Burning Out After Jumping In: Reflections From the F By Kelsey Craig, MSW, LCSW on 6/25/18 - 11:32 AM

Some days, I question why I became a social worker. Other days, I wonder why I chose to work at an inpatient psychiatric facility for the past two years of my life. Coincidentally, these last two years were my first years in the field post graduate school. The reason I find myself working at an inpatient facility is a much less dynamic mystery—I was hired straight out of grad school by the hospital I did my first-year internship with. I remember it vividly. I was nearing graduation with a mountain of student loan debt, armed with an Ivy League education and ambition to help others. Secretly, I was crippled with anxiety about exiting the comfort that being in school provided. So, like most people, I jumped at the first job I was offered. Mystery solved.

However, wondering why I became a clinician is a recurring thought. Sometimes I find myself pondering the motivation behind my entire career path. On other more hectic days, I gravitate towards the more stress-fueled variety of that question: Why the (expletive) did I choose to dedicate my life to helping others who, more often than not, don’t want my help?! Why am I swimming in debt to provide services to patients who would rather do literally anything than attend my groups?

It occurred to me recently—can this be burnout so early in my chosen career? Is it possible to be burned out after two years of practice? Apparently so. Okay, so, we’ve established that I’m burned out. The question now evolves to—what do I do about it? I engage in self-care daily. I have a beautiful horse that I ride as much as possible; I have a wonderful husband who supports me in every way; I journal; I participate in mindfulness; I play with my dogs, I don’t take work home with me. But, on the worst, most chaotic days—that’s not enough.

If I’ve learned anything from my years on this planet—what’s right for one is not right for others. I don’t presume to have the answers for anyone but myself. Though, I know I’m not the first to wonder if it’s too late for a career change because I just can’t take anymore (just a side note—I’ve investigated essentially every profession that does not deal with other living human beings). So, I’m not sure if this is the “right” approach, but here’s what I’ve determined: burnout is eased by the days that a patient says, “thank you.” Okay, that’s ridiculously simple and people are rolling their eyes thinking, “Yeah, someone says thank you and then all your stress and compassion fatigue just vanishes?” Definitely not.

But, today a patient walked into my office. Uninvited… sure!, but “come on in” I said! He said to me, “When I first got here, you made me nervous because you are a smart woman. But, I have to tell you that I’ve learned so much from your groups. You have a heart of gold and have helped me more than you know.” This person then proceeded to recite ideas that were shared in my groups and was applying them to his particular situation. He illustrated how certain topics helped him in specific ways throughout his admission. I won’t pretend that this interaction erased the layers upon layers of burnout hovering over me like an aggravating, stress filled cloud. But, I can say with confidence that this conversation reminded me why I became a social worker. This five-minute discussion is the answer to the recurring question: why did I enter this field?

Burnout remains a mystery to me. I know I haven’t introduced an unfamiliar idea into the narrative around this subject. Though, if you’re anything like me, and you feel like you’re doing as much self-care as one human can possibly do yet continue to feel dread as you pull into the parking lot at work—then gratitude is the sprinkle of motivation essential to putting the car in park and carrying on with the day. And maybe it is just enough to keep me moving forward into this new and strangely rewarding career.

File under: A Day in the Life of a Therapist, Musings and Reflections