6 mistakes that will lead to burnout in youth work

RACHEL DOHERTY

Social worker, teacher and the founder of Tweens2teen

Burnout is a risk for all youth workers and school chaplains. It’s one of the main reasons that people leave the profession.

If you’ve ever lit a campfire, you’d know there’s a few stages to getting it right. There’s the building stage where you stack the tinder, kindling, and timber. Getting it just right so the fire will catch.

Then there’s the lighting stage. You get heaps of smoke, and you’re working hard to get the campfire going. The last stage, the memorable one, where the fire takes off. Finally, you can start roasting those marshmallows.

“It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.”

ARISTOTLE

Burnout isn’t all that different. It too has a building stage, but not as intentional. We take on extra responsibilities. New stresses enter our life. A crisis happens.

Then there’s the lighting stage where your feelings and thoughts start to char. There’s some smoke letting you know that some things aren’t quite right. If you don’t respond to these signals, you can find yourself with a full on fire to deal with. That sort of burnout is never pleasant. It ruins reputations and careers. It hurts others and hurts you.

I’ve written another article about the signs of burnout and what to do when you’re in that space. But before things get too far, it’s important to know the early warning signs. So, here’s six mistakes that will lead to smoke if you don’t keep them in check.

Not separating your work, rest and play

As helping people, it’s easy for youth workers to do youth worky things outside of their paid job. Volunteering at youth group, coaching or running holiday camps can feel like “play”. But they also involve lots of one-way relationships.

Try to keep life balanced. But rather keeping your paid work in line with what you do at home, think about balancing your relationships. Ones where you give out a lot of care and support, with relationships that are mutual or give you more.

Developing a superhero complex

Some youth workers think they can do everything and fix anything. That doesn’t work here on earth where we have finite energy and resources.

Set aside time now and then to look at what things fill up your days and how these fit with your job. If they don’t match up, you either need to change what you’re doing or negotiate what your role is about.

Youth workers should work at developing excellence in networking and outsourcing. Work on doing your job well, and allow others to do theirs too.

“Stress is an important dragon to slay – or at least tame – in your life.” – Marilu Henner

Ignoring your own needs

When your job is about caring for others, you can often put your needs aside. But the best thing we can do for young people is to set an example.

Young people might come to us for help with their problems or worries, but what they’re looking for is people who make life work. Who feel content and happy most days. People who can help them find that too.

If you work on getting your life together, you’re going to find the kids around you do too. Self-care is one of those things that it’s not that hard to do something about. You can get started today! But rather than go into that here, have a look at the article I wrote about developing a self-care plan.

Comparing your patch to others

It’s easy to look at what others do and think you’re doing a terrible job by comparison. But what you see on the surface is rarely what’s actually going on.

Youth work isn’t a glamorous job. It’s a slow process of building relationships and influence. It’s about planting seeds and waiting for them to grow.

Don’t let the comparison bug bite. Instead look to others for inspiration, but do your comparing within. Think about how things look in your workplace right now and how you’d like them to look in 12 months time. Look back and see what things have improved, or what new things you’ve started. These are much healthier and more realistic comparisons to make.

Being a people pleaser

Most youth workers are people people. They love to connect and walk alongside others. But a fair percentage also have an inbuilt desire to please others to feel valued and worthy.

Don’t let your self-value be reliant on what others think of you or how they feel about themselves. You need to find other measures of value. Like reaching your goals and developing new skills.

The problem with trying to please others is that when you fail with one person, your self-belief can fall in a heap. Or you can get so caught up in trying to make others happy that you no longer do what you’re meant to be doing. Don’t make this part of your job.

Forgetting the emotional toll

Some of the people you meet in youth work have troubled lives. Or they make choices that make life hard. Your emotions will get battered from time to time. It’s important to find a reflective process that works for you. One that helps you sort through your own actions, thoughts, and feelings.

But on top of that, it’s important to create an intentional space for debriefing. Whether you do it once a month or a few times a year, professional supervision helps you take an outside look at your work. Do some of that inside thinking out loud. And process what your feel, think and do from a different perspective.

If you’re a youth worker and not getting professional supervision, why not give it a go? It’s not like going to the dentist, and if you do it with me, I’ll even shout you a coffee. To learn more about professional supervision, take a look at what service I provide. And if you’d like to book a session, you can do it with just a few clicks.

Not only is burnout like a fire, but it’s also like a wave on the ocean. When you’re in the water, it rises slowly. If you’re not looking out for the signs, it can quickly crest and swamp you. But when you’re standing on the shore, you can see the beginnings of the wave much earlier.

Stepping back from your work and having others look over your shoulder keeps life balanced. It keeps burnout at bay. Have you felt the pain of burnout? What mistakes do you think cause it? I’d love you to share your thoughts below.

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