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If you feel like you are losing your sense of meaning in your work, if the people you're there to help don't matter as much to you anymore, if you're beginning to feel emotionally depleted or used up, if you don't feel like you are accomplishing much at work...what can you do about it? We can use the term secondary prevention to refer to suggestions aimed at folks who are in stressful jobs where burnout is a strong possibility, which includes humanitarian workers. For a discussion of possible sources of burnout, click here.
First of all, how well do your values and those of your agency fit one another? For example, you may feel that it’s very important to be deeply engaged with and helpful to individuals, while your agency may be oriented to assisting as many people as possible, even if it means doing something small for or with large numbers of folks. If fit of values is an issue, it helps to look for commonalities, places where your values match, as well as to think about whether you can learn to value the things your agency thinks are important.
What about the fit between your interests, talents, and skills and your job description? Collaboration and conversation with your boss or co-workers can help you both to understand the fit issue and to enhance your skills or expand or shift your job description it if this is a problem area.
As we all know, workload can really affect people. It’s inevitable that we will sometimes feel like the amount of work we have to do can’t be done in the available time. But if your job constantly demands more than you can accomplish, this is an area requiring attention. Some approaches include learning to work more efficiently, asking for more help, or developing longer task or project time lines.
Sometimes taking on new tasks can revitalize your job, especially, if you aren’t that interested in it these days. Of course when burnout is on the horizon, a natural response is to feel like doing less. Yet adding a new task or working with new people can add zest to your work days. Sometimes I volunteer to do something additional even when I can’t see how it will fit into my schedule because experience has taught me that I can work more efficiently when I’m engaged in something new.
Reorganizing the way you currently do your work or restructuring your work day can also be helpful. Sometimes I want to sit at my computer and work in a focused way for hours, only getting up to stretch every 20 to 30 minutes. At other times, I find that breaking up the focused work with phone calls, e-mail, or non-desk work energizes me.
Focusing on what one is doing is more helpful than looking for external signs of progress or success. Knowing you are doing your best can provide satisfaction. When we do look for external signs of progress, we often look for big changes. Big change comes about through small steps, and learning to value glimmers of progress is a useful perspective.
Finding a role model at work could also help prevent burnout. We all know someone who‘s been doing humanitarian work for a long time who seems able to sustain himself or herself in the work, to enjoy and value it. If you can identify such a person in your agency or elsewhere, you may be able to learn from him or her about ways to stay engaged.
Taking breaks from work, during each day for meals, walks, or short conversations with others, can replenish all of us. Another type of break comes through taking vacations as well as rest periods between assignments. Such “rebound time” is vital to long-term resilience, as it allows us to consolidate and integrate our experiences before we open the doors to a new set of challenges.
Many people find it useful to take time for private reflectionsin the form of meditation, prayer, or writing in a journal, listening to a favorite piece of music, or going for a walk in nature. A colleague of mine used to keep a sketchpad and pencils next to her desk. After doing something particularly difficult, she would take a couple of minutes to draw something as a way of putting her feelings on paper. You don’t have to be Picasso for this process to be valuable!
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