It probably comes as no surprise that over the last several years since the height of the COVID pandemic that the term “frontline workers” became a well-known descriptor of specific jobs, oftentimes determined by the amount of time spent face-to-face with the public. These jobs were our first responders, healthcare workers, social workers, government employees, freight workers, transportation workers, public health employees, and store employees. Prior to the pandemic many of these roles were highly forgotten or misunderstood in the importance they play in keeping our communities functioning yet they make up 42% of the workforce. Moreover, many of these individuals also get lower pay (one study showing the national average pay was $13.48/hr), limited benefits such as mental health leave or vacation time, long hours at work, and increased health and safety risks with their jobs. Frontline workers experienced a dire shortage of staff both during the height of the pandemic, and presently, as a major symptom of the staffing changes after. Frontline workers have always been the individuals who see the worst of the worst and oftentimes feel the least support. It was brief and extremely appreciated during the height of the pandemic, but as the COVID pandemic has blended into our new normal, so “fades” the admiration of the dedication and selflessness of these workers. With short staffing comes increased responsibility, expectations, and not appropriate support in return from employers or society, inevitably leading to feelings of pushing yourself past your limit, feeling it’s difficult to say “no,” and maybe even the need to pick up overtime because you need extra money but you know your body is physically at its limit. Sound familiar? If so, let’s dive into strategies to support you and to manage the burnout when you’re giving every ounce of yourself to your job as a frontline worker.
For some, the topic of managing burnout may feel annoying, tiresome, revolting, and demeaning. Perhaps it immediately makes you feel defensive because you dread the advice being “take a vacation,” “take time off of work,” “spoil yourself,” or something else that simply feels unreasonable when all you feel like you’ve recently been able to do is survive, pay your bills, and may even have to live paycheck to paycheck. And, let’s be honest, this limits the reasonable options in managing your burnout–but it doesn’t eliminate them!
Times can be hard, and I recognize firsthand, as someone working two jobs as both a therapist and frontline worker, the realities of burnout–I’ve often experienced it myself. This leads us into the number one technique in our list of ways to manage burnout.
- Know yourself:
Most of us have insight into when we are overworked, over tired, and at our breaking point. Sometimes we choose to keep pushing, sometimes we have no choice but to keep pushing, but the insight into knowing when you are in too deep emotionally, physically, and mentally is important. Try to know your yellow and red flags of approaching burnout. Are you feeling irritable or snapping at others more (friends, family)? Doom scrolling to distract your thoughts of feeling unhappy at your job? Experiencing increased worry about whether you can make ends meet? Second guessing your job or choices? Make a list of what you would consider yellow flags, and a list for red. Take action as soon as you enter into yellow territory.
- Understand burnout:
Know the three things to look for that accompany, and essentially, define burnout: overwhelming anxiety, feeling detached from (or avoidant of) your job, and feeling a lack of accomplishment with a leaning towards cynicism.
- Calm the stress response:
Burnout comes from an overloaded nervous system, increased cortisol, and not enough of the good hormones, rest, and overall happiness. Reintroducing calming techniques is a coping tool that can support you when things feel severe–however, I acknowledge it is impossible for it to fix the problems of feeling underappreciated and underpaid. A great calming technique is self-havening and a quick five-minutes during a lunch or restroom break is as long as you need for this somatic calming technique.
- Challenge your internalized beliefs:
Allow burnout to be a moment in time where you pause and reflect on if you are choosing something that makes you happy. We all know the saying “find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” just as much as we know that this is actually a rare thing to find and life isn’t always that easy, fair, privileged, or achievable. And. Just because a certain job or career was what you once loved or felt was what you were ready to accomplish, doesn’t mean it still has to be right for you. Are you pushing yourself to stay somewhere or be someone you feel disconnected with? Consider doing a check-in with a career or personality self-assessment quiz to see if you are choosing what is right for you today. You don’t have to hold yourself back, even if it may take a sacrifice or time.
- Distress tolerance and psychological flexibility:
As mentioned prior, we know that frontline jobs have an unfortunate history of feeling disrespected, forgotten, or misunderstood, which can lead to feelings of defeat. All of this is made worse by the feeling of stuckness and uncertainty of when it could change–if ever. For that, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) has a great selection of coping skills to help defuse distress when you experience the thoughts. These exercises are called thought defusions.
- Remember, you aren’t the problem.
Systematically, the organizations that are ineffectively recognizing the need for increased pay, benefits, and recognition of their staff are primary sources of burnout. It takes energy to advocate for yourself or others, and it may be the last thing you want to do when things feel exhausting–but it can be a solution when you have a burst of energy. Finding a sense of purpose and determination can be motivating, but it is imperative to give yourself time to recover from self-advocacy in the workplace as well. If you are part of a union, lean into their support and find a network of co-workers you can trust to collaborate with! You are stuck in an unfair societal system that was broken before you entered the workplace–don’t be ashamed of your burnout, it is telling you what you need.
- Lastly, the tried and true self-care (without spending big bucks)!
To be fair, I cannot end this without a push in advocating for self-care, even though I am well aware that it doesn’t always have the fix. Self-care can be simple; it can be watching your favorite TV show, buying a dollar store puzzle, or doodling flowers on a piece of paper. A warm blanket, a cozy sweatshirt, or a warm bath, a walk outside, baking goodies, or some deep breathing exercises can be simple tools in self-care. Even just a good night’s sleep! Think of self-care as anytime you need a break from overwhelming thoughts or feelings–you’re not running from them, you’re just putting them on hold.
Hold onto the belief that no matter what the situation is that you’re in, honoring your body and mind, regardless of how it feels in the moment of fearing your bills, your status at work, or your next step is extremely important. You cannot be a good employee or continue to pay your bills when your body is run down. Rarely does the system watch out for us in the frontline, it is unfortunately on us to ensure we care for our own wellbeing and fight for that to change. You are resilient and strong, and I know you are exhausted. I feel it with you. Be kind to yourself and know that things may not change quickly, but you can begin the change in your wellbeing one piece at a time.