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Child Caregivers and Burnout

December 2, 2013

In previous Blogs I have discussed the importance of trained, committed and caring child caregivers, and their rights. However, due to the ongoing task of caring for orphans and vulnerable children, many child caregivers have an increased susceptibility to burnout.

What is Burnout?

Burnout is emotional, intellectual and physical exhaustion due to excessive and prolonged stress. The child caregiver will have a resulting lack of productivity, intense feelings of despair and a loss of hope.

How is burnout different to stress?

Stress and burnout are ‘similar’, but different. People experience stress every day. Examples are driving a car in heavy traffic, a baby that cannot be easily settled, and toddler tantrums. I am sure that you can tell me lots of things that occur in a day that causes you stress!

But we adjust to a ‘normal amount of stress’ that is short lived and common to our lives. We find stress can actually stimulate us and we get used to its affects.  However ‘unusual or traumatic’ stress that is prolonged can cause burnout. The following is a common example of burnout.

Freda is a widow as her husband died a year ago from HIV/AIDS.  She is responsible now for their three children under 10 and her elderly mother who lives with the family. She has worked for over ten years in the local ‘orphanage’ and is the supervisor responsible for a room with 20 children with disabilities. Freda is a committed to providing quality care. She is assisted daily by one to three volunteers from within the local community, but the women have other commitments. Freda is never sure who will turn up on the day.

Freda often feels overwhelmed with the task of bringing healing to the children’s emotional hurts and catering for their continuing day to day care. In addition, she has to organise their many medical appointments, and make sure the volunteers take them to the hospital. Often the children are admitted, and she is concerned for their well being while away from the ‘orphanage’ as the hospital lacks professional staff and medical resources.

To cope from the constant pressures she has began to emotionally withdraw from the ‘orphanage’ children, and is often impatient with them. She wishes she could stay home and care for her children and her mother, but feels ‘trapped’ as her wage is their only income. She often cries on her way to work as she feels she has problems that cannot be solved.

Causes of Burnout

While ongoing stressful work plays a part in burnout, there is often a combination of several factors.

Work-related Causes:

  • Caregivers untrained

  • Poor child/carer ratio

  • Feelings of having little or no control over work situation

  • Carers overwhelmed by the number of children and their complex problems

  • Lack of recognition from others

  • Tasks undefined, unclear or overly demanding

  • Unrealistic expectations from others

  • Work that is monotonous or unchallenging

  • Environments that are chaotic or have strict routines

  • Lack of professional/organisational support

Lifestyle Causes

  • Working too long hours without a break

  • Not allowing enough time for relaxing and socialising.

  • Too many responsibilities

  • Not getting enough sleep, poor nutrition

  • Lack of close, supportive relationships

Personality traits

  • Perfectionist personality (always striving to do ones best)

  • Pessimistic view of the world

  • The need to be in control

  • A reluctance to delegate to others

  • High-achieving, Type A personality

Burnout does not happen quickly, it is a gradual process that occurs over an extended period of time. In the busyness of caring for orphans and vulnerable children, workers and supervisors may fail to recognise the signs and symptoms of early burnout.

I have included a photo of a conference participant in Uganda who is doing an exercise on how to raise caregiver self esteem.

In the next two Blogs I will discuss signs of burnout and Individual Strategies, and then individual and organisational strategies that can be implemented to prevent and lessen its affects.

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