The burnout effect

It’s the cellphone charger that Sylvie Surette remembers most vividly. She discovered the body on Oct. 30, 2010 and left social work two months later.

“I came in at 4 p.m. for the shift change. She hadn’t been talking much, but they weren’t worried about her. Teenage girls didn’t have a tendency to talk much when they were there,” said Surette, who was working at the Moncton Crisis Intervention Centre the night of the suicide.

Her voice trembles and she closes her eyes as she describes what happened next.

“The phone rang for her and I went upstairs to get her. I knocked on her door, but she wasn’t answering, so I opened it. She was in the corner of the room with her cell phone charger around her neck.”

Surette, 27, was a social worker for just three years before becoming one of many to burnout from the demands of the job.

During those years, she bounced through several jobs including a group home for teenage girls, child protection services, and a mobile crisis unit, bookended by her time at the crisis intervention centre.

John Coates is the director of the social work program at St. Thomas University.

“Many people have really stressful jobs, but they cope because they have personal and professional supports. Burnout is the prolonged existence of stresses with the prolonged absence of supports,” he said.

When someone experiences burnout, they may get fatigued, frustrated, sick or depressed. There are psychological and physical symptoms, including frequent headaches and muscle aches, increased anxiety and irritability.

Social work students are taught to “become self-aware of their own needs and issues,” Coates said.

“It’s also important to have a fairly honest and open relationship with supervisors and colleagues. Self-care is making sure you have on-going supports both at work and at home.”

One thing people can do to avoid burnout is to rotate through different jobs. Changing roles and responsibilities can help keep stress down and prevent burnout.

“I knew child protection wasn’t for me because you have to tell the parents what to do. Telling people what to do is not why I went in to social work,” Surette said.

Like many, Surette went in to social work to help people.

She now believes she probably went in to social work to help herself, having made the decision in Grade 9 after four students in her school committed suicide.

“It’s the wrong reason,” she said. “But a lot of people go into social work to help themselves. I find myself lucky to have realized that it was for the wrong reasons I went into it.”

Coates said one of the challenges of social work is that there is an increased demand for social services when the economy is struggling.

“At the same time the government needs to cut back, the problems go up. It’s a real problem to balance that out.”

According to Surette, suicides don’t often happen in crisis centres, because when people get there they are looking for help. A lot of the work is giving clients a safe place to stay and a friendly person to talk to while the connections are made for clients to have access to resources, such as counselling, when they leave.

After discovering the suicide, Surette finished her shift in an empty house. An ambulance came and removed the body, reports were filed, and the other client that had been in the house at the time was relocated to a hospital for the evening. She started smoking again, and was told by her boss not to take more than a couple oays off.

“I don’t know if I was ready to go back after one or two days. I did go back, and I stayed for a month and a bit…I kept seeing her. Just being in the house, I kept replaying everything in my head to the point where I crashed.”

After that initial crash, Surette took two weeks off, then two months. After three months off, she took a job at a call centre. With a degree from Université de Moncton under her belt already, Surette was able to get two-and-a-half years of credit towards a bachelor of arts at STU. She makes a living doing freelance writing through a website and plans to major in journalism.

“It’s been a rough ride, but it’s getting a lot better. It’s good.”

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