobbies, leisure activities, or creative pursuits can serve as outlets for stress release and rejuvenation. It can be hard to find calm but taking time out to focus on an activity you enjoy allows your body to be physically restored and your mind mentally alert. You can make time to practise activities you enjoy outside of work by
- Not taking on too many overtime shifts. Enjoy that you are leaving enough time for hobbies and relaxation.
- Take time out to unwind after you finish work. If you go from work to bed and then get up to work again you aren’t taking the time out you need to focus on your own wants and needs.
- Joining a social club or sports group that means at a set hour and day each week. Having a commitment to a club will make you more likely to make the time to enjoy your hobby.
Rest is vital for better mental health, increased concentration and memory, a healthier immune system, reduced stress, and improved mood. However you rest, make sure you are carving out the time to rest and rejuvenate yourself.
Care worker burnout is a very real concern amongst those working in the caring profession and it is important that care workers know how to recognise the signs and symptoms of burnout. Recognising the condition is a key element in learning to control it. Care workers should also develop coping strategies to prevent burnout such as prioritising their well-being and seeking support from other industry professionals to sustain their passion and dedication to their profession.
Managers and supervisors within the care sector can support their employees by creating a supportive work environment that values the mental and emotional well-being of their care workers. With so many carers choosing to leave the profession, it is more important than ever to ensure that the carers that remain are treated with professional kindness, care, and respect.