Sector News — 12 January 2015

Many mental health workers fail to recognize their own burnout, and when they do, they struggle to admit it to others for fear of being judged, according to a new study conducted by Ph.D. student Marieke Ledingham.

In fact, many of the study participants commented on the irony of being a mental health worker yet being unable to recognize symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression in themselves.

“Burnout has long been a problem in mental health workplaces and remains so despite much research and considerable knowledge of it amongst professional employees. Despite working in this sector employees struggle to avoid burnout and we wanted to study how work places could improve support,” said Ledingham.

For the study, a total of 55 mental health workers — mental health nurses, psychologists, mental health occupational therapists, social workers, psychiatrists, and counselors — wrote about their experiences in a qualitative questionnaire on their beliefs, attitudes, and perceptions about burnout and how these tend to impact their well-being at work. In addition, 12 participants completed in-depth interviews.

Study subjects were mainly older female mental health workers. Sixty percent were aged 40 and over, with 33 percent being over age 50.

Doctor on the phone

Analysis showed that many of the participants did suffer from work burnout, and because of this, they felt that they were weaker, less capable employees. Some participants also said that even when they recognized their burnout, they would often blame themselves and would have a difficult time confessing it to others for fear of being judged negatively.

“It is concerning that some found it difficult to recognize burnout in themselves until signs of physical and emotional breakdown had affected their work,” said Ledingham.

During the study, the researchers noticed an unusual finding: As burnout continued to reduce the participants’ mental and physical health and work competence, it also reduced their ability to recognize that they were suffering from burnout.

Therefore, once the process of mental exhaustion had begun, they were even less likely to seek support and more likely to ignore the warning signs.

“Organizations should try to help staff recognize their symptoms and seek treatment. They have a duty of care for staff that are unable to see their own situation, whether due to unrealistic or unhealthy workload expectations or factors outside the employer’s control,” said Ledingham.

Ledingham will present her paper at the British Psychological Society Division of Occupational Psychology annual conference in Glasgow, Scotland. Her co-authors include Peter Standen at Edith Cowan University, Australia, and Chris Skinner at the University of Notre Dame, Australia.

This article first appeared in PsychCentral, on the 11 January 2015.

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