Wow doesn’t that encapsulate our role as police officers. Burnout however is not confined to those engaged in stressful occupations. You have heard the phrase “The straw that broke the camels back.” What ever you do, when you’re ready to snap and give up, then you are at the same place as those that risk their lives daily. You may have taken a different journey to get to that place but the same place nonetheless. Those of you that either know me or follow this blog will know that I often opine from a position of ignorance. What I rely on are my own personal experiences and what I have drawn from them. In that respect I am an expert on myself. It is however useful to put some structure on this topic by people far more clever than myself.
Psychologists Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North have theorized that the burnout process can be divided into 12 phases, which are not necessarily followed sequentially.
The Compulsion to Prove Oneself
Often found at the beginning is excessive ambition. This is one’s desire to prove themselve’s while at the workplace. This desire turns into determination and compulsion.
Because they have to prove themselves to others or try to fit in an organization that does not suit them, people establish high personal expectations. In order to meet these expectations, they tend to focus only on work while they take on more work than they usually would. It may happen that they become obsessed with doing everything themselves. This will show that they are irreplaceable since they are able to do so much work without enlisting in the help of others.
Neglecting Their Needs
Since they have devoted everything to work, they now have no time and energy for anything else. Friends and family, eating, and sleeping start to become seen as unnecessary or unimportant, as they reduce the time and energy that can be spent on work.
Displacement of Conflicts
Now, the person has become aware that what they are doing is not right, but they are unable to see the source of the problem. This could lead to a crisis in themselve’s and become threatening. This is when the first physical symptoms are expressed.
Revision of Values
In this stage, people isolate themselves from others, they avoid conflicts, and fall into a state of denial towards their basic physical needs while their perceptions change. They also change their value systems. The work consumes all energy they have left, leaving no energy and time for friends and hobbies. Their new value system is their job and they start to be emotionally blunt.
Denial of Emerging Problems
The person begins to become intolerant. They do not like being social, and if they were to have social contact, it would be merely unbearable for them. Outsiders tend to see more aggression and sarcasm. It is not uncommon for them to blame their increasing problems on time pressure and all the work that they have to do, instead of on the ways that they have changed, themselves.
Their social contact is now at a minimum, soon turning into isolation, a wall. Alcohol or drugs may be sought out for a release since they are obsessively working “by the book”. They often have feelings of being without hope or direction.
Obvious Behavioral Changes
Coworkers, family, friends, and other people that are in their immediate social circles cannot overlook the behavioral changes of this person.
Losing contact with themselves, it’s possible that they no longer see themselves or others as valuable. The person also loses track of their personal needs. Their view of life narrows to only seeing in the present time, while their life turns to a series of mechanical functions.
They feel empty inside and to overcome this, they might look for activity such as overeating, sex, alcohol, or drugs. These activities are often exaggerated.
Burnout may include depression. In that case, the person is exhausted, hopeless, indifferent, and believes that there is nothing for them in the future. To them, there is no meaning of life. Typical depression symptoms arise.
They collapse physically and emotionally and should seek immediate medical attention. In extreme cases, usually only when depression is involved, suicidal ideation may occur, with it being viewed as an escape from their situation. Only a few people will actually commit suicide.
There are a lot of topics to discuss in that list, some of it management speak and blah blah. Don’t get me wrong, if those terms of reference are useful to those that use them AND as a result can bring about real change then bring it on! To me though there are a few headings that instantly jumped out at me. Proving oneself, work harder and depersonisation.
It is easy to forget that as Police Officers we do a job. Day in day out attending incidents, not knowing what we will have to confront, taking responsibility for other peoples actions, there is simply no other job like it! As a road policing officer I attend Fatal collisions. Sometimes there is disruption to the body of the deceased. It becomes the norm. Ladies and gentlemen what we witness and see, what we do, what we have to deal with is very definatly NOT the norm. Remind yourselves of that fact!
The police service is performance based, it shouldn’t be but there you are. Things are changing ever so slowly to change this outlook. So you set off, all guns blazing to meet the targets placed against you. You place expectations of yourself and try to meet them. When you can’t you try all the harder to the point where all other things that SHOULD matter no longer do. You become obsessed with the very thing you can not hope to attain, neglecting the things outside the job that keep you a rounded person which ultimately give you the strength and armor to pursue those targets. It’s a snake eating its own tail.
And so, eventually, because your so obsessed with those targets and forgetting the things that matter to you, the force that makes you YOU slowly weakens to the point where you can no longer remember why you are the person you are and why your chasing those targets. Little things cause great strife. No staples in the staple gun, a printer that won’t sync to your work station, no elastic bands, a bin overflowing with rubbish which ordinarily are set backs become problems that cause you to shout aloud.
At some point in our lives we have had problems at home or at work. We escape home to come to work. We escape work to find peace at home. But when there are problems at both ends then either environment provides little comfort and breathing space. This is a vicious circle, we become burnt out.
Just as physical activity requires energy then so does mental/emotional activity. So just like a battery with a constant drain on it, the odd moments you try to recharge your battery you will never become fully charged. This is burn out.
So how does one combat this worry?
Look at your situation, as a whole and it will seem insurmountable. Break it down into manageable chunks. The old saying “One thing at a time” is as relevant today as it was when first uttered. A tray full of files, numerous telephone enquires and the constant demand of that bloody radio.
Before you finish work for the day, set yourself one goal for the following day. Whether it be to finish a file, interview a long outstanding suspect or update those taskings you should have done the day before but couldn’t. Tell your supervisor that is what you are going to do. Have a plan.
To recover from burnout takes time, a lot of time. Like the battery draining faster than is being charged, you have to address the balance. At first your battery will still drain. As you slowly get through your work whilst all the while picking up new work you will slowly get to the point where the charge in equals the drain out. At this point don’t give up, keep going and get your battery charged.
And one of the best antidotes to burnout is to rediscover your love and passion in what you do. Use your energy to rediscover yourself and take it from there, be gentle with yourself. You have to go at a pace that you will allow you to make progress on your own terms.