Jessica Teperow, director of prevention programs for the Massachusetts-based organization REACH Beyond Domestic Violence, isn’t sure she would use the word “burnout” to describe her experience. But she says that working in this field has definitely impacted her.
Teperow was a domestic violence activist as a high school and college student and she tailored her academics to her planned future in the field. “Once I started working full time, there was this immediate excitement—I was getting paid to do the work I loved, and I got to do it all the time,” she says. “I didn’t have the maturity or awareness to understand that this work is hard. It brings up a lot. Plus, I very much wanted to prove myself in my field and to my colleagues. I felt this intense pressure internally and externally to hit the ground running.”
Now, with 15 years of experience, Teperow can better see that her work is a marathon, not a sprint. “I came into this work as a survivor, with so much passion and energy. My experience [as a survivor] lit the flame. What keeps that flame going in part are the incredible stories of survivors.” She now understands that she needs more than passion for her work to stay with it long-term.
“Doing this work is a blessing. When it stops feeling like a blessing it’s time to check in around the burnout component. When we feel numbed out or like it’s too much to take it all in, that is when we become a danger to ourselves, to our loved ones, and to the very people we’re trying to support.”
Here, she shares some tips:
Manage Your Workload
Teperow recalls a position earlier in her career when she was working 13 hours a day, six days a week. “When I came home after work or on weekends I would just collapse. Only a few months in I started crying one day and I was saying to my family, ‘I’m just so tired.’”
Now she works for an organization that understands the importance of a healthy, manageable workload. “If we don’t put ourselves first we are doing a disservice to the work we care about. I had been burning so fast that, had I continued at that rate, I couldn’t still be doing this work now,” she says.
Watch for Warning Signs
Exhaustion and bursting into tears are obvious signs of burnout. But there are more subtle signs to watch for, too. One is an inflated sense of importance—a sense that without you, everything will fall apart. For example, one time, when walking on a city street, Teperow was so determined to stick with a hotline call on her cell phone that she stepped into the road and was hit by a car. Even after being struck she found herself reaching for her cell phone.
Another warning sign is what she calls “numbing out.” She says, “I would see people who seemed able to handle anything—nothing seemed to rattle them and they could hold everything together. I thought that was what I should be living up to. But now when I hear people say, ‘I’ve heard it all, I’ve seen it all’ I recognize that numbing language.”
She says that if you see signs of either a sense of importance or numbness in yourself to pause and think about what’s going on. Know that these feelings can be signs of potential burnout.
Consider Clinical Supervision
“We all witness suffering quite often in our communities,” Teperow says. “Whether it’s sitting with people in hospital rooms, listening to people who just experienced assault or who experienced it years ago and never told anyone, or working with families who are learning about trauma for the first time.”
Talking about your casework with a supervisor or a counselor gives you another person who can help make sure you’re taking care of yourself.
Build Your Toolbox
Your toolbox is the day-to-day (and sometimes even hour-to-hour) set of strategies you have for coping with the demands of your work. The tools are different for everyone, and may even change for you over time. Teperow loved to run when she lived in California, but after she relocated, running in the Massachusetts winters didn’t work for her. Plus she worried about sidelining her self-care with an injury. And when trying yoga years ago, she couldn’t quiet her mind. But now yoga is her go-to choice to connect her mind, body and spirit.
Self-care comes in a lot of forms. In a stressful situation, steps you can take in just seconds—like physically grounding your feet on the floor, squeezing a ball, or running your hands under warm or cold water can help. Building habits like these into your daily work can help you keep burnout at bay.
Connect With Your Colleagues
Your relationships with your colleagues can help sustain you and keep you feeling connected. “It’s an opportunity to find inspiration and energy,” Teperow says. And when you know your colleagues well, you know what self-care looks like for each other and you can encourage each other to find balance.”
If you’re in a leadership role, take steps to prevent burnout in your organization. “The long-term goal is really about creating sustainability,” Teperow says. It’s not just encouraging people to take a bubble bath or to practice yoga in their time off. Leaders can build in clinical supervision, make time for retreats and encourage people to check in with one another during meetings.
“Finding a sustainable work force means trying to discourage the behaviors we see as at risk for burnout. In a leadership role we have a responsibility to keep that conversation going and not to wait until someone comes and says, ‘I can’t do it anymore.’”
Staving off burnout on the organizational level can help reduce turnover. “I can’t tell you how many organizations still work with constant turnover. That makes the deep social change work very challenging,” Teperow says. She’s pleased that she’s now working with an organization with long-lasting employees. “Those folks have found a way to find balance, and they are modeling that,” she says.
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